The first good sign is Amitabh Bachchan’s real beard. As the eponymous royal bodyguard in writer-director Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Eklavya: The Royal Guard, a battered human relic whose ancestors have protected the same family of Rajisthani kings (or Ranas) for nine generations, the most popular movie actor in the world sports a magnificent set of bristling whiskers, like a pair of Victorian muttonchops that have grown together and taken over his face. Not prosthetic fur, you understand, but actual follicles the busy Bachchan took time to grow out of his familiar neatly trimmed goatee. With this plumage, a costume that consists of turban, boots and jeweled dagger, and a pair of expressively watery bloodshot eyes that seem tailor-made for screen-filling close-ups, Bachchan is the perfect visual emblem of the central conflict of this story: the continued survival, in the present, of the crumbling splendor of the past.
On the surface, Eklavya is vintage Bollywood melodrama, complete with fratricidal murder plots, revelations of illegitimate paternity, and a glorious final spasm of revenge that a bloodthirsty Elizabethan could envy. The Ranas of Devigarh, the ancient feudal clan Eklavya serves, are a royal family that in democratic modern India have been stripped of all but their ceremonial authority. But you’d never guess this from the life inside their hivelike palace, which feels self-contained and lost in time: It comes as a bit of a shock when, at one point, a helicopter touches down in the garden.
The revelation that drives the plot is almost diabolically well-chosen: an issue of paternity that gnaws at the vitals of a patriarchal system. It occurs about two minutes in, so it isn’t exactly a spoiler. Nor does it seem at all far-fetched that the clan’s upstanding and responsible heir apparent, Harshwardhan (Saif Ali Khan), was actually sired not by the ineffectual current titleholder, Jaywardhan (the gifted comic actor Boman Irani, overdoing the sniveling depravity), but rather by Eklavya himself.
Eklavya was filmed in two actual Rajasthan palaces, one for the endlessly receding gilded interiors and the other for the piled-up crumbling façade. But the action that unfolds in these enormous spaces is almost a chamber drama, all intense two-shots and vehement whispered exchanges. And because the entire cast (with the single exception of the national treasure in the title role) has been carried over en masse from the last several films produced by director Chopra (including Munnabhai MBBS and Parineeta), the movie often feels like a work created for a snug repertory company, with roles tailored to the talents of each familiar performer. Sanjay Dutt is note-perfect as the openhearted Dalit policeman, and Saif Ali Khan — in real life a hereditary Nawab, the Muslim equivalent of a Rana — looks like a Hindu hero out of the Ramayana in one shirtless funeral-pyre scene.
Chopra had a privileged upbringing by Indian standards, but he was not a member of Bollywood royalty who went into the family business. Having abandoned an Oxford scholarship to join the first class at the arty National Film Institute at Pune, he was denounced as an apostate when he left the self-serious world of Indian “parallel cinema” for Bollywood in 1989, writing and directing the Bombay gangster drama Parinda. But the seriousness of his beginnings has survived in Chopra’s popular work, and in films like 1942: A Love Story (1993) and Mission Kashmir (2000), he has managed to revitalize the fulsome expressive conventions of old-school Bollywood music-drama. Eklavya contains only one song sequence, a lovely set piece for leading lady Vidya Balan (Salaam-e-Ishq), but it embraces the imperatives of dynastic family melodrama as fervently as any classic of Bollywood’s golden age. This is robust storytelling, with blood and thunder pumping through its veins, and real whiskers on its face.
EKLAVYA: THE ROYAL GUARD | Written, produced and directed by VIDHU VINOD CHOPRA | Released by Eros International | Fallbrook 7, Naz 8 Cinemas, Elk Grove Laguna 16