"There is no better work than promoting the welfare of the world.
Whatever be my great deeds, I have done them in order to discharge my debt to all beings."
Aŝoka the Great (273-232 BCE)
The epic film Aŝoka portrays the early life of Indian emperor Aŝoka, or Ashoka, the third emperor of the Maurya dynasty and the best known ancient ruler of India.
Identified as the first powerful monarch to practice Buddhism, Ashoka united most of the Indian subcontinent. Throughout the areas of modern-day Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, Ashoka left inscriptions on pillars, boulders, and cave walls listing social and moral precepts which focus on the welfare of all people.
But before he was "Ashoka The Great" he was Ashoka the prince.
Ashoka the prince
This film focuses on Ashoka's life leading up to the Kalinga War, a major turning point for the ruler. According to Asian history expert Kallie Szczepanski author of Ashoka The Great: India's Mauryan Empire, this leader's early years were full of tumult and trouble:
In 304 BCE, the second emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, Bindusara, welcomed a son into the world. The boy's mother Dharma was only a commoner, and he had several older half-brothers. This baby was named Ashoka Bindusara Maurya.
Ashoka grew up to be a bold, troublesome and cruel young man. He was extremely fond of hunting; according to Vedic legend, he even killed a lion using only a wooden stick. His older half-brothers feared Ashoka, and convinced his father to post him as a general to distant frontiers of the Mauryan Empire. Ashoka proved a competent general, likely much to his brothers' dismay, putting down a rebellion in the Punjabi city of Taxshila.
Aware that his brothers viewed him as a rival for the throne, Ashoka went into exile for two years in the neighboring country of Kalinga. While there, he fell in love with a commoner, a fisherwoman named Kaurwaki. The two later married.
Bindusara recalled his son to Maurya after two years to help quell an uprising in Ujjain, the former capital of the Avanti Kingdom. Ashoka succeeded but was injured in the fighting. Buddhist monks tended to the wounded prince in secret, so that his eldest brother, the heir-apparent Susima, would not learn of Ashoka's injuries. Their patient learned the basic tenets of Buddhism from them. A woman from Vidisha called Devi also attended Ashoka during this period - he fell in love with her and married her.
When Bindusara died in 275 BCE, a two-year-long war for the succession erupted between Ashoka and his half-brothers. The Vedic sources vary on how many of Ashoka's brothers died; one says that he killed them all, while another states that he killed several of them. In either case, Ashoka prevailed and became the third ruler of the Mauryan Empire.
For the first eight years of his reign, Ashoka waged near-constant war. He had inherited a sizable empire, but he expanded it to include most of the Indian subcontinent, as well as the area from the current-day borders of Iran and Afghanistan in the west to Bangladesh and the Burmese border in the east. Only the southern tip of India and Sri Lanka remained out of his reach, plus the kingdom of Kalinga on the northeast coast of India.
In 265, Ashoka attacked Kalinga. Although it was the homeland of his second wife, Kaurwaki, and the king of Kalinga had sheltered Ashoka before his ascent to the throne, the Mauryan emperor gathered the largest invasion force in Indian history to that point and launched his assault. Kalinga fought back bravely but was defeated and all of its cities sacked.
Ashoka had led the invasion in person, and he went out into the capital city of the Kalingas the morning after his victory to survey the damage. The ruined houses and bloodied corpses sickened the emperor, and he underwent a religious epiphany. Although he had considered himself more or less Buddhist prior to that day, the carnage at Kalinga led Ashoka to devote himself to Buddhism. He vowed to practice ahimsa ["do not injure"] from that day forward.
About the film Aŝoka
While the film portrays many of the events in Ashoka's life, Shah Rukh Khan says that Aŝoka is not an historical film. "It's a combination of both myth and history," he explains in a Times of India article. "But [director] Santosh Sivan consulted some historians while writing the script. The problem is I do not want to make it look like a documentary and I also do not want to get into unnecessary controversy, as many historical facts are still debatable."
All Bollywood films feature a love interest and here the romance focuses on Ashoka's relationship with Maharani Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor) who was Empress of the Maurya Empire and became the consort of Emperor Ashoka. This is the heart of the film and, ultimately, it's tragedy.
When asked what fascinated him about the character, Shah Rukh Khan explained:
"Look, here was a man who went through a series of changes in different times in his life. And these were radical changes. It was a transformation of a personality, one that explored so many facets in the same person and showed tremendous growth in the process. From the time he was a prince getting ready to be a king, to the time he fought the Great War of Kalinga that changed his life and took him to Buddhism, I mean, Asoka was a character that any actor would cherish playing."
Aŝoka is dedicated to the people of Orissa, formerly known as Kalinga: "Their strength and courage in the face of adversity is a source of inspiration to all Indians." When Aŝoka was released, a portion of the proceeds was donated to the people of Orissa who had been hit by a super cyclone and flooding.
Why I love this film
If you haven't studied the life of Ashoka, you may initially find yourself a bit lost as you try to immerse yourself in a time, culture and (perhaps) language that is very foreign to you. But once you settle in, you find that this is an extraordinarily beautiful film. From the story to the songs to the sets to the stars - here are four elements that make this a film not to be missed.
Story. Whether historical fiction or fictionalized history, the storyline is compelling. The film is deeply layered with a complex cast of characters. Each character is richly detailed through their dialogues, their costumes and their attitudes. This epic drama is let loose in the world through amazing cinematography that gives every stick, every stone, every blade of grass a role to play.
Item Numbers. With music by Anu Malik and lyrics by Gulzar, the songs are upbeat and contemporary while the item numbers seem more primal, percussive, raw (in a good way), thanks to choreography by Farah Khan. The item number "San Sanana" introduces us to Kaurwaki performing a strange and intricate dance. The song "O Re Kanchi" - picturized in a small town with a large population - is essentially the group party dance of the film and it is a delight to watch. The love song, "Roshni Se" is a romantic dream-like sequence which is mystical and haunting.
Battle Scenes. The ancient world is brought to life through carefully crafted iron, stone, and earth. Early on, we see creative battle techniques employed. Characters use weapons unfamiliar to modern-day audiences - including the "urimi" curling blade - and the actors wield them convincingly. The elaborate final battle scene employed over six thousand extras. Some of the actors portraying warriors in the movie were masters of Kalari. Practiced in south India, Kalari incorporates strikes, kicks, grappling, choreographed martial art sequences, and weaponry, as well as healing techniques.
Cast. While the heroes were supported by a cast of thousands, the smaller troupe of supporting actors is outstanding with Johnny Lever as a Magadha soldier, a young Sooraj Balaji as Prince Aryan, Danny Denzongpa as strong man Virat, and Rahul Dev as General Bheema. But you find yourself transfixed as you witness the many transformations of Ashoka, via Shah Rukh Khan, throughout the film. You see his goodness and his evil. You see when he works a strategy and when he acts spontaneously. You see him love and hate. You see him experience joy and devastation. You see him as a man before he becomes "the Great".
Whether you consider this film historical fiction or fictionalized history, this beautiful epic film brings to the screen a captivating journey of the man who would become one of the greatest leaders in Indian history.
The following is a video playlist which includes the trailer and some behind-the-scenes interviews on the making of Aŝoka.
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Originally posted on 28 August 2013. Updated 26 October 2016 to celebrate #15YearsOfAsoka.