Happy Friday! I managed to get through the week somehow! Well, almost, I’ve got one more day left. But yesterday was the day when the staff went from 4 to 1 (me). Today and Monday it will be back up to 2, and then by Tuesday it will be all the way to 4 again (woo).
I forgot just how quickly this movie moves. Things that I remembered as big interval reveals come out right at the beginning of the film. Things that I remembered as bit ending reveals, come out long before the end. In general it feels like there was a whole long story before and we are coming in at the last chapter, just in time to tie up the last few loose ends.
It’s refreshing! So often in Hindi films we spend 3 hours treading water, or going down dead ends and then finally getting to the point where things happen that matter. In this film, everything matters straight through. Every character is already at the end of their rope, every character is already revealing their true deepest self, every thing that happens is once in a life time and important, every conversation reveals a deepest secret. You can’t look away for a second.
And the cast steps up their game! Every moment is emotional and real and serious, it’s a sprint to the finish with no time to catch your breath and they pull it off. There is not one false note in the whole collection. Nor is there boring visual moment, or anything else that interrupts the flow of the film. There is only one actual song in the film, and that seems right, because this film has no time to waste on songs. It has to fill in all the plot and all the resolution in very little time.
Of course, all of that is just about Amitabh. This whole film revolves around him and what he represents, the figure of Eklavya, the man who suffered and gave his all to those who were unworthy, who hid his own talents because he was too humble to think he deserved to have them. Saif is next most important because he is closest connected. Vidya, because she is connected to him, and so on and so forth. A whole network of people telling Amitabh that he is worthy, that he deserves to be loved, that the whole world that is telling him he isn’t good enough is lying to him.
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We open with the story of Eklavya as told by Amitabh to Raima Sen, Amitabh believing it is a valuable lesson in knowing your place. Eklavya was a humble lower caste boy who taught himself archery using a mere statue of Drona, and Drona was right to ask for his thumb as payment and thus keep the balance of the world in which the princes are the archers and the lower castes cannot even touch a bow. But Raima argues with him, says it is wrong and sad.
And then we see Amitabh writing a letter to Saif and revealing that Saif is his son. That is the secret I remembered as coming much later, but no, it is right there at the beginning. And right there at the beginning we also see Sharmila dying and calling for Eklavya/Amitabh (revealing an unspoken love between them perhaps?) and Boman killing her. No secrets from the audience, Amitabh is the father of Sharmila’s children, and Boman murdered her in jealousy.
Saif arrives, and more secrets come out. Vidya, the chauffeur’s daughter, is in love with him and possibly he is in love with her. Raima Sen is developmentally disabled and witnessed the murder of her mother but cannot clearly speak of it, although Saif figures it out. And then just before the funeral, Saif reads a letter from his mother and learns the truth of his birth, that Boman was impotent (or sterile or possibly simply not interested in sex) and so Sharmila was taken with her mother-in-law to visit a hermit, following the tradition of using priests/hermits as sperm donors (same way the Pandavas were born according to some interpretations, the series of Gods who are supposed to be their fathers are really just priests the Queens visited in the forest. Not that it matters, a woman’s husband is always father of her baby). But on the journey, Sharmila and her mother-in-law decided they had more faith in the strong young loyal guard Amitabh. He fathered her children, Saif and his twin Raima. And now Sharmila is asking Saif to take care of his father, Amitabh, because he needs him now.
There is a cultural tradition of stepparents or otherwise non-biological parents in India being easily accepted as the same as biological. It’s radical in this film for Amitabh to be named as not just the biological father of Saif, but his actual father. Amitabh longs for and loves him in that way, and on her death Sharmila wants Saif to see him that way as well. And Saif does. The trick of this film, the unspoken part, is that the reaction is not Saif reacting in horror at this reveal, but reacting in relief. Amitabh is a caring loving guiding presence in his life, in a way that Boman Irani (his father officially) never was. The only torment Saif feels in this reveal is in his caution in shocking or embarrassing Amitabh but showing his knowledge.
This movie comes in at the end of a very long story, but we can see what went before. We have glimpses and hints in dialogue and flashbacks, Sharmila and Amitabh having an unspoken bond over the years. Amitabh serving as the strong safe presence in Saif’s life, always. Amitabh and his best friend Parikshat Sahni talking about how much they wish their children could marry, if only Amitabh had a son to go with Parikshat’s daughter as Amitabh watches and knows Saif is that son and he is in love with Parikshat’s daughter. And Vidya, after Saif left (no doubt driven out by his father’s insanity and demands) talking his place as best she can and trying to take care of his mother and sister in a gesture of love for him.
Saif is the Arjun character in this film, the promised princeling (not a coincidence I am sure that they cast an actual prince). But we don’t see the part where everyone sacrificed for him, Sharmila staying in a terrible marriage, Vidya caring for his family after he left them, Amitabh protecting him, and so on and so forth. We come in at the end, when he finally pays them all back. When the weight of these obligations drives him to do terrible and wonderful things.
Boman is the anti-Saif, the king who delights in his power and in forcing people to do things for him. He constantly demeans his brother Jackie Shroff and his nephew Jimmy Shergill. He plays mind games with his own family, his son and daughter. And he has no love for Amitabh, despite decades of faithful service. While Saif is making connections with people, Boman is cutting them off. Which leads to his ultimate sin, trying to arrange the assasination of Amitabh. Like the Eklavya of the Mahabharata, Amitabh was more naturally gifted than Boman (everyone loves him more) and rather than admiring this skill, or using it as a spur to do better, Boman decided to cut him down. Only, mysteriously, it is not Amitabh who is killed. Jackie and Jimmy show up as planned to ambush their car, but it is Boman and the innocent driver Parikshat Sahni who die.
In another movie, we would be left unsure as to what happened, but this movie has no time to waste. So we rocket along and learn almost immediately that Saif was the one who ordered the killing. And Saif almost immediately tries to atone for what he sees as his biggest sin, causing the death of the innocent Parikshat Sahni by planning to marry Vidya. It’s a three part marriage, a couple who truly love each other (we can see that in the silent way he looks at her), a couple whose fathers wanted them to marry (at least, Parikshat always wished her to marry Amitabh’s son) and Saif taking responsibility for the biggest consequence of his actions, orphaning Vidya.
Vidya is a little more than the usual fragile damsel. Her father has told her not to dream of Saif, but she ignores him. Her glances and smiles show that she loves him and she is not ashamed. And once he finally proposes, she responds with passionate overwhelming love, no shy insecurities. Which is what Saif needs, when she asks him directly if he is marrying her out of guilt, he admits that he has always loved her, but never knew how to say it. This is the relationship where we most see the Amitabh coming out in Saif, the silent suffering and bowing down to fate, not knowing how to reach out and take what is his. He would have let Vidya go, tried to save her from his crazy family and all the challenges of his position, if it weren’t for her father’s death driving him to take a chance on happiness.
Which brings us to the final conflict. Saif and Amitabh are two sides of the same person, ready to do whatever it takes for what they see as their duty. But in this case, their duty is conflicting. Saif, as the spoiled princling, feels it is his duty to pay back his people, kill his father, and save Amitabh. Amitabh, as the humble and demeaned servant, feels it is his duty to serve the royal family and avenge the death of Boman no matter how much pain it costs him. The film is building towards a tragedy, towards the moment when Amitabh will have to kill Saif or vice versa. And then changes to a different tragedy, when Saif admits his own suicidal thoughts and guilt and the question becomes will Amitabh kill Saif or will Saif kill himself first.
Another movie would have accepted the tragedy. Too strong men who give all to duty and cannot escape it. But then, another movie would never have so easily allowed the humble servant girl and the prince to plan a marriage. Or Raima Sen, the developmentally disabled princess, to live a happy spoiled life with no shame. Or for the Queen to imply a love for the humble guard that lasted decades. This is not a movie interested in firm roles and inevitable tragic conclusions. This is a movie that believes that love and openness can break through the most impossible situations.
The key is Sanjay Dutt’s character. Little more than a walk on role, the local Police inspector, an untouchable who rose thanks to the new government’s blindness to caste. Now he casually trods the halls of kings and has no respect for them or their traditions. He knows the rot inside, knows that his grandfather is buried inside the walls, for luck. But this is the attitude of the new India, the world that exists now outside the walls of the fort. There is no need to remain inside, rotting in the darkness. Go out, be free, there is a whole world there for you.
And so we have a happy ending, after tragedy upon tragedy, finally happiness. Vidya learns the truth from Saif and forgives him and marries him. Saif decides to give their land to their farmers, and free the people. Saif even acknowledges Amitabh as his father in front of the people, putting the final touch on their relationship (biologically father and son, raised by Amitabh like a father, love each other like father and son, and know known to the world by this connection). The impossible inevitable conflict arrives, Saif tries to send Amitabh away so that he will not learn the truth, Amitabh disobeys and continues to investigate, kills Jackie and Jimmy and figures out it must have been Saif who ordered it. But when he comes to kill him, he saves him instead. Saif agrees to kill himself, save Amitabh the pain of carrying out his duties, and Amitabh shoots the gun out of his hand, using all his painfully acquired skill in the service of the royal family to save his son and betray the family. Father and son embrace, the painful lie of years upon years is finally done away with.
In the end, it is Sanjay Dutt, humble lower caste Sanjay Dutt, who is the only threat to this happiness. He has no place in the high values of Dharma and tradition. He represents the new values of law and order, and Amitabh killed Jackie and Jimmy. When they are celebrating, when they are happy, Sanjay appears. And sets aside those crimes. Declares them suicides and frees Amitabh from any guilt. Not because Amitabh is the father of the prince, not because of that royal power that he disdains, but because Amitabh was a talented man who performed knife tricks that amazed Sanjay when he was a boy. The New India judges Amitabh/Eklavya as worthy, more worthy than his masters, and therefore forgives him. And tragedy has turned to happiness after all.