Friday, July 18, 2008

Review – Asoka

July 19, 2008

Asoka – India, 2001

If there was one story that screamed not to be made into a musical, it was probably Asoka. After all, what is the purpose of putting music and lyrics to the story of the emperor who first dedicated his life to bloodshed and the pursuit of both revenge and power and later abandoned violence and officially adopted and helped spread Buddhism? But there the musical numbers are, and what strange spectacles they are. In the first, a woman dressed in traditional clothes, and in what appears to be short jeans in one scene, sings while she is dancing and waving a silk head scarf while on a green field. Blink and she’s being drenched by an odd unnatural waterfall, which has the affect of making her more of a Bond-girl than a heroin. In a flash, she is swimming and splashing water on her face in an entirely different outfit. Certainly not the image that I think of when someone says “Buddhism.” In another song, a young dancer who has no relevance to the plot whatsoever sings, “What is this surge of love? Do I drown to experience it?” The woman even swings on a rope while being surrounded by a throng of chiseled shirtless dancing young men. What’s the relevance of the scene? None, as far as I can tell. In fact, the scenes were so poorly coordinated and out of place that fifteen minutes into the film, I had thoughts of turning it off. It took a while for that idea to completely dissipate.

Asoka tells the story of Prince Asoka (Shah Rukh Khan), the man credited with single-handedly leading India away from violence and toward Buddhism. The film details the events leading up to this transformation. It begins as the Prince’s father, Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, having devoted his life to Jainism, is abdicating his throne, his kingdom, and his people. His son Asoka decides he wants to keep a powerful sword, but his father, explaining that the sword only wants blood, throws it into a river. In perhaps one of the most obvious cases of foreshadowing on celluloid, Asoka retrieves the sword, begins swinging it and at one point raises it straight up into the air, as if he is attempting to turn into He-Man. The sword slips out of his hand and kills a few baby birds, thus proving his father’s words to have been true.

As time passes, a civil war erupts, pitting Asoka against his brothers in a battle for the throne. You can tell when something important is going to happen, such as an assassination attempt, because the director begins to use slow-motion to make sure we see every detail. Soon Asoka’s on a rampage, his army waging battle after battle. He gets so out of control that his mother threatens to take a vow of silence if he doesn’t leave the city, a request to which he reluctantly acquiesces. Once out of the city and away from his wealth, soldiers, and power, he becomes a different person. First, he changes his name to Pawan. In addition, he becomes charitable and compassionate, even performing manual labor and talking aloud to animals. However, perhaps his biggest change is his embrace of humor and cheesy pick-up lines (such as "Do you not think we have met before?"), which he can’t seem to stop trying to impress one particular woman with.

That woman is Princess Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor). When she meets Asoka, she and her brother, the young descendent of the Kalinga throne, are on the run after the assassination of their parents. She resists Asoka attempts to woo her and regards him with a bit of disdain, as if he were below her social ranking. Asoka will not be denied, though, and he soon finds himself following the two of them, coming to their aid several times, and finally finding his way into her heart. This is only the first part of the movie; however, up to this point, I must say that the film has been predictable, silly, and full of horrible, MTV-style musical numbers. That changes quickly.

Asoka quickly turns into a tense action-adventure drama that weaves several stories at once, from political intrigue to revenge, from marriage to religious acceptance. Gone are the musical numbers and embarrassing attempts at flirtation. In their place is a tense, compact picture that only returns to world of the illogical in its closing moments. As the second part of the film progresses, Asoka is increasingly pulled between aggression and peace, with the former winning the day many times. In fact, it seems that only Kaurwaki has the power to pacify his belligerent tendencies, and her absence sends Asoka on a rampage that will cost him his only friend Virat and make widows out of hundreds of women. It gets so bad for Asoka that even a dying man refuses to accept water from him. Nevertheless, we know that sooner or later Asoka will see the light. How do we know this? Because a half an hour into the movie a monk told Asoka that his destiny transcended the throne, and if a monk predicts it, you can be sure it will happen by the closing credits.

Asoka is far from a perfect film, yet its second half redeems it and makes it a much stronger film than the first part would lead someone to expect it to be. Asoka is an interesting character. However, the heart of the film is the two women in Asoka’s life, Kaurwaki and Devi, both of whom try their upmost to protect Asoka from himself. Kaurwaki determination is truly touching, and Devi’s realization that she cannot curve Asoka’s blood-thirsty nature and the decisions she makes after this realization are indeed heartrending. Asoka is ultimately a mixed-bag, but the film’s second half does indeed make it worth watching. (on DVD)

2 and a half stars

*Asoka is in Hindi with English subtitles.

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