Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Asoka: A Santosh Sivan Picture

Released heavy on the heels of that other, better-known period film from 2001, Asoka was one of the first Bollywood films I ever saw. I had no idea at the time of its flop status at the box office or who any of the actors were or its importance as a product of Shahrukh’s ill-fated Dreamz Unlimited production company. All I knew was that I liked it. A lot. And since I’ve been reading Nathan Rabin’s book on re-evaluating flop films, I thought it might be worth taking another look at some major Bollywood flops and the first one that came to mind was Asoka.

(Some spoilers ahead as far as general plot goes but since the film is based on history, hopefully that won’t discourage you from reading.)

Asoka was the result of a collaboration between Malayalam auteur Santosh Sivan and Bollywood box office king Shahrukh. The two men, coming from very different places in the Hindi film industry, had ended up thrown together on the sets of Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se - Santosh as the cinematographer and Shahrukh as the lead actor. They apparently got along like gangbusters and, as the story goes, Santosh and Shahrukh were sitting atop a freight train on set when Santosh narrated the idea for Asoka. Santosh had been fascinated by the story of the emperor Ashoka since his school days, when his teacher would spin yarns of the war-enthusiast Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism after witnessing the messy aftermath of a battle. And, after seeing Shahrukh’s fearless dance on top of the moving train (for the song “Chaiya Chaiya,”) Santosh knew he had found his emperor.

Shahrukh was Ashoka. The trouble for Shahrukh was that audiences only wanted to see him as the yuppie romantic lover-boy. But Shahrukh had (and still has) a strong creative drive that wanted something more. And he banded together with friend and frequent co-star Juhi Chawla and director Aziz Mirza to form a production company to finance these creative urges; it was called Dreamz Unlimited. As Shahrukh puts it:

The logic of Dreamz Unlimited is not to make money but to make different films and to make sure not to lose money. We should not have to sell our houses to run the company. So when I decided to join hands with Aziz and Juhi for Dreamz Unlimited I was very clear that the company should be self-reliant. I was not aiming to be the biggest film producer in the world but I wanted that we should be able to make our kind of films without being dependant on producers who were not like-minded.

Their first production, the darkly comic and political
Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani starring Shahrukh and Juhi - with cinematography by Santosh, was a flop. With money already sunk into the business they had to make a decision - make something safe or stay true to their ideals; go big or go home. Dreamz Unlimited decided to put their money in their dreamz and decided to fund Santosh’s dream project on Ashoka. The project would combine Santosh’s artistic and philosophical vision with Shahrukh’s desire to provide quality entertainment while not losing money.

And they did believe in the film. Juhi and Shahrukh believed in it enough to sink money into distributing it overseas to non-traditional markets. And one can almost see the specter of recently launched Hrithik Roshan nipping at King Khan’s heels as he ventures to conquer the world - and win the
Cola Wars.

Going in with those kinds of expectations,
Asoka is a different film from the one I saw so many years ago but I still enjoyed it just as much.

Asoka is a fairy tale that uses history as a touchstone. Set in an ancient time of swords, horses, and valiant battles, the film follows Ashoka (Shahrukh Khan), the bastard son of the king of Magadha. He seems destined to take the throne, which spurs the legitimate heir (Ajit) to try to kill Ashoka at every opportunity - always through duplicitious means. Unfortunately for the wimpy legitmate heir, Ashoka is an allaround badass who would prefer to just fight it out. And unfortunately for Ashoka, all of this politicking through violence upsets his mother who blackmails her son into leaving the kingdom to roam around aimlessly and live a “normal life.”

On hiatus from fighting for his life, Ashoka discovers such novel things as “human emotions” and “friendship.” While undercover he befriends a burly barbarian named Virat (Danny Denzongpa) and falls in love with the fierce Princess Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor), who is on the run from some assassins with her brother Aryan (Sooraj Balaji, Mohanlal’s nephew) and top general Bheema (Rahul Dev.) Kaurwaki falls in love right back and the two are married in secret. But before Ashoka can tell Kaurwaki the truth about his identity, he is summoned back to his kingdom by a messanger, who tells him that his mother is sick.

This second deception is the monkey wrench which sends Ashoka on a downward spiral. While he is away, Kaurwaki and Aryan are attacked and Ashoka is led to believe they have died. In his grief, Ashoka goes on a conquering spree that is only separated from a murderous rampage by the slimmest of lines. Meanwhile, Kaurwaki and Aryan are trying to find the man they thought Ashoka really was. Eventually Bheema begs Kaurwaki and Aryan to return to their kingdom, because he has discovered who sent the assassins. Ashoka pauses from conquering long enough to get married to a Buddhist girl named Devi (model Hrishitaa Bhatt.)

The final act culminates, as it must, with Ashoka’s army trying to conquer Kaurwaki’s territory - Ashoka not knowing Kaurwaki is still alive and Kaurwaki not know Ashoka’s true identity. After a spectacularly staged battle scene with literally thousands of extras and elephants and horses, Ashoka, who has finally realized the truth, wanders the battlefield in a daze - feeling the full shame of what he has done. What has he won in victory but the tears of widows? It’s at this moment he becomes enlightened and renounces his violent ways.

Mixed into this epic story of unrepressed anger and forbidden love are two sultry item songs and some light Shakespearean-style comic relief in the form of three soldiers played by comedic actors Johnny Lever, Raghuvir Yadav, and Suresh Menon.

As a synthesis of art house and popular entertainment,
Asoka works quite well and the tone hits somewhere between Shakespeare and Salim-Javed. The film is neither too melodramatic nor too bogged down in political intrigue. Even though the film clocks in at just under 3 hours, Santosh keeps the narrative tightly focused on what the audience is interested in - Shahrukh Khan as Ashoka. We do not get an elaborate 30 minutes of set-up, like the progression of moustaches and unfamiliar names that bogged down Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Jodhaa-Akbar, and we don’t get caught up in side-plots, comedic or otherwise. Johnny Lever is used only in the smallest of doses, a chance to breathe between battles. Likewise, Kareena Kapoor is given outfits that are flattering but functional - no Red Sonja style chainmail bikinis found here. And the colorful songs are integrated in extremely well.

So, where was the disconnect?
Asoka was reviewed quite well by the foreign press but both Indian critics and Indian audiences turned away. (Check out Taran Adarsh’s majorly spoiler-filled review for an example of what the media was saying. Don't read the last paragraphs of it if you haven't seen the film.)

I’m guessing that part of the reason is timing.
Asoka has a bleak message, despite all the bells and whistles. “War is awful” is a tricky message and the public needs to be in the right frame of mind to embrace a tragedy. Think of the other films released that year. Lagaan sent us out of the theater feeling high on life; Dil Chahta Hai inspired us to find meaning in modern life; and we can’t forget that Sunny Deol provided easy thrills with two big hits that year. Just a couple of months after Asoka failed to make an impression at the box office, a glossy upper-class family tale titled Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham began its relentless march to the top of the box office charts. A nation that embraced the jingoistic Gadar does not want to feel guilty about the bodies strewn about by Sunny Deol.

And it’s not just the message that was out of sync, audiences were not ready for this kind of dark role from Shahrukh Khan. Post-interval in
Ashoka he is cruel and calculating and cold - behavior made worse when contrasted against the softer, more familiar Shahrukh of the first half. I’ll fully admit that it took me a few minutes to accept Shahrukh as a warrior prince. His persona as the yuppie loverboy has become entrenched over the years and I have to wonder what Shahrukh’s career would have looked liked if this had been the film that succeeded and K3G had been the flop.

One of the reasons that I find myself so turned off by the Shahrukh of today is that he seems to have completely given into the
filmi machinery. There is no longer that spark of - let’s make quality films that don’t lose money. Dreamz Unlimited gave way to Red Chillies, which is in the business of pandering to everybody in order to make lots of money - and it just seems more and more like this attitude is killing him. It makes me sad to see Shahrukh all tired and thin trying desperately to find what audiences will like next. Ashoka wouldn’t have let Karan Johar make the decisions for My Name Is Khan. Can you even imagine how monumental a Dreamz Unlimited version of that film could have been? As it is, Shahrukh is so believable as the vicious Ashoka that it makes me even more sad that he felt straight-jacketed into romantic roles for the next 10 years. Don seems even more pathetic and campy after seen Ashoka place a blood-covered hand over his pregnant wife’s belly.

Although Shahrukh dominates the screen, the other actors are all given time to shine. Kareena is all youthful energy as the warrior princess Kaurwaki. Her outfits got a lot of flack in the media for being too revealing but, honestly, that controversy seems rather quaint in the era of the bikini bod. Danny Denzongpa, always a welcome face, lends an air of camaraderie to his scenes with Shahrukh. Rahul Dev is all angsty nose and good intentions. Hrishitaa Bhatt is okay - I found her a bit too cloying but that might have been the character. Ajit is fantastic and super-sleazy as the impotent (code for something?) brother. Finally, the child actor playing Aryan was really good. There is one scene in particular where he and Kareena are waiting to watch some soldiers walk past and this kid just gets this expression on his face that projects an air of stern authority. I wonder where he is now.

I haven’t mentioned them yet but the make-up, costuming, and set design were all great. The one thing I would complain about is that Shahrukh’s hair looks really ratty when it’s kept long but, again, that could have been a deliberate choice. I don’t suppose many warrior-kings had genuinely silky clean flowing locks.

You’ve read my text, now have some pictures!

The film opens with a young Ashoka talking to some baby birds. His grandfather is giving up the throne and joining a religious sect. Ashoka is afraid that everybody will leave him.

Ashoka's grandfather throws his sword into a stream saying, "It sees only blood. Just blood." Ashoka doesn't understand the power of those words and fetches the sword when nobody is looking.

Prophetically, the first thing he does with it is accidentally kill the birds.

An uncertain number of years later, he hasn't learned his lesson. Now, look at the Shahrukh here - so vibrant and full of energy. Now think of Shahrukh as we saw him on his video blog looking tired and defeated and weep for him.

Here a scene that really captures just how different Shahrukh can be from his Raj/Rahul persona. Ashoka is bathing in the river; his awful brother sends an assassin to kill him; no way is Ashoka letting that happen.

Ashoka sneaks up behind the assassin.

And then dunks him underwater until he'll talk.

And then maneuvers him so that the assassin takes the arrow from the second assassin.

"Where did that arrow come from?"

He checks all around.

This is the money shot right here - he feints! Playacting that he's been shot in order to draw the second assassin out.

It doesn't work but he's still wary.

Ajit! He was so gleefully slimy as the heir. Towards the end of the film he gets all pale and sweaty, looking like he's going to puke from stress at any time.

Subhashini Ali as Ashoka's mother. I hated her character, she does some really heinous emotional manipulation that causes Ashoka some trouble later on.

Rahul Dev... oh, Rahul Dev!

Danny Denzongpa is always a welcome face!

Comic relief from Johnny Lever and co. was done with a light touch.

This kid was fantastic as Aryan.

Hrishitaa Bhatt in the role that today would have gone to Prachi Desai - Devi the wife is cloying and way too manicured.

And then there is Bebo main Bebo...!

Her introductory song is so sweet and innocent...

...and then by the end of the film, she is beheading dudes on the battlefield.


I mean, what would you do if you spied a bathing Bebo?

These two share some great chemistry. It's hard to believe that just a couple months later, Bebo would be branded as the simpering Poo and Shahrukh would be the manicured Rahul.

(Ladies and certain gentlemen, you know you love the eyebrow raise right there.)

Look, forget Poo, Kaurwaki will cut you if she has to and it takes more than playing a guitar that's not plugged into anything to win her over.


The final showdown is pretty brutal...

And then the result.

What did Ashoka win? At what price glory?

It was poignant to me when I saw it ten years ago and it's even more poignant now. I understand why Asoka failed to do bumper business at the box office but the film has matured like a fine wine and it's worth revisiting or even visiting for the first time.


invisibelle said...

I barely remember this movie, but I still really like that one Kareena song. It's cute, and I've considered many times that if I have a daughter I might name her Kavita. It always makes me think of that line - "Aakash hai koi prem kavi, main uski likhi kavita" - the sky is a poet, I am his poem.

maxqnz said...

I enjoyed the movie and LOVED Bebo in it, but was very disappointed in the choice of Asokas. I mean Chand Ashoka was the boring one - gaining an empire by bloodthirsty brutality is yawnfest of a tale, told countless times through countless millennia. KEEPING an Empire as Dharm Ashoka, now THERE'S an interesting story worth telling - AND it would be a challenge to the film maker, without all the action bits to 'spice it up'

Ness said...

I only saw this recently, and I really enjoyed it. I especially agree with your assessment of the change in SRK - Asoka may not have been a perfect film or a box office smash, but I think it's one that he can look back on and feel proud of - at least creatively. Totally with you on the Dreamz Unlimited version of MNIK - that would be something.

Filmi Girl said...

@invisibelle That Kareena song is cute! :)

@Maxqnz I disagree - keeping the empire might make a great mini-series or television show but a film needs to have a smaller focus than that. It's why novel adaptations make such crappy films 9 times out of 10.

@Ness We agree 100%! :D

Divya said...

Hi Filmigirl, I remember being disappointed with this film. I don’t really think it was the anti-war message alone that made the movie unpalatable. To me it was because I went in expecting more focus on Ashoka's transformation and maybe more complex motivations. Instead we got a love story which the movie seemed to endlessly dwell on. I think when most people go in to watch a movie on Ashoka they want to see how Chand Ashok becomes Dharm Ashok. To say "Oh! it was because he lost the women he loved and later repented invading her kingdom" was a bit of a cop out. Also the influence of Buddhism on him was barely touched on.More exploration of Ashoka's viciousness and ambition and less Kaurwaki would have been better imho :)

maxqnz said...

@Filmi Girl - I did say it would be a challenge to the film maker. :)
I also know it would never actually happen, but I'm still disappointed by that fact, a truly unique story never told onscreen. Not just "keeping the empire" but "keeping the Empire and keeping ahimsa". THen again, I'm biased by my devotion to that last word.

luscious-words said...

This is one of my favorite SRK movies. I loved the power and intensity of it, and would love to see more movies like this. If MNIK had been done with this kind of power, it would have been much more effective. (Granted, I did enjoy MNIK, but I thought it was weaker than it could have been.)

~ Layla

luscious-words said...

I forgot to mention that this would be my second favorite movie with Bebo. (I'm not sure where my mind was the other day when I commented on the BW post about her career. *g*) I loved that she was sultry but powerful.

~ Layla

Lime(tte) said...

This was also one of the first Bollywood films I saw, and just like you, I didn't know anything about it, other than: I loved it. Me and my sister watched it like a 1000 times.
And the music: so fantastic! I love each and every song - favorite: Raat Ka Nasha.
Also, many non-Bollywood-ers have liked it, so I've seen it with a couple of them... They found it very well-made and interesting.

Mia said...

i am new to bw super obsessed and i like watching the films not knowing if they flopped or not.you know going into it with no preconceived ideas. in fact i wont read a review till after i am done. i though srk was wonderful in this film! like for the first time i said to myself, "this guy can act" not just make me fall in love with him, but act. anyway such a good film. I really like Delhi 6 too, and apparently that was a flop. newsflash::: bw fans let the hotties play diverse roles. thank you

getfilmy said...

"I have to wonder what Shahrukh’s career would have looked liked if this had been the film that succeeded and K3G had been the flop." THIS. SO. MUCH.

I think he probably wonders - and wishes - the same thing.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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