Both stylish and stylised, Santosh Sivan's Hindi epic Asoka
tells the heavily fictionalised but nonetheless compelling story of India's greatest emperor. In the third century BC the Mauryan king Asoka built a vast empire by means of ruthless conquest; but after the great Kalinga war he became sickened by the terrible slaughter he had caused, converted to Buddhism and dedicated the rest of his life to spreading peace and prosperity.
The film, though, concerns itself only with Asoka's rise to power, his love for the princess Kaurwaki, and his subsequent descent into brutality. Shah Rukh Khan is a brooding and temperamental prince who woos the lovely princess Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor) incognito and with the aid of the obligatory song-and-dance numbers. After a promising start involving mythic swords, heroic combat and King Lear-like sibling rivalry, the film falls into a familiar Bollywood groove for a while until events overtake the unlucky lovers and Asoka turns mean when he thinks his princess is dead. She in turn searches vainly for her handsome hero, not knowing his real identity; and when the tyrannical Asoka attacks her kingdom she leads her people against his armies in a near-genocidal war. The finale, after a wonderfully staged battle that employs 6,000 extras, is genuinely touching.
Throughout, the film works best when striving for a realistic tone, though the fairy tale romance and song interludes are doubtless contrived to please the domestic Indian audience more than cynical Europeans. It's a shame that Asoka's true greatness is never realised on screen, as the story ends before his momentous conversion, but as a film that tackles big themes with real visual flair Asoka nonetheless deserves to find a worldwide audience.
On the DVD: Presented in sumptuous widescreen (2.35:1) anamorphic format and in Dolby 5.1, the film can be viewed with or without English subtitles. There are also two short documentaries, in English, featuring interviews with the star and director among others. The five big musical numbers can be accessed all in one go or individually, while a trailer and picture gallery complete a good package. --Mark Walker
Prince Ashoke (Shahrukh Khan), heir to the Magadha Kingdom, bowing to his mother's (Shilpa Mehta) demand forsakes his princely status and goes to live in the wild for awhile. There he meets and falls in love with Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor). He identifies himself as Pawan, not wanting to disclose his identity yet. Ashoke has to return to Magadha, but when he returns to find and wed Kaurwaki, he is told by Bheema (Rahul Dev) that Kaurwaki and her brother Arya have been killed. Devastated Ashoke returns home. On the way home he is attacked and Devi (Hrishitaa Bhatt), of the Buddhist faith rescues him and tends to him till he gets well. As a result, Devi's marriage to her groom is cancelled. Ashoke weds her and brings her to Magadha, only to be told by his father that since Devi is not of the same race as he, she cannot be welcomed. Ashoke leaves with Devi and lives in Ujjaini. Soon Devi gets pregnant, and this arouses jealously and hatred amongst Ashoke's step-brothers. As a result they plot to kill Devi, however, their plans are foiled by Ashoke's mother, who is killed. Ashoke swears to avenge his mother's death by killing his step-brothers one by one, except for one, who has led to Kalinga. Ashoke asks the ruler of Kalings to turn over his step-brother to him, and they refuse. Ashoke swears to raze Kalinga to the ground. Ashoke is unstoppable. Even his close friend, Virat (Danny Denzongpa), too, is unable to stop Ashoke. Ashoke proceeds to war, little knowing that the queen of Kalinga is none other than Kaurwaki, who is still alive.