I just wrote this review and posted it less than 2 months ago, but in case you missed it, here it is again!
What a frustratingly not-quite-right movie. The problem with an epic is that it really has to be right, because everything is at such a high volume. Every slight mistake is that much louder and harder to ignore. The oddness in this film that, in a light rom-com, would be easy to ignore is now enough to destroy the whole film. And yet scene by scene and moment by moment, it is excellent.
I am glad I rewatched it because I forgot how good so much of it was. Especially after the latest series of epic historicals I can appreciate the clear way the family situation is outlined, the inventiveness of the battle scenes, even the accuracy of the clothes and weapons. Performances too, these are characters moving through a set historical story and yet they feel unpredictable and real and human. Heck, even Jonny Lever sort of worked, the idea of showing the common man as a Greek chorus gave another level to the historical epic that is usually sorely missed. I was caught up in the story, I believed in it and I cared what happened.
And then all my caring was tossed aside! I can’t forgive the confusing plot switches, emotional changes, and really terrible ending. This film is all over the place and just as it convinces the audience to care about something, it leaves that thing behind. I’m left always going “wait wait, go back! Show me what happens over there!”
But, back to the performances for a second, Shahrukh’s performance is remarkable. He plays every scene just right, brings me in and entertains me at the same time. And yet, I would like to see how he would play it in a different time and with a different director. This whole film is at a slightly heightened mythic level, and so Shahrukh plays his role that way, matching what the director wanted. And this is young Shahrukh, he is trying just a bit too hard. Back then to show an emotion he threw his whole body out of line, tilted his head, half smile, eyebrow raised, the works. But now he can convey those same emotions almost imperceptibly, so that it doesn’t feel like “acting” so much as some strange form of telepathy where he lets the audience read his mind. I want to see what he would do with this complex internal character in today’s performance.
Kareena is perfect, and perfectly cast. Her character needs to be heartbreakingly young, and fresh faced. Not beautiful, but striking and pure looking, untouched by life. She doesn’t try in her performance, perhaps because she is just to young and inexperienced to try, and that is the right choice. She just has to be there onscreen. Danny Denzongpa is a bit old for his role, but I will forgive that because it is a classic Danny kind of part. Even the child actor is touching and adorable playing “Arya”. The casting, like the sets and the battle scenes and the costumes, is another area that is just perfect.
And then it all falls apart in the themes. This is a movie that is torn between two stories. One story is the journey of Asoka, from childhood to religious conversion. The other story is a tragic love story. The film should be the story of Asoka, that is the title and the opening and the closing and solid through line. But the problem is, the love story is far more well-written and original and interesting to watch, and just general where the interest of the filmmakers clearly lived. In the end, the film fails both stories, and fails the audience as well by making us care and then disappointing us.
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Shahrukh is Asoka, one of many sons of the ruler of the Maurya empire by one of his many wives. He is not close to his father and is often sent away from the capital to put down revolts. But his popularity is growing with the people. His older brother tries to assassinate him, Shahrukh reacts by publicly threatening his brother which displeases his father. His mother asks him to leave the kingdom, travel as a regular man, until things calm down. Shahrukh leaves and starts wandering and meets Kareena. She is a princess on the run with her younger brother. Their parents were murdered by enemies in their kingdom and their faithful general spirited them away and is hiding them. Shahrukh saves Kareena when she is attacked and she heals him, then asks him to stay with them and teach her how to fight. They fall in love and have a secret marriage. But then Shahrukh gets word his mother is ill and must go back to the capital and see her. His father orders him off to put down another revolt but he sneaks back to see Kareena before he leaves. Only to discover she has died, burned in an attack on a village where they were hiding. Danny Denzongpa, a local he had a friendly fighting relationship with, finds him devastated by grief and promises to stay with him as his friend. What he doesn’t know is that Kareena actually survived, it was a case of mistaken identity. She is looking for her husband, the simple soldier she thinks he is, and can’t find him. She finally gives up. Shahrukh puts down the revolt but is injured and cared for in a Buddhist community. Hrishitaa Bhatt, a young woman of the community, cares for him and is not afraid of him. She saves him from an assassin but her involvement in the violent death breaks her engagement. Shahrukh takes responsibility and agrees to marry her. He returns to the capital with his new wife to find his father dying. His brother tries to kill his wife and succeeds in killing his mother. Shahrukh kills him in revenge and takes the thrown and declares he will expand the empire over the earth. The only kingdom holding out against him is Kalinga. Shahrukh’s wife, and his one full younger brother, both question his decision and his commitment to violence. Even Danny questions him shortly before the battle, but Shahrukh will not be convinced. Meanwhile Kareena has decided to lead the troops into battle herself after her old friend the general is killed. In the battle, Kareena recognizes Shahrukh and is horrified that the simple soldier she loved is this demon that is destroying her kingdom. After the battle, Shahrukh learns she was there and goes into the battlefield to look for her, seeing the effects of his wars for the first time. He is shaken by what he has done, further shaken when he finds Kareena and she demands he kill her, and then finally sees the boy king her little brother dying of arrow wounds. The movie ends with Shahrukh throwing away his sword and swearing to live a life of peace.
Essentially we have two movies here. One movie, the more original one and the one that is truer to the spirit of what makes Asoka special, is about Asoka as an ambitious prince grabbing power through violence. He isn’t a terrible man, he is just a naturally violent man. He does not lie or sneak as his brothers do, and he is always respectful and loving to his friends, his mother, and his wives. He is even kind to small children. But his way of looking at the world is limited, he sees only violence as an answer. The movie starts with him as a small boy watching his grandfather throw away his sword and turn to a life of meditation and then hunting down and taking that sword. It ends with him finally understanding why his grandfather threw it away and also choosing to let go of the sword and embrace peace.
This is a very rare kind of story, one about a good man turning into a great man instead of a good man turning into a bad man. And that greatness coming from choosing peace and wisdom instead of from winning a big battle. The way this story is told is rare as well, through out the film we see Shahrukh getting glimpses of monks and Buddhists. His life changes in a moment, but the ingredients were already there. He respects his wife so he has to listen to her whens he explains her Buddhist beliefs. In moments near death he continually has visions of peace. His destiny is always there, coming ever closer to him. And finally he reaches it on the Kalinga battlefield, an awareness of all he has done and how wrong it was.
The love story is a small part of this journey. First seeing how finding love with Kareena brings peace to his heart and allows him to let go of his violence and ambition. Then seeing how losing her to violence sends him down a dark path. And finally the impact of finding the one person he saw as a person, he most cared about, devastated by his wars. All of that is fine, but it isn’t really needed. The story of a violent man turning towards peace could be told starting with his father sending him off to put down the revolt which leads to his injuries which leads to Hrishita healing him and teaching him about Buddhism, which leads to them marrying, which leads to his brothers trying to kill her, which leads to Shahrukh crossing more lines than ever before in his anger and vengeance, which leads to the final great terrible war, which leads to his realization of the wrong he has done and his choice to choose peace. The love story with Kareena ends up confusing the issues and removing more than it adds.
The second film is a love story between a warrior and a warrior princess. The more interesting film, the better film, the film that was intended to be made is the story of a violent man turning towards peace. But the reality is that the love story is far more impactful in the end result of the movie. That is the problem. And I am so glad I rewatched the movie because I finally realized it isn’t MY problem, it’s the film’s problem.
For years I thought I didn’t like this movie because a) it was kind of weirdly made and Shahrukh’s hair was bad; and b) I am a shallow person who naturally turns towards romance and therefore could not appreciate the deeper story and only focused on the romance. But that’s not true! Well, it’s still kind of weirdly made in some ways, but the second issue isn’t because I am shallow, it is because the movie comes alive in the Kareena romance sections. That is where the excitement is, the deep emotion, the songs, and the majority of the running time as well. Kareena isn’t just one incident in Shahrukh’s life, she is established as the main motivation behind everything he does. And that ruins the movie that was intended, Asoka becoming Buddhist, because instead the audience is so focused on Shahrukh and Kareena’s reunion.
I looked up the real Asoka and tried to find what information there was available on the love story. There isn’t much. He was married 5 times. The first wife was the Buddhist daughter of a merchant who nursed him (the Hrishitaa character). The second wife was a warrior woman of Kalinga (Kareena). The third wife was a proper princess and his chief wife. The fourth wife gave him one of his sons. And the fifth wife took advantage of him in his old age (or maybe that was made up for political reasons). The filmmakers took that basic information and had one woman who swung him towards Buddhism and was considered an inappropriate wife, and then really dug into the interesting complexity of him marrying a warrior woman who fought against him in that final battle that turned him towards peace.
I can see the starting point. The Kalinga battlefield is where everything changed, the most important moment. And there is this Kalinga warrior woman he married. Why would he marry a woman who fought against him? Why would he stop and get married in the middle of this massive personal upheaval? What if the two things were related somehow? What if seeing this woman as a person and not just an enemy is part of what changed him? Or what if guilt over what he had done is part of why he married her? Okay, in that case there has to be more to their story and it has to take place before the battle if the battle will be the high point and finale of the film. But if this love story is so important that it makes Shahrukh be horrified at what he has done, why would he go to war in the first place against this woman? And why would this woman not have already spoken to him and asked for mercy? Okay, they must have met in the past, but she couldn’t know who he was, and he must think her dead already or something in order for the battlefield meeting to have impact. Done! He will have met the warrior woman Kaurwaki while in disguise, fallen in love with her, and then thought her dead.
The problem is once this complicated logic for the plot is in place, they started actually writing out the details and got so caught up in the in disguise love story, and then the impact of them losing each other, that the rest of the film kind of faded away. Kareena as the innocent who captures the attention of the prince through her innocence, falling in love over sword lessons, the prince having a greater freedom when playing a “common man” than he ever did in the hectic world of the palace, it’s all delightful. And it picks up on some great traditional themes of South Asian drama, most notably Shakuntala, the story of a prince who went hunting and fell in love with a girl of the forest, then returned home and forgot her, leaving them both miserable until they were finally reunited. Shakuntala is the closest relative, with the idyll in the forest and the prince miserably dreaming of his lost love, but there are plenty of other stories of separated lovers who almost meet but don’t. Somehow it feels like once this movie hit that pattern it could not get out of it, the power of the idea of the grieving broken lover and the faithful woman trying to find him just took over.
There’s the ideas that overwhelm the rest of the film, but there’s also the ideas that are left behind and not explored enough. Kareena is introduced as a warrior princess and then learns she was actually adopted and has an identity crisis. I want more on that! Why was Kareena adopted? Why did the royal family choose to raise her? Does it change the way she feels towards her brother and about her kingdom in general? It seems possible that it does, post this discovery she becomes committed to learning weaponry and later leads common laboring women into battle. She identifies more and more as one of the people, not part of the royal community. But I want more on that! I would have been happy to see her track down the fisherman who found her as a baby, to refuse to live in the royal quarters and instead live in a village where she learns to respect the power of the common woman, to take up a role as a soldier more than a princess as she accepts that she does not have the right to royal privilege, and so on.
Or, what about this whole romance between Shahrukh and Kareena revolving around him teaching her how to fight? It starts out as a cute idea of how to get them alone together and interacting. But there’s other stuff there, is this the first time Shahrukh has passed on his war knowledge to someone else? Is Kareena finally taking control of her own life instead of following orders and denying her power? Are Kareena and Shahrukh somehow a matched set, both of them not officially in line for the throne but having the basic temperament to rule? I want to see more of that, a parallel between Shahrukh taking the throne by force and Kareena insisting on an active part in ruling her kingdom, Kareena giving war secrets to the Kalinga that she learned from Shahrukh and Shahrukh being furious at how this group of rebels is able to defeat him.
And there’s just the different way they interact. Kareena takes control of this relationship, she asks for the sword lessons, she takes him back to heal him, she even takes the lead sexually post marriage. This is not a typical heroine, she is a confident strong warrior, and also has the wild confidence of a young woman who is too young to doubt herself, and is coming into her sexual peak. Watching Shahrukh struggle to keep up with her, and watching Kareena’s free joy in her love, it’s addictive and special and makes everything that comes after it just feel wrong.
The sad thing is, the Hrishitaa Bhatt love story is pretty great too! Shahrukh respects her opinions and her person and he marries her because he respects her too much to leave her behind and troubled after all she has done for him. She marries him because she can see the good in him and thinks he is worth saving. Watching them slowly find a peace together, find a way to be together, that’s interesting too. Especially with the accepted truth that they both know, he will never love her in the way he loved Kareena. But this love story is shortened and weakened by the constant cuts to Kareena, reminding us that even when he is with his new wife he still misses his old one.
This movie needed to make a decision. Either they stick with the original plan, Asoka coming to enlightenment on the battlefield and the two women being merely two of the steps on his journey, in which case the romances needed to be limited to no more than a brief cameo appearance by both actresses while more time was spent on his life as a soldier and a ruler. Or they needed to throw out the original plan and commit to it being a love triangle with Shahrukh torn between the wild love of his youth and this new wife he has come to respect. Instead, the film tried to have it both ways and ended up having it neither way.
We spend most of the film building towards the Kareena-Shahrukh reunion. Their strange wonderful love story, the pain separation brings to them both, Shahrukh looking for peace in a new marriage, in success, in vengeance, and not finding it. And then at the end they are reunited and rather than giving the audience some kind of closure on this story, the film suddenly violently swings back to the traditional Asoka story and makes the resolution about his turn to Buddhism. It’s insanely unsatisfying!!!!! The problem isn’t that I am caring too much about the love story, it is that the film makes me care about the love story and then drops it. Truly, a mere 5 minutes more of screentime to show Shahrukh taking Kareena home, letting Hrishitaa embrace her and care for her as a sister wife, then declaring he will return to the capital and start ruling in a new way, that is all we needed to fully resolve the story. Instead of just cutting to the him throwing away his sword.
So, yes, I can see why this is a favorite movie for a lot of you. There are so many good scenes, so many things done well. But if you watch the movie as a whole, it fails. It fails so hard that it ruins all the good that has come before.