Asoka (2001) Movie Review

Despite having taken a course in Indian History in college, my biggest interest coming into the Indian epic “Asoka”, about the life of India’s greatest king/patron of Buddhism, wasn’t a matter of historical accuracy. It was this: Are the sing and dance numbers in Bollywood movies meant to fit into the flow of story continuity, or are they supposed to be considered abnormal interludes that have no bearing on the facts of the film? Well according to “Asoka”, it’s a little of both.

Shahrukh Khan stars as the titular character, a real-life Prince who, around 250 BC or thereabouts, united most of Ancient India under his rule. The movie purports to tell the tale of the man who would be king by spending half of its nearly 3-hour running length showing the lighter side of Asoka as he goes into voluntary exile, romances a fugitive princess, and ends up in all kinds of hilarious adventures. The rest is all blood and guts and dark moods. I counted only two half-hearted song and dance numbers in the second half, which follow a changed (for the worst) Asoka as he goes about conquering India in a fit of rage, ambition, and bloodlust.

Besides trying to offer some explanation for the real-life Asoka’s habit of going medieval on everyone who isn’t him, the romance between Asoka and Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor) is most likely all artistic license. I don’t remember there being any real reason why Asoka decided to launch a slaughterfest besides the notion of empire expansion. Of course this is perfectly acceptable in the world of moviemaking. “What if” questions are what filmmaking is all about. (Also, the movie did inform us of its intentions to play fast and loose with the facts.)

Sold to international audiences as a historical war epic, you wouldn’t know it from the first half, which is so lighthearted and fun that one forgets about the real Asoka’s bloody history. (Look, he’s singing and dancing!) The man was, for all intents and purposes, a barbaric character before his eventual transformation to Buddhism, which the movie touches on briefly toward the end. (Even so, do 5 minutes of Asoka stumbling around a desert looking “changed” and a brief coda really count towards a transformation?)

Director and co-writer Santosh Sivan throws in probably too many fancy schmancy cuts and some superfluous camera techniques. Sivan also uses a number of jump cuts, which actually seems appropriate in the second half, but feels out of order in the lighthearted first. Also, is it me or should every character in “Asoka” have whiplash from the speed with which their heads snap to and fro? I swear there are even sound effects to accompany the snapping heads. But once you get used to Sivan’s directing style, the camera tricks cease to matter.

Except for one action scene early in the film that takes place in the woods, where Asoka takes on multiple opponents in a heavily stylized battle, I’m hardpressed to believe that the cast spent much time learning swordplay. As a result leads Khan and Kapoor look clumsy swinging their weapons on most occasions (with the exception of the aforementioned forest fight). The movie itself offers up only minor skirmishes until the film’s main action sequence, a desert battle that utilizes thousands of extras. But even here, the action is not completely believable. “Braveheart” this ain’t, folks.

The movie’s first half charmed me, even though the film as a whole feels a bit schizophrenic. Or maybe this is the way all Bollywood films are constructed and I just haven’t seen enough of them to know for sure. Regardless, while I enjoyed the film’s first half, especially it’s many sing and dance numbers, I didn’t care very much for the violent second half. Maybe if the battle choreography had been better, or if the film had put on a straight face from frame one, maybe the second half wouldn’t seem so out of place.

Even so, Bollywood films are the damnedest things. I swear I’ll never get used to characters just suddenly launching into crazy dance and song numbers. Never.

Santosh Sivan (director) / Saket Chaudhary, Santosh Sivan, Abbas Tyrewala (screenplay)
CAST: Shahrukh Khan …. Asoka
Kareena Kapoor …. Kaurwaki
Danny Denzongpa …. Virat
Ajit Kumar …. Susima

Buy Asoka on DVD