The first good sign is Amitabh Bachchan’s real beard. As the eponymous royal bodyguard in writer-director Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Elkavya: The Royal Guard, 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. With this plumage, a costume of turban, boots, and jeweled dagger, and a pair of watery bloodshot eyes 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, Elkavya is vintage Bollywood melodrama, complete with fratricidal murder plots, revelations of illegitimate paternity, and a glorious final spasm of revenge that a bloodthirsty Elizabethan would envy. Bachchan plays a battered guard whose ancestors have protected the same family of Rajasthani kings (or Ranas) for nine generations. The Ranas of Devigarh are a royal family that in modern, democratic India have been stripped of all but their ceremonial authority. But you’d never guess it from the life inside their hive-like palace, which feels 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. And it’s not at all far-fetched that the clan’s upstanding and responsible heir apparent, Harshwardhan (Saif Ali Khan), wasn’t actually sired by the ineffectual current titleholder, Jaywardhan (the gifted comic actor Boman Irani, overdoing the sniveling depravity), but rather by Elkavya himself. (I’m not spoiling: This is all revealed in the first two minutes of the film.)
Elkavya was filmed in two actual Rajasthani palaces, one for the endlessly receding gilded interiors and another for the crumbling facade. 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 star) has been carried over en masse from the last several films produced by director Chopra (including Munnabhai M.B.B.S. 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.
Chopra had a privileged upbringing by Indian standards, but he’s 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 Ò cinema for Bollywood in 1989, writing and directing the Bombay gangster drama Parinda. But the seriousness of Chopra’s beginnings has survived in his popular work, and in films like 1942: A Love Story (1993) and Mission Kashmir (2000), he has managed to revitalize the fulsome and expressive conventions of old-school Bollywood music-drama. Elkavya contains only one song sequence, a lovely set piece for leading lady Vidya Balan, 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.