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Film review: Asoka

The ability to appreciate the peculiar style of the so-called Bollywood (or "Bali-wood," to be more accurate) method of filmmaking may be beyond the capacity of today's mainstream moviegoing audiences.

After all, the not-so-smooth blending of seemingly disparate movie genres (usually action, romance, comedy and musicals, jumbled into one big package) and the customary three-hour running time don't really fit into the sensibilities of those who have grown accustomed to MTV-style, quick-cut editing and other gimmicky filmmaking techniques.

But there's something to be said for Indian blockbusters, even something as clearly flawed as "Asoka." While it doesn't quite stack up with the best of recent Indian imports — especially the Oscar-nominated "Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India " — this handsome historical epic does have a lot to recommend it.

"Asoka" retells the legend of the title character (Shahrukh Khan), a 3rd-century prince who rose to power in India, and — having seen the errors of his ways — later became a man of peace.

The movie traces his beginnings as a warrior who led his kingdom's forces to victory against a neighboring kingdom. However, he is unable to ascend to the throne because of his jealous stepbrother (Ajit Kumar), who attempts to have him assassinated.

While Asoka wants to stay and fight, his mother pleads with him to leave, which he does. Under an assumed name (Pawan, or Cloud, which is actually the name of his faithful steed), he finds himself in a remote kingdom. There, he's beguiled by a mystery woman (Kareena Kapoor), who turns out to be Kaurwaki, a princess accompanying her younger brother, Arya (Suraj Balaje). Ironically, the young prince has also been denied his kingdom's crown because of usurpers.

However, it appears that fate itself is standing in the way of Asoka and Kaurwaki's romance, and upon his return, he becomes bloodthirsty and vengeful.

The film points out that this is a very loose adaptation of the tale (screenwriter Saket Chaudhury and director Santosh Sivan have taken some liberties with the material). And Sivan's peculiar staging of the action scenes ensures that they're not as convincing as they should be.

But he's got a wealth of material and a fabulous cast. As good as Khan is, it's the riveting Kapoor who commands attention; when her character disappears from the movie, even briefly, it suffers.

"Asoka" is rated R for scenes of violent warfare (swordplay, arrow fire, hand-to-hand combat and even some slapstick), gore, some extremely suggestive dance moves and some mildly vulgar humor. Running time: 169 minutes.