Asoka (India, 2001) Santosh Sivan

June 19, 2008 at 12:30 am

I will not discuss the plot of Asoka here, as it is summarized very nicely at the Wikipedia article about the film. It is sufficient to say that the story is based on a real historical personality who lived in the 3rd century B.C., a warrior king from the Mauryan dynasty who was committed to spreading the Buddhist teachings, who united various groups and made secured the prosperity of his kingdom in India. Made by Shah Rukh Khan’s production outfit, relying exclusively on Indian talent, and starring Shah Rukh Khan as the controversial protagonist and Kareena Kapoor as his love interest, the film focuses mostly on Asoka’s formative years. It is scripted, directed and shot by acclaimed cameraman Santosh Sivan, and features beautiful cinematography (including location filming in Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajastan and Maharashtra), a memorable musical score, and impressive scenes of epic battles and lone endeavors.

Released in the same year as Lagaan (2001), Asoka was the second Indian film of epic scope to make inroads into UK’s mainstream film culture in a year which, with a wealth of other events, proved crucial for the advancement of Indian diasporic culture in the West. Here it opened in October 2001 on 76 screens, in the widest release for an Indian film up to that point, and made half a million pounds within the first three weeks. Distributed by First Look, the widest release the film got in the USA was on 66 screens, making a total of about $700,000 theatrically. It played at theaters in a number of other territories, including India, South Africa, the Middle East, and Egypt; it was shown at festivals as well, but not very prominently. Even though there are no data on the auxiliary distribution, the DVD is widely available in the UK and the USA, as well as in Germany, France, and Japan. The low price of the DVD in the UK (at £6) suggests that it is priced for a mass release. Asoka has also been shown on TV in China.

The wide international release resulted in a number of reviews that appeared in the West, written either by professional or amateur critics. In the context of Asoka‘s discussion, the film has been cross-referenced to Cimarron (1931), Ivan the Terrible (1944), Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), Camelot (1967), Tinto Brass’ Caligola (1979), Braveheart (1995), the Japanese Rurôni Kenshin: Meiji kenkaku roman tan: Tsuioku hen (1999), Gladiator (2000), Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot (2000), and Alexander (2004) — most of these sagas of lonesome warriors who persisted in their visions, but also films that attracted audiences transnationally. The Indian references are to Utsav (1984) and Agni Varsha (2002), apparently there are not too many epic films here are based on real historical characters.

The other commentary found in the reviews, however, is by far more interesting: as Asoka was one of the pioneering non-Western epics to get a wide release, it triggered some sincere and somewhat wide-eyed reactions, like the one from the writer who admit that he is familiar with Asoka mostly as a restaurant name. Excellent reviews appeared at Teleport City and Flak Magazine, both framing the commentary on Asoka with reflections on the writers’ process of overcoming Western cultural bias and inadequacy.

Most of the mainstream reviews are simply geared to preparing the potential viewers what to expect, asking them to suspend conventions of genre and style, relax and try enjoying the film. Acting may be overdone (a viewer remarks that she found ‘rather indigestible idea of Shah Rukh Khan in the role of a great emperor’), the film may be fairly melodramatic, the length excessive, the musical numbers punctuating the narrative — unusual, the comedy subplots — stupefying. And yet, it is worth seeing it, critics insisted. Covering Asoka for the BBC, Neil Smith’s review talks of a ‘big sprawling epic’, and promises that viewers would find it invigorating, only if they manage to leave their prejudices at the box office. Clearly operating with a pretty homogeneous view of who is the audience (presumably white, Western born and educated), the recommendation read: ‘To an audience reared on mainstream American product,’ — Smith writes — ‘this rich mix of action, romance, comedy, and drama may be hard to swallow in one sitting. A swordfight will segue into a song, a battle will be interspersed with slapstick humor, and a movie that started off as a whimsical romance may wind up as an overblown tragedy.’ Another UK critic remarked that even though Asoka has been screening at the mainstream chain ‘Odeon’, the publicity on the film is non-existent; he doubts it if the chain is likely to keep it running for a longer time. (This presence at the mainstream theater in the context of absence of any media mentions is typical for many similar releases of non-Western epics).

Trade magazine Variety, on the other hand, covers the new releases for a readership of distributors and exhibitors in the West, so their reviews are normally expected to assess a film’s commercial potential. Here is an excerpt of David Rooney’s review of Asoka in Variety, who assesses the film as an ‘entertaining saga’:

‘”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 […] 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.’

In an article entitled Asoka, Afghanistan and Horrors of War, appearing on South Asian Women’s Forum on 12 November 2001, Indian playwright Sunny Singh gives quite a different reception account. It is not clear if she is seeing the film in India or in Afgnanistan (she is either there at the time, or has just returned from a visit). Talking of her viewing experience, she links her reaction to Asoka to present-day violence, to the political context in which she lives, and talks of the film from a completely different perspective yet framing it within a similar set of references (‘the film seemed to combine the best of world filmmaking, with the editing of a Tarantino, subtlety of a Kurosawa and the lush, hyper-real aesthetics of our very own Bollywood. If the kalari sequences were reminescent of a “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the philosophical moorings were far more profound. If cinematographically, the war sequences reminded one of “Braveheart,” the emotional devastation was clearly rooted in our own ideals of ahimsa. I have to say, Bollywood has come of age this year: with “Lagaan,” “Dil Chahta Hai” and now “Asoka,” transforming the idiom of the commercial Hindi film, and paving the way to truly memorable cinema.’) What I find particularly interesting about this type of account is that it powerfully brings into the reception discourse an angle that has traditionally been ignored or excluded, and a voice that has usually been silenced.

© Dina Iordanova
19 June 2008