(Santosh Sivan, India, 2001)


Many of us are so used to assuming that musicals are an American invention that we tend to overlook the equally vibrant song-and-dance traditions of other countries.

In the process, a vast world of screen musicals – often taking forms starkly different from Broadway or Hollywood – has been swept under the carpet. Non-English language musicals are rarely acknowledged or even made available outside their own cultural tracks (such as specialist video outlets).

Popular Indian cinema is a wildly successful and prolific industry – although this is a fact you would not learn from Hollywood-dominated infotainment. Santosh Sivan’s three hour, star-studded, historical epic Asoka aims for the international crossover success achieved by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

Unfortunately, the conventions of Indian cinema are still so unfamiliar to so many Western viewers that Asoka runs the risk of being labelled a kitsch guilty pleasure. Everyone should set aside such narrow, ethnocentric preconceptions and plunge into this marvellous spectacle.

The film retells the legend of Asoka (Sheer Khan), an emperor who gained power as a ruthless warrior before eventually converting to Buddhism and devoting himself to its dissemination. Much of the plot is devoted to the period of Asoka’s rampaging evil and its devastating effects on those closest to him, especially his two wives, Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor) and Devi (Hrishita Bhatt).

From the opening moments, Asoka tells its tale in bold, elemental strokes – a sword plunging into a trilling bird foretells Asoka’s bloody destiny; scenes crackle with fire or overflow with water. As in Indian popular cinema generally, a strict code of discretion (no nudity, sex or even kissing) leads to the most extraordinarily charged choreography of intertwined bodies in dance.

The fragmented, often hysterically pitched style revealed in Sivan’s independent production The Terrorist (1999) serves Asoka surprisingly well.

The musical sequences – all of which are splendid – use rapid cutting and multiple cameras. I wonder whether contemporary Indian filmmakers have been influenced by the experiments along these lines in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) – or vice versa.

Sivan melds slick music video devices – endless white flashes and camera flicks – with an expansive, melodramatic mode. The panoramic revelations of crowds, mountains and palaces create a heady, dynamic grandeur.

Asoka is more sombre than many Indian spectacles. The songs tend to be confined to celebrations of love – a waterfall duet between Asoka and Kaurwaki offering the erotic highlight. Accordingly, when the battle scenes begin in earnest, the songs disappear, as do the comic interludes involving three guards.

When it comes to conveying the intricacies of historical change and the evolution of spiritual beliefs, Asoka is certainly something of a comic book. But it bursts with an energy and colour that we too rarely see in the oversold blockbusters from other parts of the world.

© Adrian Martin December 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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