Asoka (2001)
Directed by Santosh Sivan

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* *

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While ostensibly based on the ancient king whose empire embraced most of modern India, Asoka's eponymous hero has little resemblance either to the Asoka of history, insofar as he is known through his famous edicts, or to the Asoka of Buddhist legend, as he is revealed in such texts as the Asokavadhana. The story of his life has been reimagined, although this new narrative is injected with a few details taken from historical or hagiographic sources, such as his grandfather's conversion to Jainism and his own conflict with his brothers. The king's own conversion to Buddhism is not mentioned, although Buddhism is not entirely absent from the film.

Despite the praise it has often received, Santosh Sivan's Asoka is, I am sad to say, a failure. While the movie can be entertaining and is often visually striking, it is also frequently hackneyed and overdone.


In fact, the film is often truly atrocious. In one particularly inept scene, for example, when threatened by an armed opponent, Asoka, taking out his own "snake sword," comments to his enemy, "That is not a weapon, this is a weapon," lifting a line from, of all places, Crocodile Dundee. Sadly, this is not the only error in judgment Sivan makes.

For one thing, in addition to such painful incidents, there are numerous maudlin moments scattered throughout the movie, the first of which occurs almost as soon as the film has begun. This particular scene opens with a depiction of the young Asoka caring for a family of birds. When his grandfather renounces his throne, and violence, to become a Jain monk and discards his sword, Asoka retrieves it. While subsequently playing with the weapon, the boy hurls it into the woods and accidentally kills the birds for which he had been caring, not so subtly reminding the viewer of the sad consequences of violence. The ending of the film, however, provides its most ludicrous incident. Clearly intended to move the audience to tears, it, instead, made me laugh out loud. I will not reveal what happens at this point, however, since I do not want to spoil the potential viewer's opportunity to enjoy one of cinema's silliest moments.

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This is not to say that Asoka is completely lacking in admirable qualities, even though these are mingled with much that is genuinely dreadful. While, for instance, the movie does include a few sequences that are less than perfectly realized, such as its concluding battle, which is shoddily made and poorly choreographed, the film's production values are usually reasonably high. What is more, the cinematography is generally accomplished. The locations used are almost invariably gorgeous, providing stunning backdrops to virtually every scene, and the songs are all entertaining. Some, in fact, are delightful.

One especially enjoyable element of Asoka which should be noted is the director's avoidance of any effort to present the movie as "historically accurate." An artistic work is not a history. It can be interesting when a film does capture some past time, but it is grating when a film that does not do so pretends that it does, as is the case with such movies as Gladiator and Braveheart. Asoka never tries to hide its anachronisms. They are never passed off as actually belonging to any real former age. The costumes and sets, though they are evocative of some past time, belong to a fantastic, imaginary India unrelated to that of the historical Asoka. This vague past is, however, interwoven with modern sentiments, modern humor, and modern musical numbers. The result is something far more appealing than the deliberately misleading adventures mentioned above.


Finally, I should add that, like everything else in the film, the quality of the acting is extremely uneven. Asoka is annoyingly played by Shahrukh Khan, who suffuses the character with his usual excessive, testosterone dripping machismo. Happily, Kareena Kapoor is appealing as the king's love interest and acquits herself well, and Hrishitaa Bhatt, although she is not given much to do in the film, her screen debut, is stunningly beautiful as a young Buddhist woman the king marries. Both, in contrast to the male lead, have pleasant, likeable on screen personas. Many of the other actors are also enjoyable to watch, even if their performances are not truly memorable.

Asoka is a watchable film. It has its good qualities, but its faults are severe.

Review by Keith Allen

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