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Asoka

Asoka is a pretty funny guy to know absolutely nothing about. In terms of ancient world history, he was a man the caliber of Julius Caesar or Ghengis Khan or Qin Shi-huang, the first emperor of China. And like these men who were more familiar to me, Asoka embodies all that is noble and ruthless, admirable and despicable, about men who live lives of epic scale. These complexities in great men — “great” referring to the scope of the accomplishments and the impact they had on the world around them more than being a description of their demeanor or potential as a drinking buddy — make for superb cinema if you are willing to deal with these complexities. Many times, a movie is not, and you get a rather shallow, white-washed impression of the man (Julius Caesar more so than any of the others, at least in the West).

More recent cinema has become obsessed with the deconstruction of the myth surrounding such historical figures, and so dwells almost exclusively on the negative. This is no more accurate a portrait than the over-simplified portrayals of previous decades. Caesar was a great man and a complete bastard. He was a champion of the people and a poison to the democratic traditions of the Roman republic. He was a hero to the Roman empire and a genocidal madman to the Germanic tribes against whom he waged bloody war. Those who live on such an epic scale defy easy classification as good or bad, exist in a realm almost beyond the confines of human morality, and contain traits and tendencies that illustrate the soaring best and shameful worst of a human being and are often in complete contradiction with one another.

Asoka is a man that exists on such a scale. Asoka was the son of a regional emperor by the name of Bindusara and a queen named Dharma — keeping in mind that the emperor had a multitude of wives. Dharma was a relatively low-ranking member of Bindusara’s harem, and got hitched to the emperor purely because there was a prophecy about her bearing a son who would become a great leader. The son ended up being Asoka, and whether you believe that the prophecy came true or we tend to live lives that force prophecies in which we believe to come true, he did indeed become a great leader. Although another of Bindusara’s sons, Susima, was the likeliest to inherit the throne, Asoka’s skill as a general and increasing status as a hero caused fear in Susima that Asoka, rather than he, would be named heir to the throne. So he manipulated the emperor into sending Asoka into exile. The young prince spent his time in exile in the neighboring kingdom of Kalinga, famous for boasting a Greco-Roman style of government in which a king shared power with a democratic parliament (there was, at the time, a fair amount of idea swapping between Hellenistic Greece and the kingdoms that would become India).

If there was another major superpower in India at the time, it was Kalinga. Their influence was widespread throughout northern India, the south of Asia, and because they were a seafaring race, may of the islands that would later become Malaysia and other South Asian island-countries. But the most notable aspect of Asoka’s time in Kalinga, at least as it pertains to the movie, was his meeting with a young woman named Kaurwaki. I honestly don’t know the extent of her role in actual history, but she’s pretty important to the film, so I might as well mention her in this brief historical overview.

Asoka was eventually called back to Maurya in order to quell a rebellion in the kingdom of Ujjain. When he was wounded during that battle, Asoka was treated by Buddhist monks in secret for fear that Susima would send assassins to do Asoka in. Under the care of the monks, Asoka met and eventually married a woman named Devi. Eventually, Bindusara fell ill and, though he wanted to appoint Susima to the throne, a group of officials preferred Asoka, resulting in a familial and civil war that saw Asoka emerge victorious but with a new nickname: Chanda Ashoka, or Murderous and Heartless Asoka. He laid waste to the armies of his brother, and then laid waste to his brother, and from there launched a vast and reportedly quite bloodthirsty campaign to conquer — or unite, depending on how you look at it — all of India. Inevitably, this would bring him into direct conflict with Kalinga, and though Asoka was victorious in his war with Kalinga, the astounding bloodshed, slaughter, and devastation of the campaign forced Asoka into a revelation. It was, as the legends go, in the aftermath of the battles against Kalinga that Asoka the Evil was killed and Asoka the Great was born.

Renouncing warfare and violence — something that was much easier to do once he has already conquered everyone — Asoka applied himself to the philosophy of Buddhism and sought to spread the teachings across and beyond his vast empire. It was under Asoka that the great Indian monuments of Buddhism were erected (though one can’t imagine what the Buddha himself would have thought of such pointless grandeur). And it was because of Asoka that Buddhism eventually spread throughout Asia, including to a neighboring kingdom some people were calling China. Somewhere, someone might have studied whether or not the empire of Asoka (which is pegged with a start date of around 232 B.C.) influenced Qin Shi-huang at all; he unified China in much the same way (and with much the same reputation, though without the part where he renounces violence and seeks Buddhist enlightenment) only a decade or so after Asoka’s rise to power. Certainly the empire of Alexander the Great that rose and fell a century before cast a long shadow over Asoka’s India, not just because of the influence of Greek culture but also because, like Alexander’s kingdom, Asoka’s empire was very much a cult of personality. When Asoka died, the empire he had forged quickly fell apart. As with Alexander, once the towering figure was removed from the situation, it was discovered that what he had built could not sustain itself without him.

Still, Asoka’s story is one of the great stories of civilization, and while much of it is undoubtedly myth and legend mixed with historical fact (what history isn’t), it’s power as a tale of the unification of India and one man’s redemption from the depths of warfare and violence remains one of the most compelling tales in the world. Which brings us, finally, to 2001 and the movie that shares names with the first emperor of India.

Directed by Santosh Sivan, one of the greatest cinematographers in the world, the big budget spectacle Asoka deals with the years between Prince Asoka’s coming of age and his enlightenment at the end of the war with Kalinga. Much of what’s in the movie serves as sort of “Asoka’s greatest hits,” though this being an epic, the historical facts and literary legends are augmented with plenty of speculative romance and dramatic fabrication, as well as assumptions that make good dramatic sense for a movie but apparently ruffled the feathers of many historians. Asoka is also a very accessible movie for people with no interest in Bollywood but who do have an interest in epic films. In fact, by epic film standards, Asoka is a very formulaic movie, and I don’t say this as any sort of slight, because I love well-executed formula. And when it comes to executing formula, Asoka emerges as one of the great epics in the history of cinema. Everything that is familiar to fans of old epics from the 1960s is present here, and the one aspect of Bollywood filmmaking that remains a stumbling point for its being embraced by casual viewers in the West — the musical numbers — hardly seem out of place in a style of filmmaking that, even in the West, was always happy to take a break for a harem girl song and dance number in the palace. As a result, Asoka manages to be a very Indian film, but also a very Western film. In other words, it transcends nationality and becomes an epic.

Shahrukh Khan, the heir apparent to Amitabh Bachchan’s throne of “God of Bollywood and Possible Ruler of India,” plays the titular conqueror. Although Khan’s pretty much the biggest name in Bollywood film these days (keeping in mind that Bollywood refers to a specific, albeit gigantic, portion of the Indian film landscape), since my interest has been in spy and action films from the 60s and 70s and crappy horror films from the 1980s, I was less familiar with him and his work than a billion other people. It’s always nice to discover that a billion people know something you don’t. The only other time I’d seen him is in the 1998 film Dil Se, on which Santosh Sivan worked as cinematographer, and a film I’ve been grappling with reviewing here for a long time now. I can’t say he won me over with that film — which is a very good film, but I was busy becoming as obsessed as Shahrukh’s character with lead actress Manisha Koirala. Plus, SRK indulges in a pretty hefty bit of scenery chewing at the end in a performance that is just as compelling and disturbingly absurd as Jackie Cheung’s freak-out at the end of John Woo’s Bullet in the Head. It’s not that I didn’t like the guy, I just…well, I just didn’t get it.

Well, now that I’ve watched Asoka, you can rest assured that I get it.

We actually first meet Asoka when he’s a chubby little kid whose grandfather renounces the throne in order to seek peace and enlightenment. The young Asoka covets his grandfather’s sword (read whatever Freudian subtext into sword coveting that you want — Freudian interpretations always irritate me), but his grandfather insists that it’s not just a sword, but is instead a demon whose only lust in life is to draw blood. It does not care from whom that blood is drawn. Asoka doesn’t listen, though, and against his grandfather’s wishes, he retrieves the sword from the river into which the old man threw it. While playing with it, however, he loses his grip and sends the sword flying into a bush, where it proceeds to bisect a baby bird Asoka had been admiring only moments before.

It’s not subtle, of course. Epics may contain touches of subtlety, but their main themes and performances are bold and dramatic. This dramatic obviousness is not something unique to Bollywood, which is a cinema that rarely treasures the exceptionally subtle in any aspect; it is, instead, one of the global tropes of epic filmmaking. This is spectacle filmmaking in the classic sense of the phrase, and such filmmaking usually results in points being made rather heavy-handedly. I still think it’s a nice moment, though, and an effective foreshadowing of the dark days that await the young prince.

From there we flash forward to Shahrukh as the prince, a man who seems to divide his time evenly between quelling rebellions and taking baths. The general outline of the historical legends are touched upon, though I don’t know if the original texts spent so much time watching Asoka pour water on himself. Whatever the case, there are worse ways to spend a few hours than watching a shirtless Shahrukh emerge from the water in slow motion. For instance, you could be watching a shirtless Superstar Rajnikanth emerge from the water in slow motion. Or a shirtless Steve Buscemi. Or a shirtless Kent Chang. Or me. The movie covers the basics of the story — Asoka’s prowess on the battlefield, his love for his mother (Subhashini Ali), his rivalry with Susima (Ajit Kumar, who looks like a cross between Lars Ulrich and that guy who played Robert the Bruce in Braveheart). Where the movie begins to diverge from history is when Asoka goes into exile and meets Kaurwaki, here played with grace and energy by Kareena Kapoor. I don’t know a whole lot about how big her role was in history, but I do know she was one of three wives and doesn’t seem as important to the Asoka story as Devi (and the third wife was generally referred to as his primary queen). In the movie, however, Kaurwaki is the main dame and the motivation behind all that Asoka does.

Journeying incognito, Asoka soon learns that Kaurwaki is a princess of Kalinga, traveling with her young brother Arya (Sooraj Balaji — a surprisingly tolerable and decent child actor, especially compared to the last cinematic child-prince I had to deal with — ernie Reyes Jr. in Red Sonja), destined to sit on the throne of Kalinga if he can keep from being assassinated by scheming officials. Protecting the both of them is the menacing General Bheema (Rahul Dev), who owns even fewer shirts than Asoka and might be up to something nefarious. Given that his first experience with Kaurwaki is watching her dance madly around the countryside then writhe about in a waterfall, Asoka falls madly in love with her and joins the band. He’s having a good time flirting with the fiercely independent Kaurwaki and cutting up assassins, but when word comes that his mother has fallen ill, Asoka returns to his kingdom and ends up leading the army against a rebellion. When he is lead to believe that Arya and Kaurwaki were killed in an assassination attempt, he has a breakdown. It is during this period that he is wounded and meets Devi, played by newcomer Hrishitaa Bhatt. Now, I’ve maintained for a while that Manisha Koirala might be the most beautiful woman in the world, despite the insistence of others that the title belongs to Aishwarya Ray. I may have to revise my statements, because Hrishitaa Bhatt is so devastatingly beautiful that it almost causes one physical pain just to look at her. You know those old myths about goddesses who are so gorgeous that any mortal who gazes upon them is instantly driven mad by their beauty? Well, that’s about the level of Hrishitaa Bhatt. I know Kareena Kapoor is supposed to be the main attraction here, but damn…

Thinking his beloved Kaurwaki dead, Asoka marries Devi when she kills an assassin and thus becomes “spoiled goods” to her intended husband. The couple returns to Maurya, much to Susima’s consternation. He is now convinced that Asoka plans to take the throne from him. When Susima orchestrates the murder of Asoka’s mother, Evil Asoka is born. Yeah, you have a brother who is a proven master warrior and is foretold by destiny to become the greatest emperor in the history of India. So if you are a rival to his destiny, what do you do? Kill his beloved mother? Yeah, I don’t think you really thought that one all the way through, Susima. That’s like trying to teach Sho Kosugi a lesson my killing his son. You don’t tame a ninja by killing his son, and you don’t get Asoka off your case by killing his mother.

As Asoka takes the throne in bloody fashion then begins his violent campaign to conquer all of India, Kaurwaki and Arya manage to return to Kalinga and assume their rightful places as rulers of the kingdom. However, it soon becomes evident that Kalinga is the one mountain standing in the way of Asoka’s aspirations of tyranny. Inevitably, because this is a movie, the war against Kalinga will bring Asoka back into contact with his beloved Kaurwaki, who he believes dead and who has no idea her beloved and rascally Pawan and the bloodthirsty Emperor Asoka are one and the same.

Let’s get the bad out of the way, because frankly, most of what’s wrong with this film doesn’t really bother me. As with just about any historical epic, one has to take the events portrayed with a grain of salt. The movie hits the key points in the life of Asoka, but in order to create a more human story, Sivan fills in the gaps with a romantic adventure extrapolated from the history. Personally, I’m not all that hung up on how historically accurate the romance between Asoka and Kaurwaki may or may not be. In the world of egregious digressions from fact, it ranks pretty far below Braveheart’s “king of England secretly sired by Scottish dissident” subplot. Sivan feels the need, obviously, to give some sort of motivation for Asoka’s transformation from “generally nice guy” to “slaughterer of thousands,” and while what Sivan came up with may not be “the truth,” it’s still a damn good story, and ultimately that’s what matters to me when I am watching a movie (William Wallace being the secret father of the future king of England — not so much with the damn good story).

Similarly, the costuming is far more stylized than historically accurate — I’m not sure how many people would ride into any sort of battle wearing Kareena Kapoor’s slinky “warrior queen” number, but once again, this is a spectacle, not a historical recreation, and what’s most important in an historical epic isn’t accuracy so much as it is the appearance of accuracy. Epics rely on certain easily recognizable key components to create a feeling of historical authenticity, and around those they may layer on much that is stylized and wildly anachronistic so long as it works within the framework of the movie. While the world of Asoka the movie may not be a thoroughly authentic recreation of the world of Asoka, it is never the less a believable ancient world setting, and anyone who watches and enjoys historical epics should find Asoka as easy to buy as any o the great Hollywood or Italian epics.

Both of these are superficial complaints lodged by some, though like I said, I don’t find either of them the least bit distracting. I understand there may a fair amount that is anachronistic in the dialogue as well, but not being a speaker of Hindi, I’ll leave that debate up to the Hindi linguists of the world. I don’t know if they are all faking British accents, or how a British accent would sound in Hindi; but I do know these days, in the United states, if you want your historical epic to seem authentic, you have to fake a British accent, even if you are an American actor and even if the character you are playing is an ancient Greek or Macedonian. I’m sure if Asoka were being played by an American, he would have a British accent — regardless of the colonial implications of giving the mightiest king in Indian history a British accent. Those are just some of the reasons you should be glad actual Indians made this movie. Also, if this was an American movie, it would star that dude from Harold and Kumar, since he is apparently the only employable Indian actor in the entire United States. Not that we wouldn’t love to see Harold and Asoka Go to White Castles and Mount a Bloody Seige Against it which Eventually Results in the Unificiation of all Fast Food Restaurants Under the Banner of Asoka’s Roaring Lion. Believe me, having had the task of putting the letters up on the marquee when I worked at a movie theater, no one wants to try and deal with a title like that.

The other lingering fault in Asoka is that, while the film expertly details his evolution from a generally likeable guy into an ambitious monster, his journey back from monster to enlightened savior is extremely brief. Some criticism has been lodged that the movie doesn’t tell the full story of Asoka, but I don’t really think that’s a particularly worthwhile criticism. His journey toward revelation is the compelling piece of his life; once he has his epiphany standing amid the slaughter of the battleground, it become the tale of a penitent man spreading a philosophy throughout India. I’m sure someone could make a great movie about that, but it wouldn’t be the same kind of movie as Asoka. Also, it would expand the running time to something like six hours. I think the first half of Asoka’s life is what this film needs to cover, and that’s what it does. However, I also believe that a bit more time could have been spent developing the reunion on the battlefield between Asoka, Kaurwaki, and the young Kalingan emperor Arya. After such a detailed and beautifully realized development up until that point, the resolution seems a bit abrupt.

The film I would say it compares most favorably to is King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, which is another film that deals with the journey from warrior to Buddhist and features a scene that is strikingly similar to the moment at which Asoka has his revelation. A Touch of Zen is about a group of heroic rebels who end up enlisting the aide of a brilliant young scholar in their crusade against oppressive government soldiers. Eventually faced with a seemingly unwinnable fight, the scholar suggests that they rely on wits as much as martial arts ability, and so devises a veritable “house of traps” by which they may even the odds somewhat. After the battle, in which they are victorious, the scholar strolls through the grounds of the castle and admires his own cleverness — the many booby traps and automated weapons that laid waste to the enemy soldiers. He stops at each weapon, and the film cuts to a scene of that particular weapon being planned out on paper and tested against dummies. Then the scholar laughs in delight. This goes on for a bit, but then the scholar walks out into the courtyard and drops to his knees in horror as he is faced with a field covered in broken, bloody corpses. Lost in the details of his own designs, testing each weapon against dummies, the scholar never really makes the connection between his inventions and actual human suffering. It is only when he accidentally strolls onto the actual field of combat that the gory reality of what he has done sinks in.

It’s very similar to Asoka, which mounts a gigantic battle for its finale, full of swordsmen, bows and arrows, charging cavalry, and stampeding elephants, then follows that with a scene in which Asoka (bathing once again — I’m not sure if this is symbolic of Asoka’s need to obsessively cleanse himself from his atrocities or of it’s just a desire to get Shahrukh Khan shirtless and wet as often as possible — perhaps both) is confronted by a young Buddhist monk who chastises the victorious king for the destruction he has wrought. Asoka’s description of conquest and victory fall on deaf ears, however, and as the monk leaves, Asoka stares at his triumphantly raised fist, unclenches it, and realizes it is empty. From there, he wanders through the aftermath of the grand battle — broken bodies, crying widows, ravaged lands — growing increasingly disconcerted until, at last, he stumbles upon his own horse, given by him to Kaurwaki when Asoka was in exile, and realizes both that she was still alive and that she may be dead now as a direct result of his bloody campaign. It’s not an entirely unique narrative technique, this “wander through the carnage and witness what you have done,” sort of revelation, but it’s still powerful.

Given how much he overplayed his acting last time I saw him, in Dil Se, I was expecting Shahrukh to once again launch into his flailing, over-the-top histrionics, but surprisingly, he keeps himself more reeled in, and the result is much more powerful. In fact, Khan’s entire job of acting is brilliant throughout the movie, and he makes each of the various incarnations of Asoka believable. What’s more, he makes the transformation from one Asoka to the next believable. And even though he’s often seen in bad jackets doing jaunty dances in romantic comedies, he absolutely owns the character of Asoka in this movie, investing the legendary king with a perfect blend of enthusiasm, confusion, impish charm, and frightening anger. In short, he makes the legend into an actual, believable human being. For me, as someone who wasn’t part of the cult of Shahrukh, it was easy to stop seeing the star and start seeing the character. Plus, you know, he gets to stay shirtless for almost the whole movie.

Matching him step for step is Kareena Kapoor as the fierce warrior-queen Kaurwaki. Kapoor had very little movie experience before her role here, but you wouldn’t know it from watching her. She brings a great balance of able fighter and vulnerable woman to the role and blends them both into a very convincing character. Her initial meeting with Asoka — during which she is dancing through the hills and then bathing in a waterfall — shows a wonderful transition between her tomboyish fighter side (stomping about, flinging around a staff) and the sexier, more regal side (writhing about in the water, as royalty are wont to do, naturally). She’s a perfect mix of independent and vulnerable, and a very believable “strong woman.” She is strong without sacrificing the feminine aspects of her character. Anyone can cast a woman in a butch male role and claim that it’s a strong female, but it’s not. It’s cheap, it dismisses the womanness of the performer, and ultimately, all you’ve done is make a character that is a guy but with boobs — and we have Rahul Dev on hand to fill that role. Kareena Kapoor’s Kaurwaki manages to be fierce and feminine, and a much more complex and admirable version of the “strong female” than were she just a foul-mouthed killing machine. Santosh Sivan relies heavily on the eyes of his two actors, frequently shooting them in extreme close-up, and Kapoor’s eyes are incredibly expressive. She can do more with them than most actors can do with their whole bodies and all their vocal range.

But the real revelation here is one of the supporting actors. Last time we saw Danny Denzongpa here at Teleport City, he was wearing a red satin ninja uniform and trying to kill Mithun. And although he filled the role of a ninja named Ninja well, it was hardly the sort of role from which one could judge his acting ability. Asoka allows him to showcase one of the great truths of movies: that no one in the world is as good a performer as a well-seasoned character actor. Denzongpa plays a loud-mouthed ruffian named Virat, who at first makes it his mission in life to punch Shahrukh in the face, but later becomes the king’s most trusted and loyal friend and bodyguard. Looking a bit like Antonio Sabata, Sr., Denzongpa turns in an incredible performance that meanders effortlessly from drunken bravado to humility to horror at what his friend becomes. His role reminds me a bit of Oliver Reed doing a similar turn as the aging gladiator manager in Gladiator. As good as Kapoor and Khan are, whenever Denzongpa steps on the screen, he seems to be saying, Now this is good acting.” Bravo, Ninja!

Despite how good the cast performs, the real star of Asoka is Santosh Sivan’s direction. Sivan is, as I stated at some point a few decades ago when I started writing this long-winded review, probably one of the top cinematographers in the world. However, being a great cinematographer doesn’t always translate into being a great director (as Peter Pau proved when he went from being a great cinematographer to being a wretched director with the Michelle Yeoh adventure film The Touch). Luckily, Sivan pulls it off with incredible skill. Every frame of Asoka is expertly rendered. Sets are gorgeously decorated and detailed. The whole movie is like a painting, with no detail left to randomness. He shoots a lot of close-ups, relying on Kapoor and Khan to tell the stories with their faces, and uses the whole of the widescreen format by placing the focus of attention at the far right and left of the shot. He also relies on a color palette that manages to be both over-saturated and lush as well as washed-out and bleak. As he proved with Dil Se, Sivan is a master of making the landscape one of the stars of the film, and he continues to do that with Asoka. Forests are vibrantly green and costumes burst with color, while the skies are relentlessly washed out and menacing. I don’t think there’s a blue sky in the entire film. The result is the creation of an almost fantastic world, warm and cold at the same time, as if the struggle between Asoka’s warmth and love, and his violence and hatred, is being recreated in the forests and skies of the country.

Sivan also knows how to pace the film well. Although the focus is on the romance and the personal evolution of Asoka over scenes of action and violence, he knows how long to stick with one before he shifts to the other, with musical numbers thrown in at just the right moment. Sivan handles action with the same sort of lyricism that he handles the romance. Although most of the action scenes are not very long, there are quite a few of them, with the highlights being Asoka’s taming of an unruly rebel through use of a ridiculously painful looking weapon called a snake sword, Asoka’s defense of Kaurwaki and Arya from a band of assassins, and then the final battle between the forces of Asoka and the kingdom of Kalinga — a battle easily on the grandest epic battle scale. For the more intimate fights, Asoka employs a fighting style called Kalarippayat, one of the oldest martial arts in the world (predating even kungfu and tai bo). Experts were hired to train the stars of the film, and Khan (and it looks like Kapoor as well) perform most of their own fights. Sivan shoots action largely in slow motion in order to accentuate the grace and beauty of the fighting style. The snake sword is one of the signature weapons of the style, and I have to say that, while I’m not really keen on being attacked with any sort of a weapon, I’d especially like to avoid the snake sword. It’s somewhere between one of those flimsy Chinese swords and a metal whip, with two long, razor-sharp tentacles of thin metal that can be used to whip and slice up an opponent. Heck, I wouldn’t even want to handle such a weapon, let alone be handled by it.

Finally — yes, this review is going to eventually end — there are the musical numbers. There are five (if I’m remembering correctly — I did start writing this review in 1807, after all, and my memory is fading) numbers, with the dancing being shouldered by Kareena Kapoor for two of the numbers, a random gypsy woman in another, and Kapoor and another random beautiful woman for the final. Shahrukh does show up in two of the numbers to take his shirt off and get wet. Although the music is definitely modern, with a bit of a tribal flare similar to the music from Dil Se, and the dances are equally out of the time period, they somehow manage to work well. After all, the world of Asoka is only somewhat historical. It’s also a stylized representation rather than straight-forward presentation, and keeping that in mind, the musical numbers work well. The musical aspect of Bollywood continues to be the one thing that keeps a lot of Western fans from embracing them, but like I said before, if you watch a lot of historical epics, you know they generally can’t wait to have a scene where everyone sits around in an ornately decorated throne room while dancing girl flit about wearing next to nothing. In that sense, musical numbers might be a bit easier to accept in a film like Asoka than they would in a modern cops ‘n’ robbers film. And for the most part, they are woven into the fabric of the plot. The first song sees Asoka meeting and being smitten by Kaurwaki. The second is a throwaway number at a rowdy pub, or whatever the ancient Indian equivalent of a pub might have been. The other two both reflect the longing of one of the main characters for the other. And all of them are pretty drop-dead sexy.

Which is one last thing I should say about this film. It’s pretty hot. I mean, I know we’re learning a valuable lesson about Buddhism, but there’s no getting around that just as Sivan renders his sets and locations gorgeously, he turns equal attention to presenting his characters. As I said, I never really thought of Shahrukh as all that sexy. Charming, perhaps. Goofily endearing, maybe. But not sexy. That all changes here, though. Historical epics have always pushed the boundaries of the amount of flesh and sex they could get away with showing. Often times, historical settings seemed to be little more than an excuse to show off as much flesh as possible. It was easier to do it in a fantastical setting like ancient Rome or Egypt than in a modern setting, though censors weren’t always fooled by the historic trappings. Whatever the case, sex appeal and even a bit of exploitation have always been a key ingredient to spectacle filmmaking. And since Asoka really is spectacle filmmaking formula executed with near perfection, it’s no big surprise that everything is infused with a heady mix of lusty sexuality and romantic sensuality. Epics were also some of the first movies to hold the male form up for the same sort of objectification often reserved for females, and Asoka certainly doesn’t disappoint in that respect, either (between the two of them, Shahrukh and Charlton Heston have hours upon hours of screen time in epics, and yet I bet neither of them keeps a shirt on for more than ten minutes, tops). Although Kareena Kapoor writhes and slinks about and wears revealing clothing even when she’s going to war, it’s the men who show off the most flesh, even more so than the item girls from the dance numbers. Khan never once puts a shirt on. Similarly, Rahul Dev may be a bit scary looking here, but he has abs and pecs no flimsy piece of cloth could ever hope to contain.

There’s no such thing as a perfect film, but Asoka might be a perfect epic, so long as one considers that even a perfect epic is still a flawed film. It has a powerful cast that strikes the perfect blend of grandiose bombast and subtle contemplation. Santosh Sivan exploits every centimeter of the widescreen format to present a lavish, artistic painting of a film. There are heavy messages delivered with a heavy hand. Big battles, small conflicts. Terrifying wars, charming flirtation. It’s all told with a sweeping sense of romance and adventure. And at the center of events that changed the world, there is a simple tale of doomed love. Like all epics, Asoka has it’s flaws, but I would still place it without hesitation among the very best epics ever made, and among the very best Bollywood films I’ve ever seen. Some hardcore Bollywood fans may be turned off by the presentation or feel that the movie is too “Western,” but as I am a fan of the globalization of cinema and the free flow of films and influences without regard for nation-state borders (call me the Asoka of film), such complaints hold no merit for me. Asoka is a damn fine film from any country, and definitely one you can show even to people who are normally turned off by Bollywood cinema.

15 thoughts on “Asoka”

  1. I’m so glad you reviewed this one! Asoka is one of my absolute favorites, and I can watch it again and again (the no-shirt factor doesn’t hurt). Unlike you, I don’t think the musical numbers are integrated very well — they feel jarringly modern to me — but they’re all such good songs, and so sexy, that I can live with it. I thought the kid who played Arya and the guy who played Susima, the nasty brother (I guess he’s a well-known player in South Indian films) were excellent, as well. And every time, the climax makes me cry.

  2. I was reminded of your desire to see a Bollywood / Bruce Lee hybrid when I read this article that I’m linking to. One of the album covers here looks like it could be the soundtrack for that film. Tiny picture though:www.factmagazine.co.uk/da/49512

  3. An epic review to match an epic movie. Nice. Santosh Sivan made his first movie about a Tamil girl who is about to be a suicide bomber when she discovers she is pregnant. John Malkovich raved about the movie at Cannes, and its international acclaim helped Sivan land a big budget for Asoka. I was intrigued by your comment about Tamil films, being Tamil myself. Growing up I was forced to sit through hundreds of these by my aunts and uncles who couldn’t understand why my parents let me watch ‘unhealthy’ movies like Star Wars. I find Tamil movies too conservative, with a rather patronising attitudes to ‘lower castes’ and women who ‘dress in modern fashions’. By the way – did you know they’re remaking Five Deadly Venoms?

  4. Cathy: I really should have mentioned the little kid who plays Arya — if for no other reason than he manages a fair amount of screen time without ever becoming irritating or intolerable. He was indeed quite good, as was the guy who played Susima. You never really get to hate the guy, and instead, he does great at conveying the fact that he’s not that different from Asoka — a more or less all right guy who is moved to horrible acts by the events around him (as well as his own paranoia).

  5. mightyatom: My only experience with Tamil films are a smattering of Kamal Hassan and Superstar Rajnikanth film s– and they are hardly what you might call conservative toward anything. In fact, I think the reason Rajni is such a huge star is specifically because he appeals to and casts himself as a common man — albeit one who can punch people through a windshield and out the back of a car.My complaint stems from Rajni actually — there’s this list floating around the web of insane stunts he’s done in his films, but no one seems to know if any of these things actually happen, and not a single reprint of the list can attribute the feats to any particular film. Some even attribute the feats to other actors (specifically, Mithun of Commando/Disco Dancer fame). Tamil movie websites in English tend to be similar to Bollywood sites — most lack any real substance or insight into the films.What makes it worse is that, for some reason, while Bollywood movies can be had on DVD for under $10 most of the time — and often for as little as $3.99 — the same places sell Tamil movies for $20, which is a little much to spend blindly.

  6. anon: I don’t know if I should thank or curse your name. One more to add to the list to search for.And that’s a great list of records regardless of Bruce Lee!

  7. Asoka takes a bunch of things that might not otherwise really work for me but spins them into one of my favorite Bollywood films – like Cathy, I find it to have unlimited rewatchability. It’s gorgeous, it’s interesting, it’s very satisfying, and it’s totally weird in ways that Bollywood usually isn’t. And it’s toe-curlingly steamy. What you fail to mention, though, is whether the standard epic film formula includes a Johnny Lever-like character. Because if it doesn’t, his appearance will forever root this movie as Indian. (Which is totally fine, since it is Indian.)There’s a visually stunning but textually content-free coffee table book on this movie, made by the filmmakers (SRK’s production company, I believe). My library has it and I poured over the photos for weeks but never really got to much of the text, as it was pretty fluffy. Belive it or not, Ajith, who plays the evil brother, is himself smokin’ hot in the Tamil version of Sense and Sensibility, Kandoukondain Kandoukondain (or I Have Found It), where he plays opposite Tabu. It’s fantastic.

  8. Oh yeah — I didn’t even mention Johnny Lever did I? I have a built in mechanism that screens out the comic relief character, though his shtick is kept mercifully tiny in this movie. But yeah — having an “hilarious” comic relief aside is pretty common for epics, at least the old ones. Heck, old Italian spectacle films couldn’t go ten minutes without having Hercules stand with arms akimbo and laugh heartily while a midget fell off a horse or something.

  9. Keith, I respect your views, but Kamal Hassan’s movies are kind of an exception. He puts more thought into his productions and a social conscience, in spite of their crazy plots. (Well, maybe not Ahbhay.) I would recommend the movie where he plays a killer circus midget and his regular sized twin brother who team up to avenge the murder of their father (also played by Kamal!) – only I can’t remember the title. As for Rajni: he was in an American movie called Bloodstone, directed by Nicos Mastorakis. He played a lovably scoundrel, stealing the show from the American leads. I remember it as a cheesy, Cannon-style, synth-fest, ripping off Romancing the Stone.

  10. I figured both Kamal and Rajnikanth would probably be rather…unique in all sorts of ways, so it doesn’t surprise me to hear their films depart from the norms of conservativism present in the greater body of Tamil films. But like I said, quality English language discussion of Tamil films is hard to find online, so I’m glad you’re around to offer insight.As for the thing where Kamal is a circus midget AND his regular size brother AND his murdered father…my head may have just exploded.

  11. Ahh, a search for “Kamal Hassan midget” turned up the film: Apoorva Sahodarargal is the title. There may be a different title in Hindi, of course. If only I hadn’t just blown my monthly DVD allowance on a Mithun break dancing film.

  12. Kamal Hassan seems to have built his career on playing double (and sometimes triple) roles. He played a buck-toothed ghost in one movie who comes back from the grave to help his handsome twin brother save the life of the woman they both love. In the sequel, she has a buck-toothed son – so read into that what you will. Maybe there was an Entity-type of situation going on there. Yikes. Many Tamils look upon Kamal Hassan almost like a religious figure. Wedded couples ask him to perform a blessing. Apparently, during her Indian tour, Queen Elisabeth visited the set of a Kamal Hassan movie. I hope it was Ahbhay.

  13. So who would win in a fight between Superstar Rajnikanth and Kamal Hassan? Or who would be more likely to get elected to public office?

  14. To my eyes, Rajnikanth looks like he’s a little more ‘street’. He could probably handle himself in a fight. However, he and Kamal Hassan both starred in a movie together where Kamal handled the dramatic stuff and Rajnikanth did the comedy. This is another movie whose title I couldn’t tell you since I was five years old when my aunt dragged me to see it at a cinema in Sri Lanka. As for who is more likely to get elected? Well, given that Amitabh’s popularity crushes all those before it – I’d say it was a moot point.

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