Asoka (2001)

Directed by
9/10 - Impressive and powerful
Reviewed by Simon on 2002-05-24

Epic period pieces seem to be coming back into style these days, and I'd say ASOKA is India's epicest contribution to the genre. It's directed by Santosh Sivan, who has proved his worth as one of the world's finest cinematographers, and is now trying to show that he can produce equally fine results in the director's chair.

It tells the story of a famous king, though it admits up front that it does not aim for accuracy - just to convey his growth as a man, perhaps as an example to others. Sharukh Khan is that king, though for the first half of the movie he is but a prince - and more, because of his mother's wish he is travelling through the land as a common man, not to disclose his real identity to anyone. He meets another prince who is in exile, this one a young boy still - he also meets his sister, the original Warrior Princess, played by Kareena Kapoor.

The first half of the movie plays out kind of like a fairy tale, and focusses more on Asoka's love life than events of a particularly epic or historical nature. It's all quite captivating, and lets us get to know our cast of characters well, but it's ultimately just a lusciously filmed love story with period costumes and sets. In the second half of the movie, Asoka returns to his homeland and resumes his true identity. Things turn much darker here, as Asoka is led into war. Things pick up pace quite dramatically, and the movie becomes really quite tense and dramatic - there's a lot of emotional punch there. There are moments in the first half where the fairy tale vibe becomes almost dreamlike, but later on the same mood turns nightmarish.

The culmination of events is a huge battle sequence featuring elephants and horses and 6000 extras and a lot of blood and death. It doesn't have the same intensity or realism as the battle scenes in Musa, but the scale is enormous and it's very well filmed. There are a number of smaller fights throughout the movie, which were well intentioned but looked quite awkward compared to Hong Kong or Korean standards. I was going to list the fights as one of the movies weak points, but "The big one" was wonderfully realised... it's an incredibly powerful sequence emotionally too, surely one of the most impressive battles put on film.

Ultimately Asoka was to become a great envoy of Buddhism and general peace and love, and the movie aims to show how he learnt the lessons in life that led him to that state. The message is clearly a wish that others can learn those lessons too.

If MUSA is the definitive historical epic of recent years, a pure 10/10, then the first half of ASOKA had me clocking the score around 7/8 for the most part. I'm not a big love story fan though, so maybe others would rate it higher. Towards the end, the movie definitely shifted up to 10/10 land,

with Shahrukh's acting occasionally dipping the score down to 9 (most of the time he's good, but there are few scenes where he fluffs it). The stage is almost stolen from Shahrukh by Kareena Kapoor, who gives an excellent and diverse performance throughout. Rahul Dev is very intense as the general guarding Kareena and the young prince, who is well played by a kid called Suraj Balaje.

There is no doubt that ASOKA is a grand production, full of excellent cinematography and a good soundtrack. The costumes, sets and locations have all been carefully chosen to give the movie a very consistent feel, if not quite to the speck-of dust precision that MUSA evokes its period. It's definitely a movie that leaves an impression, though it ultimately it falls a little short of MUSA in the perfection of the craftsmanship... but it's still a 9/10 movie I'd say.

Don't go into the movie expecting a life-changing experience of perfection, which it's clear some IMDB reviewers have done. No movie is ever going to be *that* good, but it's pretty childish to be disappointed by a movie as good as ASOKA if you compare it to most of the other movies out there in the world.