Are you up for something completely different, something the likes of which I guarantee you have never experienced before? A film that has the lush romantic aura of Franco Zeffirelli's Shakespearean films combined with the extravagant sets of Liz Taylor's CLEOPATRA mixed with the whimsy of Baz Luhrmann's flix with some catchy songs thrown in too? You say no such animal exists? Well, my friend you are wrong!
That film is ASOKA which stars the legendary Shah Rukh Khan who is undoubtedly the most worshiped romantic leading man in the world of cinema today--bar none. I was going to say that he was the most lusted after, which is probably true as well, but there is something about SRK, as he is known, that seems to evoke an even more powerful emotion in women than mere lust. He is Rudolph Valentino, Gene Kelly, and, when he needs to be, Douglas Fairbanks. He's all of those and more, he's an original. And he's a very important part of what makes this film work so well.
There is so very much in this film to like aside from Khan that I hardly no where to begin. The cast is all superb, especially his co-star the beautiful Kareena Kapoor who plays Asoka's love interest Princess Kaurwaki--she couldn't be more believable as the woman for whom he would gladly give up a throne. The sets and costumes are gorgeous and whether or not they are true to the time period couldn't concern me less since the director's approach to this film seems to be more that of a romantic fantasy than of an historical documentary.
That brings us to the one element that sets Bollywood pictures apart from Hollywood films, the musical numbers! (Remember I said SRK had a little Gene Kelly in him.) The fact that anyone can burst into song and dance for no apparent reason at any given moment is one of the things I like best about Bollywood movies. There is so much joy and exuberance in these numbers that sometimes I just want to get up and dance myself, but since I look nothing like those pretty girls with their bare midriffs I've managed to restrain myself, so far. I know what you're thinking, but really after you get accustomed to it the songs won't bother you at all. In fact you might even like them. They're sort of a combination of folk and pop, and they're very catchy. I've always liked "foreign" folk music so I fell right into it.
But what about the story, you say. The story is mostly fiction based on fact. There was a man named Asoka who became a brutal monarch and then renounced his evil ways to spread the word of Buddha and he is in fact credited with having transformed Buddhism from a second-rate sect into a major world religion. His personal life and his rise to power which are the subjects of this film are the stuff of myth and legend. But that's always where the best stories are to be found.
The DVD begins with a crawl that fills us in a tiny bit on the importance of the the man in the story we are about to see which is very helpful for those of us without any background in Buddhism. And our story itself begins with Asoka's grandfather the Emperor Chandragupta Mauya giving away all his possessions to the people prior to embracing his new life as a Jainist monk. Asoka is just a young boy and doesn't understand his grandfather's choice, nor does he understand when his grandfather tries to stop Asoka from keeping his sword for himself. His grandfather tells him that the sword is a demon and that once it is drawn it sees neither friend nor foe it only thirsts for blood, and that he should throw it away before it can do anymore harm. Asoka refuses, so his grandfather grabs it from him and throws it in the river himself, then leaves on his journey with the other monks. If only Asoka had left the sword in the river, but he doesn't. If only he had not drawn it, but he does. If only he learned from that first bloody lesson, but he doesn't.
There is plenty more to Asoka's story, the film runs well over 2 and 1/2 hours, but in that time it manages to pack in adventure, romance, comedy, drama, one really good battle scene and a couple of small skirmishes, plus song and dance numbers that run the gamut from free wheeling fun, to sensual and erotic. My God, how much more do you want from your first Bollywood experience!
WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? EVERY BLOCKBUSTER HAS A COPY OF THIS MOVIE. GO RENT IT. Really.
Oh, there is one tiny negative. The subtitles aren't the easiest to read, but after awhile I found that I didn't really need to read them word for word in order to understand and enjoy this film.
ADDENDUM: I recently learned that another Bollywood film is being made about Asoka with an even bigger budget than this one had. It will take up the story from the point where this one left off.