Both stylish and stylized, Santosh Sivan's Hindi epic Asoka tells the heavily fictionalized but nonetheless compelling story of India's greatest emperor. In the third century B.C., the Mauryan king Asoka built a vast empire by means of ruthless conquest; but after the great Kalinga war he became sickened by the terrible slaughter he had caused, converted to Buddhism and dedicated the rest of his life to spreading peace and prosperity.
The film, though, concerns itself only with Asoka's rise to power, his love for the princess Kaurwaki, and his subsequent descent into brutality. Shah Rukh Khan is a brooding and temperamental prince who woos the lovely princess Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor) incognito and with the aid of the obligatory song-and-dance numbers. After a promising start involving mythic swords, heroic combat, and King Lear-like sibling rivalry, the film falls into a familiar Bollywood groove for a while until events overtake the unlucky lovers and Asoka turns mean when he thinks his princess is dead. She in turn searches vainly for her handsome hero, not knowing his real identity; and when the tyrannical Asoka attacks her kingdom she leads her people against his armies in a near-genocidal war. The finale, after a wonderfully staged battle that employs 6,000 extras, is genuinely touching.
Throughout, the film works best when striving for a realistic tone, though the fairy tale romance and song interludes are doubtless contrived to please the domestic Indian audience more than cynical Europeans. It's a shame that Asoka's true greatness is never realized on screen, as the story ends before his momentous conversion, but as a film that tackles big themes with real visual flair Asoka nonetheless deserves to find a worldwide audience. --Mark Walker