Eklavya is the film made famous not by its quality, its cast or its box office success (or even lack thereof) but rather the fact that India sent it to the Oscars and then retrieved it, after a scandal of the decision panel being biased (namely, one or two of the judges being involved in the making of the film itself). Some Indian film makers commented on the scandal and on the film, and the director Vidhu Vinod Chopra threw a public hissyfit, not doing himself or his film a favor - most people I saw commenting on the polemic didn't side with VVC.
But let's talk about the movie. I followed the promotion of it pre-release, being excited for the return of the Parineeta jodi Saif-Vidya, as well as Boman Irani, Amitabh, Sanjay Dutt and Sharmila Tagore in a special appearance. The film was delayed several times (never a good sign) and on my first watch of it, I was immensely disappointed. The story of Eklavya (Amitabh Bachchan), a guard of the royal court of Devigarh, in a world where the traditionalist views no longer seem to matter, and Harshwardhan (Saif Ali Khan), the prince seeing both the tradition and beyond it, seemed somehow empty. What could've been a wonderfully complex tale gets squeezed into just under two hours, and the one song number only seems distracting. There is enormous potential in the cast of talented actors, the interesting set-up and amazing pictures - the cinematography of the film remains memorable. But even so, I was left feeling frustrated. It's simply not as good as it could be, or even as good as it should be.
A year goes by and eventually I bought the DVD, because I'm superficial and will purchase any movie where Saif Ali Khan looks this good in. In the back of my head I also knew I'd have to rewatch it one day and give it the benefit of the doubt. Rewatches often shape my views on films a lot - for better or for worse.
The second time around I understood the core of the story better. VVC is not an amazing director, and the family melodrama that he sinks into the plot of Eklavya is similar to the other film I've seen by him, Mission Kashmir. In many ways this film tries to be a Hollywoodian Hindi movie, but sticks its roots firmly in the filmi traditions of familial bonds, in such a way that it just feels cliché. On my second viewing, I was more accepting of this fact, but even after I've come to terms with the fact, the film is somehow less than the sum of its parts. The imagery is gorgeous, some of the performances are great (Saif, biased as I may be saying this, gives his character some interesting depth, Sanjay Dutt as a lower caste cop has only a few scenes but is very effective in them, Boman Irani delivers and I once again adored Raima Sen) and certain scenes really stand out in their execution (a certain dark scene, the narration during the credits, the final confrontation).
All in all, I wish this film had a better script - one that gave screen time to the backstory and all the different characters, their motivations and thoughts. It's basically a Bollywood story with a Hollywood script, and this is why both need to play on their own yards for now. The longwindedness of Indian cinema, the jumps in time and place, the song numbers that take place in the plane of imagination, all of these lend to the storytelling of a good Hindi film. When you take away all of that, what's left isn't a good film - at best its a summary of a good film, which is exactly what Eklavya feels like.