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NOTICE: Polish Release, cover may contain Polish text/markings. The disk DOES NOT have English audio and subtitles.
Both stylish and stylized, Santosh Sivan's Hindi epic Asoka tells the heavily fictionalized but nonetheless compelling story of India's greatest emperor. In the third century B.C., the Mauryan king Asoka built a vast empire by means of ruthless conquest; but after the great Kalinga war he became sickened by the terrible slaughter he had caused, converted to Buddhism and dedicated the rest of his life to spreading peace and prosperity.
The film, though, concerns itself only with Asoka's rise to power, his love for the princess Kaurwaki, and his subsequent descent into brutality. Shah Rukh Khan is a brooding and temperamental prince who woos the lovely princess Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor) incognito and with the aid of the obligatory song-and-dance numbers. After a promising start involving mythic swords, heroic combat, and King Lear-like sibling rivalry, the film falls into a familiar Bollywood groove for a while until events overtake the unlucky lovers and Asoka turns mean when he thinks his princess is dead. She in turn searches vainly for her handsome hero, not knowing his real identity; and when the tyrannical Asoka attacks her kingdom she leads her people against his armies in a near-genocidal war. The finale, after a wonderfully staged battle that employs 6,000 extras, is genuinely touching.
Throughout, the film works best when striving for a realistic tone, though the fairy tale romance and song interludes are doubtless contrived to please the domestic Indian audience more than cynical Europeans. It's a shame that Asoka's true greatness is never realized on screen, as the story ends before his momentous conversion, but as a film that tackles big themes with real visual flair Asoka nonetheless deserves to find a worldwide audience. --Mark Walker
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All in all, it's fabulous, but be prepared to get mad when the ending leaves you high and dry. It's more than worth the frustration for the first song alone.
Asoka was the favorite grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, the emperor of the kingdom of Magadha in the third century BC. Chandragupta beat back the armies of Alexander the Great, conquered most of the Indian subcontinent, and then adopted the Jain religion, renounced his throne, and died from fasting. The empire fell to his son Bindusara, whose heir apparent was Asoka's eldest brother Susima.
And that's where the film begins. There's no trace of the Asoka who would one day convert to Buddhism and become one of the world's first great humanitarians, a man who made nonviolence the law of his vast land. Shahrukh Khan plays the young Asoka, a skilled and merciless warrior with ruthless political ambition, a role perfectly suited to Khan's intense dramatic style (he always shines as an antihero). Asoka is an animal in a kill-or-be-killed courtly world, but when he's temporarily exiled and gets mixed up with a woman on the run, Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor), his love for her humanizes him--and Khan and Kapoor make a scorching pair. When Asoka is falsely told she's dead, he's shattered, marries another--a Buddhist named Devi (Hrishita Bhatt)--violently assumes the throne, and becomes even more brutal than before. The story is bolstered by striking art direction, tight editing, and fantastic performances by supporting actors.
The lavish final battle scene--which included 6,000 extras--is refreshingly low-tech and all the more realistic as a result. The aftermath is gory and moving as Asoka searches among the corpses for his lost love. (According to historical records, Asoka was horrified by the magnitude of death he'd caused at the Battle of Kalinga, which prompted him to reform.)
There are a couple of detracting elements that break the film's powerful spell. The use of comedy is a distraction rather than a relief. That's not an indictment of masala--Bollywood's traditional blending of genres--but in this case, it doesn't work. The drama is too captivating to downshift out of it. Also, the songs seem too contemporary for a historical pic.
Finally, the film was criticized for its historical inaccuracies (Devi was actually Asoka's first wife; he married Kaurwaki later). The criticism is unfair to some degree given that it's necessary to take liberties with true stories in order to create a narrative arc, but since the film's explanation of Asoka's profound change doesn't jibe with the facts, his confounding transformation remains, unsatisfyingly, a mystery.
- The Bollywood Ticket: The American guide to Indian movies (Subscribe: The Bollywood Ticket)
Most recent customer reviews
Watched it a gazillion times & the sound track causes a sing song syndrome :) :) :)