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Art House & International movie directed by Santosh Sivan

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my first Bollywood experience -- and it won me over!!

  • May 3, 2006
I didn't really know what to expect going into this film (I'm embarassed to say that I even teach occasional film classes and had never seen a true Bollywood film, only read about them) -- I knew it was a Bollywood Blockbuster, and one of only a few that had wide success outside of India. For that reason I wonder about how characteristic this film is of Bollywood film generally -- but that is I suppose an odd question: like seeing Star Wars or Jaws or The Titanic only and asking "is this what all Hollywood films are like?" But judging on this film alone there is a whole new world of film to explore, and I'm excited to take the leap.

The story of the famous warrior king Asoka who became a Buddhist missionary for peace, it starts out beautifully, and one gets the sense this will be an epic film in the style of Hollywood epic melodrama. Then, when he has left his homeland and gone wandering he catches the eye of a beautiful young woman, things change suddenly and one gets the sense this is nothing like a Hollywood film. The vast scope of the film narrows and instead of lush and broad period backgrounds we get closeups of navels and hips, and it becomes a fiery dance number, with dance moves inspired by ancient Hindu love texts and diagrams (think Kamasutra style without sex: on the documentary included on this disc the choreographer said that diagrams from the Kamasutra as well as other early Hindu texts provided inspiration for some of the dance moves). The epic story resumes quickly but is "interrupted" several times by bizarre but catchy and infectious dance and song numbers, that appear a peculiar hybrid between Broadway, MTV and traditional dance. After I got used to such scenes they grew on me and I found myself smiling and laughing in ways that I rarely do watching a Blockbuster Hollywood film. Even though some (not all) of the dance/music scenes are erotically charged there is a remarkable innocence about them that hearkens back to early Hollywood musicals -- and I think my response to these numbers (partly due to the unexpected novelty) was close to what it must have been like to experience great Hollywood musicals as they emerged and not through the jaded eyes of a filmgoer whose experience is with films that have "grown out" of such styles. In its epic mode, too, the film has a grandeur that is rarely approached in Hollywood epics today (and does not solicit the same kind of cynicism at least for me that seems an appropriate response to films like "Alexander"), and comes perhaps closer to Kurosawa films like Ran. Another connection to Kurosawa is in color -- though I think that where this film falls short of the Japanese master is in the editing which sometimes feels a bit too contrived (comparable at times to MTV style editing: cutting for a preconceived effect rather than cutting to create an organically seamless unity).

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About the reviewer
Nathan Andersen ()
Ranked #69
I teach philosophy at Eckerd College, in Saint Petersburg, Florida.      I run an award-winning International Cinema series in Tampa Bay (www.eckerd.edu/ic), and am co-director of … more
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Both stylish and stylized, Santosh Sivan's Hindi epicAsokatells the heavily fictionalized but nonetheless compelling story of India's greatest emperor. In the third century B.C., 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 ...

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Director: Santosh Sivan
Genre: Foreign
DVD Release Date: April 23, 2002
Runtime: 176 minutes
Studio: First Look Pictures
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