Santosh Sivans much anticipated magnum opus Asoka is well worth the nail-biting wait that preceded its release. A blend of old-world atavism and crystal clear imagery, compounded with lush art direction and stirring music, Asoka is a haunting journey into the life of Indias greatest emperor.
Tracing Asokas first few years as a boy, the film quickly moves to his years as a grown a strapping and arrogant young prince played by Shah Rukh Khan. His father Bindusara (Gerson De Cunha) warns Asokas stepbrother Susima (Ajith Kumar) to take over the throne, but the conceited Asoka firmly believes that the throne belongs to he who fights for it.
His mother Dharma (Subhashini Ali) convinces him into entering a life of exile, and lead a life among the laymen. Asoka dons the robes of a common man and calls himself Pawan. He comes across the beautiful and feisty Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor) and her brother Arya who incidentally is the king of Kalinga in hiding. They are protected by soldier Bheema (Rahul Dev). Kaurwaki and Asoka, who she mistakes for a commoner, fall in love and get married. But Asoka is forced to return to the palace to meet his mother. On returning he is informed of Kaurwaki and Aryas death. Shattered, Asoka loses interest in his life. During the course of his healing with Veerat (Danny Denzongpa), a compatriot from his days as Pawan he meets Devi (Hrishitaa Bhatt), a devotee of Lord Buddha, whom he weds.
Asoka is a changed man. He gets increasingly cruel in his actions, alienating Devi and surprising Veerat with his lack of mercy, slaying his brothers and assuming the throne of Magadha. In the mean time Kaurwaki is alive and is waiting for her beloved to return. Asoka in a bid to expand his territory wages war with Kalinga. The mighty war leaves no stone unturned in its ruthless massacre of soldiers. Kaurwaki realises her Pawan is none other than the enemy she is fighting.
Asoka overhears people talking about Kauwaki and goes hunting for her amidst the sea of the dead. Prince Arya rushes up to him mistaking him for Pawan and begs him to protect his little life against the cruel Asoka. In that one moment Asoka meets with his biggest defeat.
Asoka is another feather in Santosh Sivans cap. With the internationally acclaimed Terrorist behind him, the man conjures up another dreamlike reality with his vision captured in sharp celluloid grandeur.
The film is extremely stylish in its mix of Indian aesthetic and contemporary simplicity which reflects in the art direction by Sabu Cyril and pleasing costume design. The performances throughout the film are spot on with Shah Rukh Khan ruling the roost once again with his stupendous and sincere portrayal of Asoka, his myriad emotions and thoughts shining like a mirror in every frame. Kareena Kapoor as Kaurwaki makes a beautiful and sensuous princess, commanding the screen with a presence, that few of her contemporaries can rival.
The film is further enhanced by its supporting cast of Rahul Dev, Danny Denzongpa and Hrishitaa Bhatt who makes a confident debut with Asoka.
The highlight of the movie is of course the surreal envisioning of the Great War of Kalinga, which is breathtakingly choreographed with a scale that could stand in good stead with some Hollywood films. Technically, Asoka has few rivals. The cinematography is A-class and the editing crisp. Sivans script is tightly woven with moments of passion and intrigue erupting at regular intervals keeping the viewer gripped.
While the music of Asoka by Anu Malik is exquisite, one does wish he had dabbled more with a sound that was reminiscent of an era gone by. The dialogues by Abbas Tyrewala are sharp, but still reek of contemporary penmanship.
For all practical purposes Asoka is a winner, and comes through in style mesmerising the audience with its spectacular visuals and searing their souls with its haunting portrayal of truth. A must watch for anyone who enjoys cinema in its richest sense.