Monday, June 9, 2008

Asoka, or, I Blame Bheema for the Battle of Kalinga

I love to read. I'll read any genre, as long as it's well-written, and if it's Janet Evanovich it doesn't even have to be that. One of my favorite types of fiction, when done right, is the alternate history novel. You know, what if the Nazis won World War II or what if Alexander hadn't died young or what if Reagan had died of his gunshot wounds--what would the world be like now?

To me, most "historical" movies fall into this "alternate history" category. Take Braveheart, for instance. A British acquaintance of mine once told me that his Scottish mother wasn't overly impressed with an Australian-American actor filming a movie primarily in Ireland about a Scottish national hero. William Wallace was a huge guy, over six feet in an age when the average guy was around five--not exactly keeping with Mel Gibson's stature. Not to mention the fact that Isabella (you remember, the French princess?) was about three years old at the time of her cinematic affair with William Wallace. Edward the Third was born many years after Wallace's death. But, dude! What an idea! A Scots cuckoo in the English royal nest! The English take his woman so he takes their bloodline! That's some serious movie excellence there, people. I'm willing to relegate it to the realm of "alternate history" so I can enjoy Braveheart as a piece of entertainment.

Asoka falls into the same category, although even more so because Asoka the Great lived in the third century B.C. and there are few contemporary written sources of material on his life that could be called "impartial." (Let me just clarify that by "impartial" I don't mean "reliable" since partisan records can still often be relied upon.) It's definitely alternate, almost entirely fictional as far as I can tell from some brief Googling.

This 2001 film stars Shah Rukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Ajith Kumar (apparently a famous Tamil actor though this is the first thing I've seen him in), Suraj Balaje, Danny Denzongpa, Rahul Dev, and Hrishita Bhatt, otherwise known as the Indian Jessica Alba. I mean, those two look a lot alike. See for yourself:

Jessica, and...

Hrishita. Separated at birth?

Or maybe I'm just smoking crack.

Anyway, Asoka opens with a brief glimpse at the prince's childhood, just as his grandfather is abandoning the throne and all his earthly possessions to embrace Jainism. Asoka grabs his grandfather's sword and runs away with it. When his grandfather finds him, he counsels the boy to get rid of the sword, saying it only wants blood and doesn't care where it gets the blood from. He tosses the sword off a two-foot waterfall and walks away. (Husband's comment: "Oh yeah. That'll be hard to find later.") Sure enough, within a few minutes Asoka's running amok through the forest, flinging the recovered blade around and accidentally slaying birds. Cue heavy foreshadowing.

The film skips forward to a number of years later. Asoka (Shah Rukh Khan), the dying king's stepson (? or maybe something else? I couldn't tell from the kind of crappy scrolling narrative) is now a premiere general, using harsh, cunning tactics to win battles for a man who doesn't give a rip about him outside of his ability to keep winning. He's arrogant, the apple of his mother's eye and the bane of his half-brother Sushima's (Ajith Kumar) existence. Asoka's mother Dharma (Subhashini) fears for his life as well as for her own position in the precarious political situation within the palace. She emotionally blackmails him into leaving and living incognito as a commoner. Asoka obeys, and renames himself after his horse Pawan (the wind).

Before long, Asoka/Pawan meets some fellow undercover royalty from a neighboring principality, Kalinga. Princess Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor) and her little brother Prince Arya (Suraj Belaje) are on the run after their parents were assassinated. Protected by the loyal General Bheema (Rahul Dev), they are sleeping in caves and trying to decide on their next move. After Asoka saves Kaurwaki from an attack, he joins their little group, much against Bheema's will.

She's not trusting anybody.

And, oh yeah, Asoka and Kaurwaki fall in love.

Wow. Guess that line really has been around forever.

Then, through a tragic bunch of circumstances largely propelled by some untimely duplicity on Bheema's part, the two are parted, with Asoka believing Kaurwaki is dead--actually she's alive and helping her little brother regain his throne.

Bheema offers "proof" that Kaurwaki is dead.

After some more blood and gore, Asoka goes completely over to the Dark Side, much to the repulsion of his second wife, the lovely Buddhist Devi (Jessica--I mean, Hrishita Bhatt).

When my husband first saw Shah Rukh on screen in this role, he said, "Wow, this must've been early in his career. He looks so young." After a quick glance at the release date, we quickly came to the conclusion that it must've been just after some truly excellent plastic surgery. I really don't think he's ever looked better. (And yeah, I'm including the freaky "Dard-E-Disco" 6-pack from Om Shanti Om in that tally.) Plus, the kohl? Ohmigosh. So awesome.

Seriously. She looks freaking gorgeous.

The same goes for Kareena, who I personally think looks better with each successive layer of makeup she removes. The costumes I have no way of knowing anything about as far as historical accuracy or lack thereof, but they looked cool, as did all the body paint everywhere.

The visual artistry is really kind of raw for a Bollywood movie. Very little bling except for the royal characters' armbands and earrings, no glittery sets or gilted robes or golden props. The lighting and outdoor sets are mostly in muted shades--grays, dark greens, silvers, palest blues--except for a couple of scenes where Asoka and Kaurwaki are falling for each other and during the climactic final battle scene. There, the fierce sunshine and bold colors reflect their feelings, I suppose.

The Battle of Kalinga

The songs all use Indian instruments in entirely modern ways, which can be somewhat jarring mood-wise, but they're wonderful compositions. The soundtrack to this movie is in my top five for Bollywood films, especially the sexy/sweet Raat Ka Nasha. I also liked that Shah Rukh only dances either in fantasy picturizations (where either Asoka or Kaurwaki are imagining each other) or when he's Pawan, never as Asoka.

There are some lovely visual touches in the film, like when Devi interrupts Asoka in the middle of beating someone to tell him she's pregnant. She places his hand on her stomach to tell him the news without words. Then as he walks away exultant, Devi looks down in horror to see that the blood on his hands has smeared over her own--and her womb. And the final battle scene, which according the Behind-the-Scenes featurette on the DVD utilized 6,000 extras, 50 elephants and several hundred horses, definitely lives up to the description of "epic."

Speaking of behind the scenes, the Special Features are pretty limited as far as I can tell. A made-for-TV featurette, a behind-the-scenes look at the Battle of Kalinga recreation, filmographies, and some audio options, which I just realized I forgot to check for a commentary. All the special features are in English although the clips incorporated from the movie are, obviously, not, and don't offer subtitles in this section. Also, the scene selection is pretty lame since it'll only take you to the songs, and there's about twenty minutes between those so, unless you just want the music you'll definitely be doing some fast-forwarding or rewinding to get to the point you're looking for.

As far as the story itself goes...well, it's a bit bloated. Maybe a lot bloated. There are several one-on-one swordfights that happen way too frequently and go on way too long--I felt like I was watching Kung Fu Theater by the end of the last one. I felt like "Roshni Se," although beautiful, was kind of redundant when placed next to "Raat Ka Nasha" and could've been eliminated. Johnny Lever, two other guys, and a woman have completely unnecessary roles as three soldiers and a hooker who serve as a kind of Chorus for the narrative, clarifying questions that don't need answers since the rest of the movie makes the issues quite clear enough without them there. Their storyline could've been cut completely without harming the movie at all. And though I thought Prince Arya was stinking cute, I can see that some would find his character cloying. Also, there's a moment when a map is shown with English titles, which was completely jarring.

But, in the end, the believable emotions behind the characters' actions, as well as the fine performances among the leads and the supporting actors, really carried this movie off for me. The gore, while definitely present, isn't nearly as graphic as Hollywood movies in the same sort of genre. I cried at all the appropriate places (futilely trying to hide that fact from my spouse, who inevitably says something like, "are you letting them manipulate you into crying?" Answer: YES) and I thought SRK and Kareena were great together.

Say what you want, man, she knows you totally just saw her nekkid.

I know some have complained about the fact that there isn't much shown of Asoka after his famous conversion to Buddhism, but I'm not sure how a peaceful man's peaceful life would make for good action/adventure. It's like complaining that Walk the Line ends with Johnny Cash settling down--good family men don't make for good film, m'dears. All in all, I'd say Asoka is worth--well, if not every penny, then definitely most of them.


  1. Eep! This reminds me! I still haven't seen this. My only copy has Arabic subtitles. Must remedy.

    Man, SRK looks fine.

    And OMG yes, that woman is clearly Jessica Alba's doppelganger!

  2. You *have* to see it because I want to read your review. I suspect you might not like it as much as I did.

    And heck yes, SRK is looking drool-worthy with the eyeliner. If it weren't for Ashlee Simpson's babydaddy wearing it I'd be all for men and kohl. Dude.

  3. I missed seeing it when it originally came out because an SRK-fan friend of mine told me it wasnt worth watching. But, from your review it sounds like this one should go on my ever growing 'to watch' list. :-)

    OMG Jessica and Hrishita totally look like twins separated at birth - in fact before I saw the captions I thought it was the same person!

  4. Bollyviewer--I'd heard so many bad things about this movie that only having a trusted online "source" ;-) recommend it got me to try it. I really think it got an undeservedly bad rap.

    And I also think people's animosity toward Kareena Kapoor might've had something to do with that. But really it's just typecasting, right? Bollywood family royalty as ancient Indian royalty? LOL

  5. Kareena does look good with SRK- I'd have never thought! I am one of those who take issue with their ignorance of historical details though- even if they had to invent an extra romance for Ashok, they could have kept the costuming real :S - ah well.

  6. Shweta--I was surprised at how well they went together, esp. considering the age gap, but given the historical context (and the fact that she'd probably have been married way younger IRL) I was cool with it.

    As far as the costuming goes, I guess this is one instance where my own ignorance did me a big favor. LOL

  7. I'm guessing the costumes are somewhat accurate since Amrapali and the 'Vaaji Vaaji' sequence in Sivaji (set around the same era)have also similar costumes.

  8. anonymous--thanks for that! Are they recommended films?

  9. If you like classic Bollywood epics that flopped for some unknown reason like Asoka, then Amrapali is a recommendation. I haven't seen Sivaji, but I heard it's a disappointment (I'm not familiar with South Indian cinema anyway).

  10. Cool, I'll follow the links, thanks!

  11. I'm reading some of your old reviews. I love Asoka. I really like Kareena in this movie. She looked great. SRK looks good too. The songs are gorgeous. I think Hrishtaa Bhatt looks like Alyssa Milano, especially the smile. She also looks like Genelia

  12. Hey Nicki! Asoka is definitely on my list of "Bollywood's Recently Underappreciated." I agree, Kareena looks fantastic. The songs are amazing even though they're so weirdly modern. And Hrishita *does* look like Alyssa Milano! I haven't seen Genelia in action yet so I can't see that resemblance as much.

  13. Asoka is just one of those movies that I can't explain why I keep coming back to it. On all superficial levels (like special effects, storyline, and SRK's long-hair wig), this should not be such a favorite movie of mine! Maybe it's the songs, maybe it's SRK wearing kohl, maybe it's the fact that I cry like a baby at the ending every single time, but this movie will always have a special little place in my heart.


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