AS more and more Bollywood pictures cross over into the English-speaking market, so India’s populist superstars are looking to conquer new audiences in the West.
Asoka, based on the legend of a bloodthirsty Indian monarch who killed thousands before renouncing violence for Buddhism, is resolutely a star vehicle for Shah Rukh Khan, one of the premier stars of the Bollywood firmament.
Previously seen in a string of so-called ‘Mumbai masalas’ – musical soap operas – that have included smash hits such as Mohabbatein and Dil Se, Khan here makes his break for acceptance overseas by tackling the part of a legend in a spectacular period epic.
Directed by Santosh Sivan, an Indian whose last movie, The Terrorist, received plaudits wherever it played, Asoka attempts to take itself rather too seriously.
It also takes its time. The version played for reviewers clocked in at more than two-and-a-half hours, while the final version scheduled for release in the UK has been trimmed down to a more manageable two hours. In doing so, little of the plotting and action has been lost, and therein lies a telling truth.
Most of the commercial films emerging from India these days are three and sometimes four-hour extravaganzas of music and colour. Plotting is generally perfunctory and, often, almost non-existent, relying on a touch of romance, a fight, some enthusiastically delivered song-and-dance numbers and a couple of good-looking male and female leads.
And so it is with Asoka. Khan ambles through the plot looking as if he’s just stepped straight out of a five-star hotel. He wears his hair in a modern style, speaks in contemporary vernacular (one warrior shouts “Enough already!” to his warring emperor in an example of the frequently banal script) and generally presents himself as Indian audiences would want to see him.
To homegrown audiences on the Indian sub-continent, Asoka will doubtless deliver what is expected. To foreign audiences, however, and especially those expecting a conventional historical biopic, it will be greeted with a mixture of puzzlement and disdain, mainly due to Khan himself.
To be blunt, he lacks the range and robustness to inhabit the character of a monarch who undergoes such a radical transformation. Yet there is also fault to be laid at the feet of Sivan, who allows the romance between Khan and leading lady Kareena Kapoor (playing a warrior princess) to drag on interminably.
When the time comes for Asoka to go to war, the conflict is over in a few cavalry charges and stylishly choreographed sword fights. Whatever message lies beneath the story is muddled and lost.
Asoka is a brave stab at what should have been a triumphant incursion into Western cinemas. It will be applauded by all who adore the formulaic traditions of the Bollywood picture, but I suspect wider audiences may be left wanting.