October 26, 2001


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Anita Bora

Much has already been said and written about the movie Asoka.

And after the hype, the book (on the making of the movie), and the numerous interviews, I naturally felt buoyant walking into the theatre.

Three hours and fifteen minutes later, having endured six odd songs, half a dozen fight sequences, romance in gallons, drama in generous portions and a lot of bare flesh, this is what I emerged feeling about the whole experience.

The Plot

Shah Rukh Khan portrays Asoka, the young prince turned warrior, who carved his place in the history books as one of the most famous kings of ancient India. Grandson of the great Chandragupta Maurya, and son of Bindusara (Gerson da Cunha), Asoka is one of the ascendants to the throne of Magadha.

His father's choice however is his step-brother Susima (Ajit Kumar) causing great rivalry between the two contenders.

Asoka's mother (Subhashini Ali) worried for her son's safety, asks him to abandon the power struggle and go away peacefully. Thus, starts his life as a commoner.

He lands up in a village where he meets the beautiful, lissome, barely clad, midriff flaunting princess Kaurwaki (Kariena Kapoor), her brother and prince Arya (Suraj Balaje) and their bodyguard Senapati Bheema (Rahul Dev). The three are on the run from their enemy who is trying to usurp their right to the throne of Kalinga.

A few waterfall sequences later, Asoka and Kaurwaki -- whose hair is perennially wet, thanks to those long bath sequences -- discover they are in love.

Kaurwaki is not aware that Asoka is the prince and calls him Pavan. Neither is she aware that she isn't a princess.

A disapproving Bheema breaks the news of her parentage to an unsuspecting Kaurwaki. Kaurwaki has an identity crisis that she quickly gets over as Asoka marries her to prove he does not care about her background.

Asoka also meets Virat (Danny Denzongpa), a village strongman. A few altercations later, they strike a rapport and Virat goes on to become one of Asoka's trusted men.

Kaurwaki and Asoka's union is short-lived since he gets the news that his mother is unwell.

His mother, however, is in good health, but wants him to get his new wife. So, Asoka rushes back to the village where an injured Bheema tells him that both Kaurwaki and Arya have been killed.

Asoka, angry and mournful, goes back to Magadha in a murderous mood. He decides that war and revenge is the only way out since he has already lost everything.

A few sequences later, an injured Asoka is nursed back to health in a monastery by Devi (Hrishitaa Bhatt in her debut appearance).

Susima tries to kill the injured Asoka, but the attempt is foiled by Devi. Naturally, going by the Bollywoodian logic, Asoka gets to marry her.

While Devi is carrying his child, his mother too is killed and Asoka can no longer remain silent.

He confronts his brother, who is killed in the following altercation, and then goes on to kill all his other brothers.

But, one brother escapes and takes refugee in Kalinga -- which is ruled by Prince Arya who is still alive.

Asoka now embraces the violent way with vigour and goes about conquering more lands to prove that he is the emperor. Along the way, thousands are killed, the only thorn in his path being Kalinga, a land that has never been under anyone's rule. Against the advice of Virat, Asoka goes ahead and decides to attack Kalinga.

What follows is one of the bloodiest battles with thousands being killed. Kaurwaki -- who is still alive -- decides to take on the enemy. In the battlefield, she puts up a brave fight, but is injured, just as she catches a glimpse of Asoka -- who she had known as Pavan all along -- now her enemy.

While Asoka wins the battle Kalinga, he loses his trusted friends, and even his brother who turns to Buddhism. Even Asoka's wife denounces him.

He finds injured Kaurwaki in the battlefield among the dead and mutilated bodies and realises the enormity of his actions.

The Actors

Shah Rukh Khan had in an interview said the viewer will not be watching him, 'the actor', but 'Asoka - the man' instead.

After my marathon sitting, I am not so sure.

Throughout the film, whether he is drawing out his sword swearing revenge, charging on to battle, or courting his woman, that unique Khan personality shone through the character of Asoka. He, however, puts in a strong performance, in this well defined role.

Kariena -- who has added an 'i' and dropped an 'e' -- flashes a lot of skin and fills up the screen for a large portion of the first half, when the courtship and wooing takes place. She's under the waterfall, over it, beside it and even dives into it at one point.

While a large portion of the first half is focused on the emerging romance between the runaway prince and herself -- and to their credit they do manage to whip up some on-screen chemistry -- I am still unsure as to her acting abilities.

But her ability to dress up (or down as the case might be) and carry off skimpy bustier with shell straps cannot be denied!

Ajit Kumar is quite believable as the plotting and fuming brother, and though this is his first appearance in a Hindi movie he carries it off quite confidently.

Rahul Dev also puts in a good performance in the role of the Senapati. While doing negative roles has been his forte so far, he carries of the other side with Úlan. The young Suraj Balaje puts in an admirable effort as Arya, but then anyone at that tender age, who shares the screen with Shah Rukh and Rahul needs to be applauded.

The characters are all actually quite believable and manage to make an impression including Danny Denzongpa, Subhasini Ali, Gerson da Cunha and Hrishitaa Bhatt in her small role.

The three stooges -- Raghvir Yadav, Johnny Lever, and Suresh Menon -- though an attempt at humour didn't tickle my funny bone.

The Moments

Among some of the more noteworthy sequences were the first waterfall encounter between Asoka and Kaurwaki, and then later the confrontation between her and Bheema.

Then again the scene where Asoka actually has trouble admitting his love in words, followed by the sequence where Asoka teaches Kaurwaki the basics of sword fighting.

Another one which catches your eye is the well picturised fight sequence -- the Kallaripayattu in slow motion looks even more exotic -- where Asoka single-handedly defeats a band of men who are trying to kill Kaurwaki.

Later in the movie, when Asoka confronts Susima, who is finally killed along with many of his other brothers, is something to watch out for.

Finally, the war scene towards the end is quite well executed.

For someone used seeing Hollywoodian battle scenes aka Braveheart, it is good to see an Indian director take on the logistical challenge of directing a war scene and coming out on top.

The Music

Frankly, if there were no songs, I wouldn't have noticed it.

Unlike recent movies like Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai, where the music flowed with the narrative, the songs here seemed out of place most of the time.

While it is unlikely that the king and the princess would keep bursting into songs, at least Mr Malik could have ensured they sounded somewhat believable. The tunes (San, sanana) are hummable at the most.

Most of the songs are pictures on Kariena -- under the waterfall, in the fields, in the village, on a raft -- and after a while, her gyrations do become a little tiresome.

This included a completely unnecessary fantasy song with an underwater sequence thrown in. While technically brilliant and probably shot with a great deal of effort, it only stuck out like a sore thumb.

The Direction

It is quite amazing that a director of the stature of Santosh Sivan, who can make a gripping tale like the Terrorist on a much smaller scale can come up with an Asoka, shot on a mega-scale, and still leave us feeling unsatisfied.

As Shah Rukh Khan had said somewhere, their attempt was not to make a historical movie, or even a magnum opus, but just a Hindi movie. And they have succeeded in making one.

While Sivan's cinematography is technically competent, at most times I felt more like an observer, instead of a participant.

An attempt to portray a man embarking on a journey, where he encounters love, passion, loss, betrayal, violence and then finally comes to terms with himself, when he finds peace should involve the audience, which Asoka, sadly, manages only fleetingly.

One lesson to learn from this is that a budget of crores can make a technically good film with sound performances, but it takes much more to make it a great cinematic experience.

Watch it, and you'll know what I'm talking about!

Unveiling Asoka
Web Watch : Asoka

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