Sunday, July 05, 2009

[DVD] Asoka (2001)

Warrior King and Princess

I've finally got down to viewing Asoka in its entirety, given that my closest shave was when it screened on television some years back, but I got interrupted with an extremely long phone call, which left me with only 10 minutes into the start, and the last 10. Yes, I knew how it ended, but who's satisfied without getting at the meat? Moreover, the complaints that surrounded the film also intrigued me, as it really seemed that the dramatic license taken to interpret a BC-era story had met with plenty of objections for not being historically accurate.

Given India's rich history, there isn't a lack of stories involving kings of the past, such as that portrayed in Ashutosh Gowariker's Jodhaa Akbar. Asoka took on similar romantic proportions, in that at its core it has a love story to tell, rather than one focused on waging war throughout the lands, although this was touched upon in the latter half of the film, stemming from a death of his heart, and the embracing of a rage against the known world.

The first half introduces us to the star-crossed lovers, and the usual boy-meets-and-woos formula. Asoka (Shah Rukh Khan), being the favourite son of the Magahda empire, is in line for the throne, to the detest of his brothers. Rather than allow the family to disintegrate into chaos, his mum sends him away in exile to his objection, but his love for his mom meant obedience, and he journeys into rival kingdom of Kalinga incognito as a commoner. That of course still doesn't stop his brothers, especially the next in line Susima (Ajit Kumar) from continuous plotting his eradication.

Then there's Kareena Kapoor (credited as Karriena Kapoor, in her first pair up with SRK and looking more voluptuous than her skinnier self now) as Kaurwaki, the princess who together with the king-in-waiting Prince Aryan (Sooraj Balaji) and their trusted general Bheema (Rahul Dev) are in hiding because of a plot from someone in the democratic senate out to murder them to take over the throne. So you have set up a Romeo & Juliet circumstance, where descendants of the royal households fall in love, and also have to deal with the rubbish politics back home which bays for their blood.

The film paints a very emotional Asoka that Shah Rukh Khan excelled in bringing out, especially when three women in his life played an important part in his life-changing decisions, such as his mom's involvement for him to see the outside world, Kaurwaki in being his first true, and unattainable love that he yearns and pines for, and his eventual wife Devi (Hrishitaa Bhatt), a Buddhist who would be instrumental in his embracing of the religion after coming to his senses in the aftermath of his most brutal war waged just because of his insatiable appetite for more territory, though of course done in the name of uniting India.

But with romance out of the way, SRK also showed off the result of his training in the numerous swordfights he gets put into. The designers here had made his calling card, a "demonic" sword that has a bloodlust, resemble a little like He-Man's power sword, but without mythical influences of course. The other weapon that he wields, which is the more impressive of the two, is a double-bladed bendy-sword, which functions more closely as a whip. Nasty piece of equipment that, though Kareena herself do have set action sequences dedicated to her and showed she's no pushover too.

While the story shows how Asoka transforms through the stages, the middle section surprisingly was the best part, as it was the bridge between the two distinct halves which straddles the romance and the warrior aspects. Here Santosh Sivan and Saket Chaudhary's screenplay takes on liberties into bridging the two together, and it's quite engaging, with that sense of dramatic irony always omnipresent, and Fate having a field day with the characters involved, providing a catalyst for that inevitable charge toward change. It's somewhat predictable of course, but presents that sense of impending doom and gloom that the narrative turns towards.

For a film made in 2001, the editing here did seem a little jarring, but further research explained that this was inherent to the version of the DVD viewed, which included a very obvious missing Interval title-card, which splits the film into two given the industry's run time for films. The song sequences of the movies now try not to have spatial and time warps and transportations, and for a film back then, it's still a technique (if you will) used to put the romancing characters in far out locales and situations. I'm not complaining, since my favourite song of the film has this incredible dance sequence between King Khan and Kareena (choreographed by Farah Khan) beautifully filmed against some surreal, haunting backdrops.

I suppose if anyone wanted to know a bit more of the warrior king, then this wiki link would be something you want to look at. Otherwise, I feel that this interpretation for the screen would also suffice, though stopping short at what Asoka is more renowned for, the propagation of Buddhist teachings across asia, and his emblem, the Chakra, emblazoned on the Indian flag of today.

The Region Free DVD by First Look Pictures Home Entertainment and is presented in anamorphic widescreen format. Unfortunately the picture quality isn't pristine and looked more like a conversion from a VHS format, with noticeable pops, cackles, hisses and line scratches. Audio is presented in your choice of Dolby Stereo or Surround in its original Hindi language track, with selectable subtitles in either English or Malay. Scene selection is available over 12 chapters.

The Special Features include a Trailer (1:31) presented in letterbox format, and a Filmographies section which is actually individual pieces of one page of text biographies for Shah Rukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Rahul Dev, Hrishitaa Bhatt, Suraj Balaji and director Santosh Sivan.

As always, a staple in a Bollywood DVD is a Song Selection section, and the ones here jumps you straight into the point of the film where the song is featured. Too bad you gotta use the Menu button on your remote to get you back to this sub-menu. Asoka offers a total of 5 songs - San Sanana, Aa Tayar Hoja, O Re Kaanchi, Raat Ka Nasha, and my favourite of the film - the slow ballad Roshni Se, where the visuals resemble Shah Rukh and Kareena going through some classical dance moves. A pity about the subtitles though, as they all disappear halfway.

Two Making Of documentaries are included here, presented in a mix of letterbox and 4x3 Full Frame formats. The Making of Asoka (21:06) is the standard behind the scenes look, though it doesn't contain a lot of production clips, instead more film clips were interspersed between interviews with cast and crew. It starts from how the film was conceptualized, and goes through each of the technical aspects of the film from art direction to music.

The Making of Asoka: The Big Fight (20:58) focuses on the climatic Kalinga War, which is one of the unique selling points of the movie. Again the usual interviews with the director, cast and action director Shyam Kaushal, with a lot more behind the scenes clips her which gives you a peek at the staggering amount of logistics, equipment, animals and planning to stage this all under 4 days. Listen to SRK too as he talks about hair extensions getting in the way, the sword fights, heavy costumes, and his love for animals in making this sand and sandals epic.

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