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Asoka (2001)

    He was a brave prince, an obedient son, a lover, a husband, a father, an ambitious king and more importantly, a man who won everything
    only to lose it in his search for eternal peace.
        -Santosh Sivan

Unfortunately, this otherwise terrific movie ends just at the point where Asoka loses it all, which is actually when he became a truly important figure in world history.  Though the events of his life are somewhat sketchy, we know that Asoka was a great leader of India in the third century B.C.--he seems to have lived from about 299 to 232 B.C.  The grandson of the Mauryan Emperor Chandragupta, who was one of the earliest patrons of Buddhism, when Asoka took the throne he led a savage military campaign which eventually united much of India and even extended as far as Afghanistan.  But after the particularly brutal conquest of the state of Kalinga, Asoka was consumed by remorse and gave up his warrior ways, devoting himself instead to the spread of Buddhism, which he achieved by bringing some uniformity to Buddhist edicts, sending out missionaries across much of Asia, the Middle East, and even into North Africa, and by having Buddhist maxims inscribed on stones and pillars that were then placed along main routes of the kingdom and along its borders.  Though the Mauryan dynasty and the vast kingdom he had forged did not survive long after his death, Asoka is credited with transforming Buddhism from a secondary sect into one of the world's major religions.

The appeal of such a story to a filmmaker is obvious, what with its combination of warfare and religious awakening.  Add in certain legends concerning his great love for the Princess Kaurwaki and you've got romance to add to the action and drama.  As if that's not enough, tack on the big musical numbers and the leisurely three hour pace that characterizes Bollywood and we're talking mega-epic.  Try to imagine Jerry Bruckheimer producing a collaboration between Baz Luhrmann and David Lean and you'll be nearly prepared to watch the movie.

The movie is basically divided into three acts.  It opens with Asoka as a boy, watching his grandfather cast a great sword into a river.  Asoka asks him why he does such a thing and is told that it is a demon blade, which demands blood whenever it is drawn.  Asoka fishes it from the water and discovers, to his own horror, the truth of these words.  Having grown into a willful and violent young man, Asoka represents a threat to his stepbrothers in their quest for the thrown and they try repeatedly to have him murdered.  By threatening to take a vow of silence otherwise, Asoka's mother forces him to flee the capital and hide out, incognito, in the countryside.  It's there that he meets Kaurwaki, who, along with her princely younger brother, is likewise fleeing dynastic mayhem in Kalinga.  The young couple alternately woo and war with one another until the fates split them apart.  Whether because of this separation, which Asoka comes to believe must signal Kaurwaki's death, or because it is his nature, Asoka embarks on his fratricidal path to the throne and the horrific wars that won him a vast kingdom.  Eventually though, confrontations with a loyal retainer before the battle with Kalinga and with Kaurwaki and her brother after the battle show Asoka the misery he has wrought and the monster he has become.  A few scant lines of text tell us the rest of the story before the credits roll.

Shahrukh Khan makes for a charismatic and soulful Asoka. Kareena Kapoor, daughter of one of India's great film families (I guess she'd be their Drew Barrymore?), is a captivating Kaurwaki.  Their tentative love affair consumes the long middle section of the film, before providing the tragic final impetus for Asoka's conversion.  It would seem to have made more dramatic sense to continue on with final act about Asoka's spiritual work, since that's what he's remembered for and since it would complete the arc of the film.  I guess though that the rather oppressive atmosphere of Hindu nationalism in India is such that it is somewhat risky to celebrate other religions in the way that this more natural storytelling would have entailed.  The only other quarrel I have with the film is that, on video at least, it was a little bit washed out and the subtitles were white and nearly impossible to read against a light background.  Hopefully at some point the film will get the quality transfer that it warrants.


Grade: (A)


See also:

(2 movies reviewed)
    -FILM SITE : Asoka
    -INFO : Asoka (2001) (
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Santosh Sivan (Imdb)
    -Santosh Sivan
    -INTERVIEW : An interview with the director, Santosh Sivan, and leading actress, Ayesha Dharkar, of The Terrorist (David Walsh, 9 October, 1998, World Socialist Web Site)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Shahrukh Khan (Imdb)
    -INTERVIEW : with Shahrukh Khan (Taran Adarsh, India FM)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Kareena Kapoor (Imdb)
    -REVIEW : of Asoka (Santosh Sinha, BBC)
    -REVIEW : of Asoka (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Asoka (Philip French, The Observer)
    -REVIEW : of Asoka (Neil Smith, BBC)
    -REVIEW : of Asoka (Neil Norman, This is London)
    -REVIEW : of Asoka (Benjamin Arnoldy, Flak)
    -REVIEW : of Asoka (Anusha Samir Gill, Planet Bollywood)
    -REVIEW : of Asoka (Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall)
    -REVIEW : of Asoka (Rachel Dwyer, Sight and Sound)
    -REVIEW : of Asoka (Ian Waldron-Mantgani , UK Critic)
    -REVIEW : of Asoka (123India)
    -REVIEW : of Asoka (The Wolf, InsideOut)
    -REVIEW : of Asoka (MTV India)
    -REVIEW : of Asoka (Lee Broughton, DVD Savant)
    -REVIEW : of Asoka (Suruchi Thakur, Bollywood)

    -The Edicts of King Asoka (Urban Dharma)
    -KING ASHOKA: His Edicts and His Times (An English rendering by Ven. S. Dhammika)
    -Asoka (c.273?c.232 B.C.) (The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition.  2001)
    -Asoka (Learning Network)
    -Asoka (Graeme Lyall)
    -Asoka c.299 BC - 237 (HyperHistory)
    -The History of Asoka
    -Asoka ca. 322-185 BC (Robin Trautman)
    -ARTICLE :   Asoka statues unearthed in India : The statues may give an idea of what Asoka really looked like (Nageshwar Patnaik, 9 November, 2001, BBC)
    -ARTICLE : Asoka was born atop a train (Tanmaya Kumar Nanda, Rediff)
    -ARTICLE :  Indian film rocks the world : As Bollywood films like Asoka start to invade the Western market, BBC News Online's Rob White spoke to two leading lights of Indian cinema (BBC, 6 November, 2001)
    -ARTICLE :  His Holiness Dalai Lama to preview Asoka (Yahoo, October 8, 2001)
    -Asoka Tour (BBC Asian Network)
    -Rediff Guide : Asoka