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 empir... more »e 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« less
For those that enjoy in depth foreign films with substance, this is definitely for you!
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Rebecca Johnson | Washington State | 12/14/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Asoka inspires mixed emotions. On the one hand, there are elements of pure beauty and love and then you have a contrast in the horrors of war. The cinematography is rich and awe-inspiring. I was literally mesmerized.
This is not a romance in the sense of peace and love, this is a tragic tale of two hearts looking for one another amidst a world of betrayal and deceit. Not to mention a lust for power. The plot is complex and there are elements of revenge, cruelty and battles on a large scale.
The intensity in the contrast is at times overwhelming. The action never seems to subside into a moment of peace. Either passion dances across the screen or horror and suspense surround the characters. The musical numbers give some relief from the intensity, yet they are also equally vibrant.
This legendary story is recorded in a second century book called the "Asokavadana." The movie is based loosely on the story and at the end there is the implication of the renunciation of war.
"Love wounds in a way that does not let you live or die."
It is emotional from the start and is dark in its lust for power and beautiful in its exotic swirling dance sequences. An almost mythological atmosphere pervades the film in places.
The story begins when Asoka's grandfather tosses his sword into a waterfall because the sword hungers for blood. As his grandfather leaves, Asoka searches for the sword and finds it.
When he is older his life is in danger. His mother, Dharma (Subhashini Ali), asks him to save his life by fleeing. After changing his name to Pawan, he meets Kaurwaki who is following a similar fate and is hiding out in the lush green countryside with her much younger brother Prince Arya.
Prince Asoka/Pawan (Shah Rukh Khan) and the feisty and sensuous Princess Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor) imagine they have met before and Asoka calls her "my warrior." So romantic!
The story then dives into a crystal pool of the most primal instincts. A man fighting for a woman, a warrior woman fighting for her land. Splashes of color spread out against a pastel blue sky. Swords become a part of the characters as they fight for their lives. There is a reward for finding Kaurwaki as she is the daughter of the king of Kalinga.
When Asoka tells Kaurwaki:
"I couldn't put a price on you. The earth doesn't have enough gold for that."
We know he is going to pay some terrible price for his love. They marry and just as soon as you think this story is going to move in a good direction, Asoka's mother calls him back and he is then sent off on a mission.
"What is this surge of love? Do I drown to experience it? Can you tell what it is? Where could it lead?"
On his return, he is told that his true love is dead. Once convinced, his aggressive nature emerges. He has no reason to live and desires only death. This loss of love seems to make him lust for power as he has lost the influence of Kaurwaki's love. He then ascends the throne of Magadha in the 3rd century BC. When he decides to extend the borders of his empire, he wages a bloody war on Kalinga, a neighboring kingdom.
This review refers to a Widescreen edition. My only complaint was the extent of the violence in places and the subtitles were white and difficult to read at times. If you loved Lagaan, this movie is much more tragic.
The story of Asoka's journey from war to peace. A mingling of intense sensuality with the bitterness of war.
~The Rebecca Review"
Ernie Negus | Portland, OR United States | 07/03/2003
(3 out of 5 stars)
"** SPOILERS AHEAD **If you don't want plot details revealed to you, stop reading NOW! My apologies to any Evelyn Wood Speed-Readers, whose training no doubt kicked in and they already read the rest of this review in a blink.In case you don't know (I admit - I had to look it up), the term "bollywood" is a nickname for Bombay India, where they produce over 600 films a year - a number that puts the real Hollywood to shame.For some reason, reviewers on amazon.com always seem to be much more generous than other sites that have user-submitted reviews. On other sites, like MouthShut and Epinions, most of the reviews on Asoka are generally far less than favorable. Most of these negative reviews complain about historical inaccuracies. For example: 200 BC predates indigo dye, so everyone in that period should have been wearing some shade of brown. Bindusara had many wives and fathered over 100 sons. There is absolutely no evidence that Asoka murdered his brothers, in fact there is evidence that many of his step brothers were generals in his battle campaigns. There was no Princess Kaurwati and he never married her. Yada. Yada. Yada.Some people were even offended by this film, saying that it is blasphemy to suggest that the great Asokas' turning point was due to sorrow over the death of Ayra and the lust for a Kaurwati instead of the disgust over the senseless violence.Well, sorry people, but if I wanted to see a movie where everyone wore drabby looking outfits, but is historically accurate, I'd go to the history channel. This movie IS NOT a documentary. Artistic license flows free!With that said, I'll now clue you in on my REAL gripes about this film. The DVD cover depicts Asoka with an army of extras riding on horseback to battle. This image is obviously there to get guys to rent this movie. But, in actuality, that scene encompasses only about 4% of the entire movie. The other 96% is, more or less, a love story.Which brings me to the actual story... I thought that the story itself was fair to good, and the dance numbers took me by surprise. But, in time, I came to appreciate them if only for the breaks they provided in this emotional rollercoaster of a film. The touches of humor in slow paced parts of the movie helped keep it flowing, but the second half of the movie seemed like a completely different movie from the first half. The overall tone was more forboding and there were fewer song/dance numbers.They used a very low bit-rate when they mastered the film for DVD. This was so they could fit the entire 170 minutes (although the cover of the DVD claimed it was only 150 minutes long - an error that simply reflects poor quality) on a single layer DVD. The result is VHS quality video. They would have been better off presenting the DVD in 2.35:1 instead of 16:9, where the extra black space, that compresses to zero bytes with VBR, would allow a higher bit rate and better overall quality and still be single layer. This would have also fixed a problem where text is truncated on both sides of the screen. Another visual problem that could have been easily fixed was white subtitles over white portions of video were unreadable. They should have used an outline font. I also did not like the way they divided the chapters on the DVD. They divided the chapters by the beginning of each song/dance number instead of time based, so jumping to a scene does not work as expected. This is used by the special features that let you jump to the songs, but the movie keeps playing after the song is through. They could have easily mastered the DVD in such a way that each song had its own chapter, with other chapters based on time."
An unexpected treasure from India
Ernie Negus | 05/23/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I have seen quite a bit of Indian film but none like this. This film was so different from the typical "Bollywood" cinema I was pleasantly take back by it. What was most impressive about the film was the role of Asoka. The character was portrayed with so much dimension and complexity that I felt every bit of his love, pain, loss, anger, and sorrow as I watched. The performance by Shahrukh Khan was amazing, as if he was born to play this role. The beautiful (and brave for the director didn't allow any makeup for the film's heroine, save the henna tatoos) Kaurwaki, portrayed by Kareena Kapoor reflected the female counter part to Asoka. The same intensity and raw passion showed her own journey through love, gain, and loss as Asoka.On first sight, some viewers may be offended by the costumes worn by Kaurwaki (as it is a bit scant) but the actress carries it off well and with dignity making her fit in well with the historical setting of the piece. The beauty and cinematic grandeur of the film was also fantastic to watch. I wish they would have put it in wide-screen however, as it cuts off a lot of the beauty of the landscape. The whole set is kept simple yet beautiful and mesmerizing, making it believable that such an emperor lived and existed at that particular time. The battle scenes were fantastic and one of the finest ever seen. It lacked the goriness of the Gladiator but it conveyed the devastation of war just as strongly. I can go on forever with praises for the film, but I won't. Just buy it or rent it, it's worth it. The complexity of the story, the characters, and the richness of the set and cinematography puts this film on my A list. To top it off the music is beautiful and haunting, wonderfully choreographed, even if you're not into "musicals." The movie isn't a musical but it has the typical Indian film music numbers. The whole movie is pretty serious and conveys a strong message of love and peace, but subtlely so it's not so cliche. Highly recommend it."
Rebecca Johnson | 07/14/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I saw this one on a whim, since at the time I knew nothing about Asoka and very little about Indian movies (Monsoon Wedding being the only exception). And I was blown away by this gorgeous and grim movie, so much so that I had to get my own copy.
It's not like anything else I've seen before. It managed to seamlessly blend a period epic (with battle scenes with an astounding number of extras), a sophisticated political intrigue, an utterly beautiful love story, a spiritual journey, and lush musical numbers.
Yes, musical numbers. If someone told me that an epic, and such a heart-breaking one, would also be a musical, I might have left it on the shelf. Glad I didn't, since the music actually fits wonderfully and doesn't detract but add to the emotion and beauty of the movie.
Overall, this movie has an utterly beautiful look: many, if not most of the frames, would make beautiful stills. But the thing that made me really sit up and take notice were the well-developed characters.
The actors are all good. I was especially enthralled by Shahrukh Khan's performance as Asoka. He can be both charming and utterly ruthless, equally convincing while telling a child a fairy tale, and participating in the slaughter of thousands. And the best are the final moments of the movie, when remorse kicks in. As a past reviewer said: just look at his anguished face. Apparently he is a big star in Bollywood, and if this movie is any indication, I can see why.
Everyone else is also very good, but I must single out Kareena Kappor. Her princess is certainly no damsel in distress, but is both utterly tough and utterly vulnerable at the same time. And very, very beautiful.
So, no doubt about Asoka's 5-star rating for me.
To end this review on a very random note: Never have I thought that teaching someone how to use a sword could ever be sexy. This movie manages....."
Underrated and Brilliant
Sam | 04/14/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is the best hindi movie i have seen for some time.Yes, even better than lagaan.The whole movie is beautifully made and you can see the effort the team has made to make this movie.Those who say that the movie is not historically correct are missing the whole point.if you want history you better watch the discovery channel.
The movie starts with the young prince, Asoka when he escapes from his own kingdom to please his mother who fears for his life from his evil brothers.He wanders around and meets a girl with whom he falls in love.The rest of the film is about his journey on the way to become one of the greatest known emperor of all times.
The movie is basically a love story and is very sensitively handled by the director.Especially the last scene where he gets transformed is enough to bring tears to the eyes.
Santosh Sivan has done tremendous work and he should be proud of it.Kareena Kapoor also has done a great job and by far the best thing she has done uptill now.But the star of the whole show is Shahrukh khan.Those who have earlier criticised his acting will now beat the dust.Along with Dil Se, this film should be a landmark in his career, which shows his growing up as an actor.The way in which he brings Asoka to life should make any actor feel proud.
At the end of the movie,the scene which will remain in my memory is Asoka standing,staring in the sky, rain washing away his tears."