The Emperor's new clothes
The story of Asoka, the emperor who embarked on a mission of peace and atonement, is powerful and timeless. And so, Santhosh Sivan's `Asoka' could have been a great film. But the result is an uneven, visually exciting experiment with too much mixing of elements.
Shah Rukh Khan as the emperor Asoka in the period film "Asoka".
SANTHOSH SIVAN has said that with "Asoka", he wanted to make a commercial film, not a festival film. "Asoka" has also been called a crossover film. Perhaps that is where the problem lies in all the labels. The question is not really whether "Asoka" has turned out to be the "Crouching Tiger", "Hidden Dragon" of the year, because "Asoka" could have been so much more.
How one wishes that our better film-makers would just go ahead and make not a commercial film or a festival film, but exactly the film they want to make no more, no less. Without compromises or concessions.
Sivan's film asks: whose destiny is greater than that of the emperor? As valid a question for the violent times we live in as for this Third Century B.C. tale of war and peace. The man thing seems to be to go to war, whether in Kalinga or in Afghanistan, while the women Asoka's mother, his wife and his lover long for peace. Sadly, this philosophy of compassion does not really get the complex treatment it deserves in the film. It is worth looking at the story and treatment again to search for answers.
Asoka begins as an impulsive and hotheaded young prince (Shahrukh Khan) who leaves the kingdom, dressed as a commoner, at his mother (Subhashini Ali) Dharma's behest, temporarily, at least, forsaking his claim to the Mauryan kingdom of Magadha. He chances upon the tribal lovely, Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor with kohl-lined eyes) under what else but a waterfall, in what Shobha De has noted as a very "Liril" moment, and the child-prince Arya, played cloyingly by Suraj Balaje.
But suddenly Asoka's mother sends for him, and he must return to Magadha. He promises Kaurwaki that he will return. Meanwhile the Kalingan army chief, Bheem (played interestingly by Rahul Dev in dreadlocks), escorts Kaurwaki and Arya back to Kalinga. Asoka, thinking that Kaurwaki is dead, and driven almost mad by grief, lands up in a Buddhist centre under the ministrations of Devi (Hrishitaa Bhatt).
The web of intrigue around the throne continues to grow, and it is the murder of Asoka's mother by his brother Susim (Ajit, pleasing even sans stubble) that triggers his bloodthirsty quest for revenge. A quest that not only leaves his brothers dead but also continues to grow tentacles, reaching out to swallow new territories and lives. Finally the inexorable march of Asoka's armies takes them to Kalinga, where one of the Magadhan royal brothers is taking shelter. The Kalingan court has given him shelter against Asoka's fratricidal thirst. There must be war. Kalingan women fight alongside their men, but they are outnumbered against the Magadhan hordes, and even though Kaurwaki and, finally, young Arya, come to the battlefield, the end of the bloody war is defeat for Kalinga.
Asoka himself, who has come to lead his men against Kalinga, stands on the cold, quiet battlefield, surveying the aftermath. He must turn over the corpses of women on the battlefield to see if any of the faces is that of Kaurwaki. The horror of war finally begins to hit him. He covers his nostrils to keep the stench out and moves on from corpse to corpse. A dying Kalingan soldier reaches for a drink of water; when Asoka bends down to give it to him, the dying soldier pushes him away. He will not quench his thirst with water from Asoka's murderous hands.
The story of Asoka, the emperor who embarked on a mission of peace and atonement, is powerful and timeless. It is a story of passion and peace, of war and wisdom. And so, Sivan's "Asoka" could have been a great film. It could have been a testament to the horror of war and the need for love and compassion. It could have been a compelling depiction of the traditional notions of virility and masculinity juxtaposed with the desire of women that of Asoka's mother Dharma, his wife Devi and of Kaurwaki for peace, compassion and non-violence. Dharma, after all, forces Asoka to leave the kingdom and make peace with is brothers by taking a vow of silence. Devi warns her husband that he will never see his child if he continues to kill and she keeps her word, leaving for an undisclosed location. Kaurwaki keeps her word and waits for her lover but when he does not return, she fulfils her responsibility to her brother and to the kingdom of Kalinga. And when it becomes necessary, she takes up her sword to defend Kalinga on the battlefield. While the women's roles have been depicted with nuances and texture, Shahrukh's Asoka is all bluster and mannerism, with no depth. Except for the nosebleeds and the mudbaths, he is the same Shahrukh of every other movie that he has acted in. The film leaves its many complex moments unexplored and disjointed, choosing to pitch it as a love story instead of an epic tale of war and peace.
It is an uneven film, visually exciting but intellectually no more challenging than caramel popcorn. Cinematically, the tale could have had the force of a Greek tragedy with the prince dressed as a commoner, the passion, the chance missing of paths, the coincidences, the tragic build up, the dark end and the renunciation. But the gaps and weaknesses of the script trivialise the story, and we never really understand Asoka's conversion from a man of war to a leader of peace. Visually, too, this crossover thing has been overdone: there is too much mixing of elements, from Kerala lamps and sarees and Kathakali to Egyptian body art and vivid tribal colours. Sivan's work for Kerala tourism seems to have travelled with him into this work too. As for his mastery of light and shadow, there are moments when the camera lingers solong on the water, the landscape, or the woman's face that it becomes an effete indulgence.
Anu Malik's derivative compositions are light and forgettable. It is Sivan's biggest directorial effort to date, but I must say that I enjoyed his earlier efforts much more. This has happened to other talented directors as well, from Govind Nihalani with "Thakshak" to Shyam Benegal with "Zubeidaa". Somehow the desire to make a splashy mainstream film seems to undo their creative effort. Behind the camera, for "Roja", "Dil Se","Iruvar", Sivan was splendid; in the director's chair, with "Halo" and "Terrorist", he showed a rare originality. "Terrorist", a visual delight, was also a thought-provoking and tragic. And ah, "Halo"! I look at my cherished copy of the "Halo" video, for which I paid less than the price of our tickets for "Asoka" and I think "Halo" is a much better film. A simple story of a child who loses her puppy and begins to search for him, "Halo" succeeds because it comes straight from the heart. It shows us how the Mumbai rains look, how the sea face looks, and how life looks. It is the film that the filmmaker just wanted to make, and that is why it works, while "Asoka" does not quite.
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