Maybe it's the trains. Maybe it's the camels. Maybe it's the intermission. No matter: Something about "Eklavya: The Royal Guard" suggests a lost film by David Lean. With some muted echoes of "Hamlet." And a whiff of "Rigoletto."
Like so many Indian movies that make their way to Los Angeles, "Eklavya" -- based on the low-caste warrior hero of "The Mahabharata" -- is a movie masala. Unlike so many, this stirring dramatic feature by Kashmiri director Vidhu Vinod Chopra, his first in seven years, marries its varied elements -- in this case modernity and classicism, current-day India and its feudal past, contemporary corruption and blood tradition -- in a coherent and propulsive fashion. There may be songs, but they are not sung by kohl-eyed virgins in rainstorms; there may be excess, but "camp" is the last thing one would call "Eklavya."
Something is rotten in Devigarh, an ancient Shangri-La of royal pretense, where the aging but still lethal Eklavya (Bollywood vet Amitabh Bachchan) protects the all-but-powerless king (Boman Irani). When the queen (Sharmila Tagore) calls out on her deathbed for Eklavya, the jealous sovereign strangles her, unleashing a tempest that will bring the brooding prince, Harshwardhan (Saif Ali Khan), home from London, and a whole world tumbling down.
Chopra and co-writer Abhijit Joshi's portrayal of characters according to sex or caste is a bit dubious. Harsh's Ophelia-like twin, Nandini (Raima Sen), is more silly than disturbed; Rajjo (Vidya Balan) is Harsh's Sabrina (she's even the chauffeur's daughter). And the "untouchable" policeman, Pannalal (Sanjay Dutt), is simply a goofball.
Harsh himself might have seemed the more obvious choice of protagonist in this melodrama of honor and revenge, but it is Eklavya who provides the far more potent and complex hero. He is faced with an insurmountable dilemma: Whether to honor the code of the royal guard or spare the life of his son.
Chopra and his cinematographer, Nataraja Subramanian, create startling images that are used for seduction or, just as often, alarm: The shift in energy and rhythms and the velocity of the action keep the viewer off balance yet always in the flow of the story.
There are dry spots, but Chopra is aspiring to epic cinema, both in his themes and his visuals, and most of the time it works. And, yes, there really is an intermission, just in case one needs to catch one's breath.
"Eklavya: The Royal Guard." Unrated. Running time: 2 hours. Exclusively at Laemmle's Fallbrook, 6731 Fallbrook Ave., West Hills, (818) 340-8710, and Naz8 Artesia, 6440 E. South St., Lakewood, (510) 797-2000.