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Sivan seems to aspire to the technique of Kurasawa. Incidentally, he studied the style of Subroto Mishra, Satyajit Ray's cameraman


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Anu Malik's let-down in Yaadein


Love, violence and renunciation  

Sony Music

Rs 65

Asoka is a celluloid spectacle about an emperor who renounced violence when he realised its horrendous human cost. It stars Shah Rukh and features Anu Malik's music 

Asoka (also spelled Ashoka) is remembered as a great conqueror who turned to pacifism after he fought and won a big war. He saw the death and destruction it had wrought, and was moved to renounce violence. This is an appropriate time to remember that king, and also the Buddha, who inspired feelings of compassion and peace in him. As the Western world prepares for war against the Taliban, the Buddha may yet show at least some individuals, if not nations, a way out of hate.

Don't know how much of the Buddha's philosophy of ahimsa Asoka the movie endorses, but terror and violence have been a recurrent theme in the oeuvre of Santosh Sivan, the southern camera wizard. He earlier made The Terrorist and explored the roots of violence for a cause.  That film brought him the Jury Prize at the Cairo International Film Festival in 1998. And Asoka has received praise at the Cannes film festival this year.

Sivan filmed Chaiyya Chaiyya for Mani Ratnam's Dil Se, and between shots, briefed Shah Rukh on the Asoka script. His objective was to chronicle the emperor's life with the help of season changes -- to capture through nature images the path from lust and war to love and acceptance. Sivan seems to aspire to the technique of Kurasawa. Incidentally, he studied the style of Subroto Mishra, Satyajit Ray's cameraman.

The songs of Asoka are composed by Anu Malik, and the background score by Sandeep Chowta. Ranjit Barot, who worked with Anu Malik on Aks, is again his music arranger for this album, and you will see plenty of his attractive arrangement style here. But about it a little later.

Asoka belonged to the Mauryan dynasty, one of the most glorious lineages in Indian history. He lived in the third century B.C.

Shahrukh Khan, whose career has been on the wane after a string of flops, plays Asoka. Kareena Kapoor plays princess of Kalinga, Kaurwaki. The film shows Asoka waging a war against the prince of Kalinga, whom she loves, to win her over. Historian M N Das has another point of view: he says Kaurwaki was a Buddhist monk who brought Asoka to the path of non-violence.

The epic life of Asoka is a fit subject for a celluloid spectacle. Sivan says, "As the seasons change, the quality of light changes too. Monsoon light has a nostalgic kind of timeless quality. One doesn't know what time of the day it is, and the light is soft and it portrays the face in a tender way. This is in contrast with the bright, hot sun, which is violent, expressive and dramatic. We extended these kinds of light ... to enhance the arc of Asoka's character."

He says he didn't want to make another "run-of-the-mill period film" with too much "symmetry and painterly qualities".

Coming to the period question, our review of Lagaan, which we meant as reasonably positive, irked a lot of Rahman fans who thought it was unfair. Well, the point I was making was that the tunes were simple and likeable, but there was little in the orchestra to evoke its period. I guess the same complaint can be voiced against Asoka. If you are a music buff who pays attention to how an orchestral texture is achieved, and you are looking for a score using old, acoustic (non-synth) instruments, you'll again be disappointed. Except for a veena and a sarod somewhere, the orchestra is very trendy and present-day sounding, and could have been composed for any film set in recent times.

That of course is a matter of debate, and people can argue that a modern film made in modern times about an ancient king is well justified in using a modern orchestra. Agreed, but isn't it an opportunity lost, an opportunity to explore the tonal beauty of instruments ignored or forgotten?

To take the grouse further, whatever the period and the setting, composers come up with either the latest sounds of Hindi film music or lazy adaptations of Hollywood blockbusters like The Godfather, The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur and Dr Zhivago, sometimes all in one song!

To its credit, Asoka uses a lot of the flute. The theme is rich in flutes, and Sandeep Chowta also uses a bit of the veena. No credit mentioned on the well-designed silver-coloured inlay card, but he had earlier worked with Jayanti Radhakrishnan. The theme is rather Chinese in orientation -- after all the Buddha's influence had spread all over Asia -- and it is rendered like a Western classical item, with a backing piano and violin ensemble.

Raat ka nasha comes in two versions, one by Chitra and then a second time by her and Abhijeet. Initially it sounds like a new age track with voices singing far away. Later the number takes on a more Indian, and sultry, turn.

Abhijit and Alka Yagnik sing Roshni si. A deep, resounding Tibetan Buddhist chant evolves into a soft number. But after the first two lines Anu Malik lapses into lollipop lines, a throw back to his earlier tunes. The male voice singing snatches of an alaap is riveting. The violins definitely belong to a film like Fall of the Roman Empire. The sarod redeems the song to some extent, and the balailaka on the stanzas is a borrowed idea. Abhijit sounds uncannily like Anu Malik in his enunciation.

San sanana starts off impressively. The "thak thakita" stays on as a leitmotif in the song, reminding you of the rhythmic thakita thakita tha of Rahman's Thee thee thithikkum thee from Mani Ratman's Tiruda Tiruda. Alka Yagnik and Hema Sardesai sing this number.

The inlay card informs you that the lyrics of this song are by Anand Bakshi and the sound design is by Ranjit Barot. Does that mean he programmed the synths? Going by the sound of the other songs, he must have worked on them too. The other songs are written by Gulzar.

If there's anything remotely attempting period feel, this must be it. The first interlude shows some phakawaj sounds (scores in Amrapali and Chitralekha, both dealing with Buddhist converts, come to mind). The flutes hark back to a bygone era in their deliberately atonal wanderings, and there are some chimes too.

Aa tayar hoja by Sunidhi Chauhan is recycled from the Fiza song filmed on Sushmita Sen, Mehboob mere.

O re kanchi is the typical Hindi film version of a pahadi dhun, with all the mandatory masala.

The emphasis in this Anu Malik album is on Hollywood-style  grandeur, with lush violins playing very Western phrases, and tunes that could have been composed for tomorrow's music video. This may be pacy music that people dance to, and by Anu Malik's standards this may be one of his better efforts, but it shows none of the introspective musings of a great Indian emperor.

S Suchitra Lata

Published on 22 September 2001

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