Dir: Santosh Sivan. India. 2001. 150 mins.
Could this be the Indian Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' Probably not; but Santosh Sivan's loose historical biopic of Mauryan emperor Asoka is a hugely enjoyable swords-and-saris romp which should have no trouble crossing over from speciality Asian circuits to general release. Juhi Chawla - the former Miss India, who co-produced the film with her brother Sanjiv - refers to Asoka as "a low-budget experimental film". The budget is certainly low for a Hindi epic - around $2.5 million. But with its massed battle scenes, glittering costumes and palatial interiors, it's hardly what most people would think of as experimental. Unless, of course, the experiment was just that: how to squeeze this level of visual panache out of such a risible outlay. Mostly, Asoka carries its audience; and if its two-and-a-half hour running time is not a deterrent, it may also end up carrying the field in a year that promises to be a good one for Indian cinema's attempts to increase its profile in Europe and the US with the recent releases of Lagaan and The Warrior.
Well-received at Venice, the film's Toronto premiere was overshadowed by recent events in New York. Ironic, perhaps, as Sivan's second film as director, The Terrorist (1998) - for which John Malkovich personally secured a US distribution deal - was a convincing attempt to get inside the mind of a suicide bomber. Asoka is less sombre and less reliant on lingering Dreher-esque close-ups. For many years, Sivan made a living working as a Bollywood cinematographer; in Asoka, he takes elements of the genre - the song and dance numbers, the choreographed sword fights, the smouldering glances - and fuses them into a new whole. There is not much of Bollywood about the final battle scenes, in which Sivan demonstrates a talent for epic, painterly composition, halfway between Delacroix and Dali.
The emperor Asoka (274-232 BC), whose chakra (wheel) symbol is at the centre of the Indian flag, is a shadowy historical figure. It is known that he fought a bloody war against the neighbouring Kalinga kingdom, and it is said that it was this war - in which thousands were slain - that persuaded the remorse-stricken emperor to dedicate the rest of his life to spreading the message of Buddhism. But this paucity of facts allows Sivan and his co-scriptwriter Saket Chaudhary to embroider the story and give it the gloss of legend. The main poetic licence is the love plot that drives most of the action, in which exiled warrior princess Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor, granddaughter of Raj) loves, loses and finally regains Asoka.
Shah Rukh Khan, who plays Asoka, is currently the most bankable star on the Bollywood lot. Though his name means little outside India, it is impossible not to be won over by the way the director - and the director's lens - alternately caresses and sends up Khan's superstar status. Kapoor is a worthy match, darting sultry kohl-rimmed glances as she launches into another song or swordfight. And the character parts are played with similar relish, as if the spirit of the 1960s Roman toga-epic had migrated to Bombay. If there is a criticism to be made, it is that Asoka's transformation into blood-crazed dictator - before his final conversion - is more a fait accompli than a believable evolution. But this is a minor cavill.
Prod co: Arclightz & Filmz Pvt Ltd
Int'l sales: Sanjiv Chawla, Archlightz & Filmz (Mumbai), Martin Myers, Miracle Communications (London), Overseas Filmgroup (Los Angeles).
Prods: Sanjiv Chawla, Mark Burton
Scr: Saket Chaudhary, Santosh Sivan. Dialogues: Abbas Tyrewala.
Cinematography: Santosh Sivan
Prod des: Sabu Cyril
Ed: Shreekar Prasad
Music: Anu Malik
Main cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Danny Denzongpa, Rahul Dev, Hrishitaa Bhatt, Suraj Balaji.