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25 BREATHTAKING FRAMES of Asoka

By SUKANYA VERMA
September 14, 2021 09:23 IST
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Asoka makes for irresistible viewing, says Sukanya Verma, and tells us why.

Seeing is believing, they say.

I am convinced of this more and more every time I watch Asoka.

Cinematographer and film-maker Santosh Sivan's historical is no classic, but it's so damn gorgeous to behold that I find myself mesmerised by its visuals every single time.

Released in the same year as extravaganzas like Lagaan, Gadar-Ek Prem Katha and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Asoka arrived amidst huge hype and hullaballoo.

Though Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla's 2001 co-production dazzled the exotica-lapping international press, its underwhelming reception back home wasn't without reason.

There's much wanting about Asoka.

Where irate historians slammed Sivan's highly fictionalised take, critics baulked at its typical Bollywood masala posturing as a history lesson. Others found fault in Shah Rukh Khan's eponymous portrayal, indistinguishable from his other work.

All its criticism is correct.

As much as I would have loved a more focused portrait of the Mauryan emperor, the psyche behind his violent conquests and ruthless strategies as well as the extraordinary metamorphosis of his redemptive soul, I have to admit, Asoka still makes for irresistible viewing.

Best enjoyed as a star-crossed love story between Pavan (SRK), a Magadha prince in exile masquerading as a commoner and Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor), a Kalinga princess on the run from her parents' assassins, instead of a deeply fleshed out biopic -- Asoka's lasting allure can be attributed to Kareena's lyrical spunk as well as the picturesque allure of Sivan's aesthetic eye.

Unlike other period pieces, Sivan refrains from giving Asoka the 'epic' treatment.

The emphasis is on natural and sublime. And his intimate close-ups of its stars as well as ethereal use of lighting and locations (Madhya Pradesh, Odisha) imbues magic to the mood.

In this edition of 25 breath-taking frames, I share my most favourite shots from Asoka.

 

Some film-makers go overboard building an elaborate atmosphere of opulence. Sivan creates one out of the simplest resources through his clever vision. One genius angle and the frame's brimming in awe-inspiring authority and abundance.

 

Aankhen could be a great alternate title for Asoka. There are so many striking shots of SRK and Kareena's stunning eyes, every single one more artistic than the another.

 

Kareena briefly changed her name to Karriena Kapoor during Asoka. But the numerology fad was ineffective and short-lived and the actress reverted to her original name in no time.

 

Kareena cuts a smouldering picture. Like literally.

 

This lovely frame of SRK pouring milk while gazing into Kareena's brilliant baby blues feels like a personification of Gulzar's line from his song in Dil Se -- Woh jo doodh dhuli masoom kali -- a film also shot by Sivan.

 

Sivan is a masterclass in composition. His effortless seeming perfectionism has a lifelong fan in me.

 

Some may feel queasy looking at this too close for comfort brand of danger. Sivan makes it look like art.

 

God know what flirting looked like in the third century but I loved catching a glimpse of it from afar in Sivan's doting camera.

 

Something so raw and animalistic like about their hunter-prey dynamic about to turn on its head.

 

The symmetry of this scene, their simmering chemistry, all points at the inevitable. And I am here for it.

 

A year before Spiderman hung himself upside down for Mary Jane's kiss, there was Kareena doing the same to SRK in her own demure way. No lip lock happened but props to Sivan for highlighting the passion in her eyes so unforgettably.

 

A Kathakali dancer makes for an unlikely but fascinating photobomber in Kareena's palat moment. Such a spontaneously timed moment -- pure joy!

 

Portrait of a lady on fire -- Kareena burns every frame she appears in. Watch, sigh.

 

Not one for teary-eyed theatrics, Sivan finds inspiring ways to compose a man's desolation and despair. This fleeting shot of a grieving SRK through blades of grass is another instance of the award-winning cinematographer's wizardry.

 

Asoka's imaginatively choreographed songs are part of its pleasure. And Sivan's flair for surreal touches, like this underwater sequence during the Roshni Se melody makes it amply clear.

 

Sooraj Balaji, playing Kareena's knee-high brother and heir to Kalinga throne, is one winsome cutie. This is an oddly intriguing frame. He gives the semblance of a little mouse in a cave, which is funny because he's feeding milk to a cat when we first see him.

 

Shot extensively against lush nature or craggy caves and rocks, the landscape provides tremendous character to Asoka's sweeping visuals. Like this break of dawn shot showing Kareena and Sooraj making an early start to the day in pursuit of SRK.

 

Kaurwaki is one of my favourite Bebo performances. Her lithe, uninhibited body language, fierce body art and sharpness of spirit, she totally owns it. And Sivan captures her youthful abandon in all its glory and grace.

 

We all know about the lions in the Ashoka emblem. But here is SRK looking like one ready to pounce on his mum's killers.

 

South superstar Ajit's poorly-written Bollywood debut didn't bode well for Asoka. Nevertheless, how game of thrones is this brother versus brother frame?

 

Swords, smoky eyes and scarlet tilaks -- why wouldn't one root for Kareena's one-woman army?

 

 

Rahul Dev is a reliably robust presence. It's nice to watch the model turned actor ride into the sunset in a frame worthy of his vigour.

 

What a seductive, sinister frame. Whatever you say about Asoka, SRK is a majestic force. And nobody can switch from good to bad as quickly and convincingly as this man.

 

Sivan's hallucinatory take on Asoka's shock and shame after he reunites with his estranged horse in a war ravaged battlefield acquires the quality of a graphic novel illustration in this frame.

 

Symbolic yet simple, Asoka's moment of enlightenment at the end of his journey from war to peace.

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SUKANYA VERMA / Rediff.com