espite 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
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.