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Savant Pal Region 2 Guest Review:


Metrodome Distribution
2001 / Colour / 2.35:1 anamorphic / 169 min.
Starring Shah Rukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Danny Denzongpa, Rahul Dev, Hrishitaa Bhatt, Suraj Balaji, Ajit Kumar
Cinematography Santosh Sivan
Art Direction Sabu Cyril
Film Editor Sreekar Prasad
Original Music Anu Malik, Gulzar Anand Bakshi (lyrics), Sandeep Chowta & Ranjit Barot (arranger)
Written by Saket Chaudhary and Santosh Sivan
Produced by Juhi Chawla & Shah Rukh Khan
Directed by Santosh Sivan

Reviewed by Lee Broughton

Media 'satirists' have come to realize that the conventions of the average Bollywood flick - dazzling Technicolor, intensely played out soap opera-ish themes and elaborate song and dance routines - are now as instantly recognizable as those of the badly dubbed Kung Fu action flicks that they liked to lampoon a few years back.  Bollywood should care: the domestic market, and niche markets around the world, seem to keep the Indian film industry ticking over nicely.  But it seems that some Indian filmmakers do care and a concerted effort is being made by some of them to produce films with the appeal, and the production values, needed to seriously compete with films produced in the West.  Asoka, directed by Santosh Sivan, is the latest such effort.


In the 3rd century B.C. kingdom of Magadha, Prince Asoka’s (Shah Rukh Khan) royal step-siblings fear that he may soon succeed in becoming Emperor.  They plot his demise but he continually survives both the purposefully mismatched military engagements that he is ordered to lead and their more direct assassination attempts.  When the infighting causes a crisis at the royal court, Asoka’s mother begs him to leave, and to roam their land incognito, until the day that he should be summoned to return.  On his travels he meets and marries Princess Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor) of the neighbouring kingdom of Kalinga.  Political insurrection at home has resulted in Kaurwaki and her younger brother Arya (Suraj Balaji) going into hiding under the protection of their royal bodyguard, Bheema (Rahul Dev).  Asoka is eventually summoned home and he soon hears that Kaurwaki and Arya have been captured and killed in his absence.  Asoka channels his fury into waging devastating wars on Magadha's neighbouring kingdoms.  But when he sets his sights on Kalinga, an unexpected encounter takes place amidst the aftermath of one of the bloodiest battles in Indian history.  An encounter which manages to penetrate the obstinate shield of aggression that Asoka has wrapped himself in and restore the inner peace needed to bring an end to the cycle of wanton bloodshed that he had petulantly instigated.

Obviously there’s a generic feel to most productions of a legendary-come-historical and epic nature and the story of Asoka’s life, as presented in this film, contains many familiar conventions.  At the start of the film, the young Asoka rescues a legendary sword from a river bed.  But, unlike King Arthur’s Excalibur, this sword is not a particularly positive agent: described as being a ‘demon’, once drawn the sword thirsts for blood, be it that of friend or foe, good or bad.  The tensions at the royal court of Magadha, the step-sibling rivalry for the soon to be vacant throne, and the political insurrection in Kalinga are much like many scenarios previously encountered in other historical dramas.  When Asoka first breaks free from the constraints of royal protocol, and travels the locality incognito, he's a little like an easy going Spaghetti Western hero (some of whom were, in some part themselves, based on the heroes of Greek and Roman mythology) in the mould of Terence Hill’s ‘Trinity’ or ‘Nobody’ characters: he talks to his horse, makes small children laugh, is polite to the ladies and is playfully bashful yet cheeky when he is caught watching Kaurwaki bathing.  But he remains confident and assured enough to reluctantly enter into a series of good natured tests of strength and fighting ability with a local hard man, Virat (Danny Denzongpa), and is fully prepared to fight for real when real danger threatens.  

A nice touch is the intermittent appearance of three lowly court guards, whose comical conversations and observations act as reminders and indicators of certain plot twists. Their use brings to mind similar characters that have appeared in some Japanese historical epics.  This tenuous link to Japanese cinema is strengthened by the subplot involving Kaurwaki, Arya and Bheema, which could be compared to some of the basic elements of Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress.  The theme of lost love provoking a hero’s descent into violent expression on the battlefield, while showing complete disregard for his own safety, is a fairly universal and often used idea.  But such familiarities do not prove to be a problem: all of the above elements are convincingly woven together into a well paced and engrossing tale.

The cinematography is equally good and is consistently stylish.  As well as presenting some nice framing, Director/Cinematographer Santosh Sivan has developed a personal approach that comes on like a wild cross between Ridley Scott’s presentation of Russell Crowe’s injury induced delirium dreams at the beginning of Gladiator and those shaky, disorientating, over-exposed-frames-between-edits tricks so beloved of David Lynch and several contemporary European filmmakers.  The process present here also involves the rapid and repeated use of lightning-fast pans and elaborate camera swoops that suddenly come to an abrupt stop, wobbly jump cuts, shimmering camera shifts that flit between shots of the same subject from multiple angles, film speed tricks and the like.  Sivan just never lets up with this approach and, while it could be argued that there is nothing particularly new here, it’s all implemented with such controlled and evenly paced gusto, and such amazingly precise editing, that it works a treat and Sivan comes to make this curious amalgam of visual effects his own.  The art direction is also of a wonderfully high quality.  The locations, sets and costumes all look authentic and a simple but elegant approach is adhered to for the interiors of the royal palaces.

This Pal Region 0 DVD presents the full version of the film, which includes five song and dance interludes.  While a couple of the routines are shot in an almost old-time Hollywood musical style, for the most part a fairly flashy MTV-come-music video approach is utilized to good effect.  The songs aren’t bad, making use of modern sounding rhythms played on mainly traditional Indian instruments.  The soundtrack music proper is also pretty good.  A nice mix of the suitably grand, dramatic and sweeping arrangements, and the quieter, more introspective musical lulls, demanded from any presentation of such an epic nature.  The acting is good, too.  Danny Denzongpa deserves a special mention for his fine portrayal of the roguish Virat, a great character who becomes a good friend to Asoka, while the romantic scenes played out between Shah Rukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor work extremely well without their lips ever having to meet, let alone the need to resort to anything approaching nudity.

The final battle for Kalinga is pretty well staged.  Emotionally, it touches upon the heroics associated with the likes of The Seven Samurai, and the Liang Shan Po hero-rebels from The Water Margin, as young, old, male and female gather together in a final determined effort to protect their homeland from invaders.  Six thousand extras reportedly took part in the filming of the battle sequence. While a seemingly Gladiator -inspired overemphasis on shots depicting close quarters combat (which includes some historically authentic but ultimately Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-like martial arts) sometimes serves to obscure the full scale of the endeavour slightly, some of the broader shots do successfully capture the true magnitude of the reconstruction.  Sivan pulls no punches in showing the terrible aftermath of the battle and there appear to be a couple of nods in the direction of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in this respect.

The film’s producers are keen to point out that "this is a story based on legends," adding, "some characters, events and places have been fictionalized for greater dramatic appeal - this film does not claim to be a complete historical account of Asoka’s life but an attempt to follow his journey." This approach has apparently caused a little disquiet amongst some historically minded viewers who have expressed disappointment that the film’s story arc actually ends at the start of the most endearing and important chapter of Asoka’s life.  After his eventual denouncement of war, Asoka dedicated his life to spreading the teachings of Buddhism throughout the world.  This film ends just as that phase of Asoka’s story begins. Sivan is said to have wanted to produce a film that fell somewhere between art house interests and outright commercial appeal. I think he succeeded.

The picture and sound quality of this DVD are excellent. The dialogue is presented in the film's original Hindi (Dolby Digital 5.1) and Tamil (Dolby Digital 2.0), with English and French subtitles being available for selection. The disc contains a good selection of extras, too.  The two mini-documentaries (both run to around 20 minutes each) are reasonably interesting but appear to be lacking subtitles, which would have been handy in a couple of places.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Asoka rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, individual song selection, The Making of Asoka docu, The Big Fight docu, image gallery with radio advert soundbed, main cast biographies, director filmography.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 10, 2002

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Text © Copyright 2007 Lee Broughton
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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