A complete shift in style and genre from his acclaimed 1998 feature, “The Terrorist” (a contemporary drama shot largely in intense closeups), Indian director-cinematographer Santosh Sivan’s “Asoka” is a sprawling widescreen historical epic laced with Bollywood musical numbers, melodramatic romance, spectacular locations and violent battle scenes. Opening Oct. 26 on the Hindi circuit in key international markets, this entertaining saga chronicles the odyssey of a young monarch in 3rd century B.C., whose journey of betrayal, love, power, war, victory and tragic loss leads him to spiritual enlightenment. Coming on the heels of Ashutosh Gowariker’s “Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India,” “Asoka” provides further evidence that Bollywood is poised for wider commercial impact beyond its already substantial established niche. And while the ambling, uneconomical nature of popular Indian storytelling makes major crossover business unlikely in this case, some degree of general arthouse attention appears indicated.
World-premiered in Venice in the director’s cut at just over 2½ hours, the film also exists in a longer producer’s version, reportedly with three more songs. While narrative long-windedness makes for a sluggish midsection prior to the final act’s battle, the reintegration of excised musical numbers and removal of narrative flab could perhaps give the central reels the lift they need.
The third emperor of the Mauryan dynasty, who made Magadha the most powerful and prosperous kingdom in India during his reign, Asoka is best remembered for his mission to spread the teachings of Buddha throughout Asia. Since little is known of the monarch-monk prior to his conversion to Buddhism, Sivan and co-scripter Saket Chaudhary have fleshed out a fictionalized romantic fairy tale around the historical frame.
Action chronicles key chapters in the life of Asoka (Shah Rukh Khan), as ambitious aspirant to the throne, humble traveler, passionate lover, decisive ruler, mighty conqueror and, finally, peace messenger.
Opening act focuses on court intrigue as the prince’s enemies jostle for the throne. Rather than endanger his life in a duel, Asoka’s mother persuades him to go into exile, hiding his royal identity and masquerading as a common soldier. He meets and falls in love with Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor), a fellow royal runaway from the neighboring kingdom of Kalinga, raised as a princess but in reality an orphan taken in by the king. When Asoka is called back to Magadha, Kaurwaki and the young prince in her charge (Suraj Balaje) hide out in a village attacked by marauders. Returning to find no trace of her, Asoka believes Kaurwaki dead.
His heart hardened, he returns again to Magadha and marries a Buddhist girl (Hrishitaa Bhatt). Forced to deal with the treachery of his brother and his co-conspirators, Asoka ignores the urging of his pacifist bride, ruthlessly eliminating his enemies to become a powerful ruler.
In the eventful final section, Asoka goes to war for the unclaimed tribal lands surrounding Magadha, eventually clashing with the Kalinga army in a bloody battle. He finds the dying Kaurwaki among corpses littering the field, his remorse compelling him to embrace a new path.
While pace is uneven, the story unfolds in a solidly accessible style, driven by Sivan’s muscular camerawork and dynamic visual sense and by editor Shreekar Prasad’s agile cutting. Production values are highly polished. Romantic scenes are suitably overripe, battles are staged with bold assurance and the colorful, imaginative musical interludes are a delight, although the fact that all three of them come in the first half of the film creates an imbalance.
Khan cuts a dashing figure as a soulful hunk in the traditional Bollywood mold, while Kapoor plays ornately tattooed Kaurwaki as a lively mix of flirtatious coquette and feisty warrior woman, kind of like J. Lo meets Michelle Yeoh.