Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Asoka vs Urumi and Why I Adore Santosh Sivan

After seeing Santosh Sivan's Urumi on the big screen I kept struggling to put another DVD in the player as I had just enough time to watch a movie, but somehow it didn't seem right to wash off the sweet images hanging in each corner of my memory with some other film. Then I remembered that there was one I had been meaning to rewatch which would in fact enhance the memories instead of erasing them: the "other" Santosh Sivan historical, Asoka.

The film tells the story of the early life and deeds of the emperor Asoka, known for his cruelty and conquests, who would later renounce the way of the sword and travel the country to spread the light of Buddhism. It's not a very popular film and I am not entirely sure why. Maybe something to do with it being built on a (beloved?) historical figure most known for his good religious deeds? Maybe something about it being a modern love story in the guise of a historical? Maybe the fact that Shah Rukh Khan actually attempted a different role that did not please his fans? Maybe the inaccuracies which I would know nothing about? It doesn't matter, because from where I'm standing all these reasons are blocked from my sight, so I love it.

I may have gushed on other occasions about my love for Santosh Sivan's artistry, so I won't go over that again, but he is one of only a handful of directors who can make me watch the grass grow in real time without boring me for one second. Asoka was the first movie to convince me of that.

Urumi employs some of the same storytelling devices as Asoka, but it's a much simpler story: it's the story of a warrior out to fight Vasco da Gama's cruelty and with that, Portugal's imminent monopoly on the trading routes from India. I watched Urumi without subtitles and it is a very dialogue heavy film, so a proper review for it will come when the DVD *coughBluRaypleasecough* comes out, but for now I just wanted to put the two films in front of each other and look into the similarities and the reasons that make both of them so fabulous to me.

The Hero

Santosh's hero in Urumi is a powerful display of physicality. We all know that Prithviraj can act, but that did not come first on his list of requirements in Urumi. Badassness did. And that is just fine by me because a warrior needs to be valiant and manly first, and only then can he waste time with trivial dialogue. The character development did not find much room for growth because of that, so Kelu starts off as a perfect hero and ends up the same way. But this is not the type of story that calls for introspection or reflection, so we're happy to just see him slashing through the bad guys and being the perfect embodiment of the strong silent type.

In that respect Shah Rukh's requirements seem to have been the exact opposite. He does well with his displays of testosterone swordsmanship but they are overpowered by his displays of gallantry. Also, his evolution from teenage behaviour to ruthless warrior to finally grow into the man that was known for spreading Buddhism in India makes for a fascinating watch, and it definitely is one of the main reasons why Asoka holds a special place in my heart. A hero battling his demons can be just as engaging as a hero fighting his enemies.

The split personality and his inner conflicts make Asoka far more interesting a hero than Kelu, but that could also be why the film flopped, so I understand the need for a cleaner character. Also I wouldn't know if there were any dark shades in Urumi as I didn't understand any of the dialogues. I would be pleasantly surprised if there were.

The Heroine

Sivan's heroine on the other hand is half woman and half warrior, just the right mix of defiance and sexuality. She is vulnerable because she wants to, not because she's helpless. I can definitely see why the two heroes are attracted to her. Unfortunately for her, Genelia is at a disadvantage because she looks like an awkward teenage boy. This role demanded some curves, some grace, some poise which Genelia doesn't have, in other words she needed to be more woman. Not her fault, she just doesn't look the part. If a woman is to be appealing as a warrior, she must ooze fertility, just like the hero oozes testosterone, otherwise the effect is lost.

Genelia, in order to truly look the part, needed to be this:

and this:

and at the same time, this:

But she only manages to be... this:

Sigh... rather bland. But that's ok, because on the other hand Prithviraj was 100 times the hero that Shah Rukh the loverboy was not. Oh, a film with Kareena as the warrior heroine and Prithviraj as the fearless hero... What a dream that would be!

The Couple Dynamics

We had a lot more fun than we should have watching Kelu and Ayesha's scenes of... courtship (we called it foreplay) where they slash people's throats while staring longingly and menacingly into each other's eyes. It sounds strange, but I find that Sivan likes that kind of dynamic a lot in his couples. It's like love is a fight between the sexes and he will not take displays of weakness from either of them. Philosophically speaking, that's a pretty cool way of looking at it.

I noticed the same kind of relationship between Asoka and Kaurwaki who turn their love scenes into playful battles as well. Granted, that also made Asoka look more like a 90s romantic film than a historical and Sivan seems to have learned from that because he avoided making the same mistake with his main couple in Urumi.

Comic Relief

But flirting as we know it from modern films is not altogether absent in Urumi. It simply gets transferred to the other couple, Kelu's sidekick Vavvali (played by a delightful Prabhu Deva) and his bratty love interest Bala (Nithya Menon). They also serve as the comic relief characters of the film, which decidedly works a lot better than the poorly integrated comic side-plot in Asoka, involving some soldiers and a foxy narrator.

And speaking of relief, though not necessarily comic this time, Urumi also avoided using annoying children as part of the plot. Thankfully! If there is one thing and one thing alone that single-handedly made Asoka unbearable for me it's the little prince Arya. It took a lot of love for everything else in the film for me to get over just how annoying that child actor could be. Granted, the role called for heavy doses of brattiness and entitlement, so the blame does not lie entirely with the poor child actor, but sadly that does not make him more watchable.

The Visuals

Now let's face it, one doesn't always watch a Santosh Sivan film primarily for the plot. Because Sivan has been and will always be a cinematographer at heart, and he never lets us forget that. From the rich jungles of Before the Rains to the symbolically arid backdrop of Tahaan, Sivan's passion for photography never lets his stories down.

Unarguably his most beautiful sets are the great outdoors: lush, misty, humid, fertile with water and greenery. Santosh Sivan's landscapes always look so fresh you want to just take a bite out of them, he invents new colours and textures that nature never knew it had. He also has a knack for finding the world's most delightful waterfalls and using them creatively. The man could make a movie out of a single drop of water and I love him for that. This is one of the reasons I started watching Indian films to begin with and that fascination has not waned ever since.

From this point of view the less action-packed Asoka lingers more on the scenery especially in the first half where it is an integral part of the blossoming love story.

Urumi gets a more concise treatment, though just as beautiful and engaging. Because it's a faster paced story, the forces of nature seem to move faster as well: roaring waterfalls, storms at sea, whirlwinds of fire and smoke...

Every bit as delicious as one would expect from a director like Santosh Sivan.

It would not be fair to talk about the cinematography in Asoka and Urumi without talking about the impressive fights.

Urumi definitely has the better ones, not just because the choreography is a spectacle in itself, but because he combined a great deal of tricks: funky angles, slow motion shots, surreal leaps and twirls in the air, which made for some truly memorable scenes. On the downside, he cheated in this particular one by desaturating the colours during fights. It looked fabulous, there's no denying it, but the transitions were always abrupt enough to make it noticeable. For that reason, I have a feeling I will appreciate the DVD experience a lot more than the big screen because my TV will probably be a lot more forgiving.

Urumi picks up a few of the techniques essayed in Asoka and gives them the royal treatment, which is something I had always secretly wished for when watching the few sword fights and war scenes in the earlier film.

The Symbolism

Maybe because I've already watched Asoka a few times, but I like the symbolism in it better: from Asoka's black and white horses one for each side of his character to the war scenes where his dark side is preventing him from reuniting with a Kaurwaki whom he doesn't yet deserve; from the white ash smeared on the hero's face when grieving for his loved one to the peacock feathers that bring her to his memory every time; from the first conversation prince Asoka has with the monks straight through to his final recognition of the frailty of emperors and rulers... Asoka keeps giving me reasons to rewatch it in hopes of uncovering even more layers every time.

I'm sure Urumi's breathtaking visuals have their own hidden layers and meanings, but I couldn't pick up on them the first time around. The ones I did pick up on seemed too close to the surface and therefore not interesting: the shower of pepper on Vasco Da Gama's body; the gunpowder defeating traditional weapons just like in the present time story progress will destroy tradition; and of course how can we forget the sword itself, a symbol with many meanings: tradition, legacy, valour, manhood. And of course, by being quintessentially South Indian the urumi is a great antonym to the foreign invaders. Because Urumi is at the core an "us versus them" tale, no matter how we spin it.

Which brings me to the last point of differentiation between these two films, and that is the story itself. While Asoka is a journey of discovery, a voyage that takes the hero across experiences and emotions that will guide the main character to his final destination, Urumi is a much more straight-forward revenge saga. But where Urumi loses points on character development and sense of purpose, it gains them right back in tightness of pace and suspense. Because sometimes... you just want to see the hero triumph.

Final word...

I started off writing this thinking I would find plenty of similarities between Asoka and Urumi, Sivan's two great historicals. But as it turns out, they could not be any more different, which is a very pleasant conclusion to arrive to.

Now... on to wait for the Urumi DVD while pretending that I never heard of a shorter international version being in the works for festivals and Western audiences. And of course, on to feed my newly spawned Prithviraj crush!


Anonymous said...

Dustdevil Liz commented

Excellent comparison. I'm going to have to wait until I've seen Urumi to comment more, but my burning question is this: which hero had a better wig?

Anonymous said...

MM commented:

I plan to see Urumi when it releases on DVD (unfortunately they don't get anything but mainstream Bollywood movies where I live), but I was interested by your comparison of it to Asoka. Just from that one song video, the similarities to Asoka were suffocating to my mind. It's as if Sivan can only make the same film over and over again, or at least the same type of film. So, what was astounding in Asoka felt repetitious and robbed of its meaning in Urumi. I didn't even need to see the video of Roshni Se, because I remembered it well enough to immediately spot the same shots in the Urumi song. :( In addition, I could also spot the same weapons and the same kalaripayattu teams as were used for Asoka. Truly depressing.

I was going to ask how many of Sivan's films (as either cinematographer or director) you have seen, but you mentioned at least four, so I want to ask you, don't you think he uses the same visual style in all of them? Some of that lovemaking in the Urumi song was exactly the same as in Sivan's film The Terrorist, which again mirrored many aspects of Dil Se - in visuals, not story.

So you can see that I'm somewhat disenchanted with Sivan by now. I'm glad you still find his images breathtaking instead of boring. Have you seen Raavan/Raavanan? Same beautiful forests, gorgeous waterfalls, shots like paintings. It all produces a big yawn for me. In fact, the only film I can think of where Sivan didn't indulge in all these trademark shots is Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, for which he was cinematographer. So at least he is capable of doing something different.

I don't know if I'm making any sense. My complaint about Sivan isn't that his films aren't beautiful. They are, but in service of what? To make the film itself a work of art, I think that visual beauty needs to be in the service of an overall narrative or point, and I don't think it is, very often.

BTW, about symbolism in Asoka - it's best to be wary of interpreting symbols across cultures. What did you think Asoka smearing "white" ash on his face signified?

Anonymous said...

hari commented:

I havent seen Urumi, so i cant comment on that movie. But i unfortunately saw Asoka.

While the visuals were great, i thought the movie was boring. So clearly Santosh Sivan has failed in delivering in that respect. Another reason the movie sucks for me is that it stars Shah Rukh. He simply could not look convincing in the period film. He looks and acts like Shah Rukh in every film (except Swades and a few others). In Asoka you can add bad haircut to it. The war action sequences were not convincing either.

Dolce and Namak said...

@ Dustdevil: You know, the jury is still out on that one. I was thinking about it a lot and I have to give props to Prithvi's perfectly cut sideburns (sooo very 16th century - NOT :P), but then the faux-hawk that SRK has UNDER the wig is also worthy of a mention. So it's a tie for me. :D

Guess we can't have an Aamir Khan all the time willing to grow his own hair for a role, can we? :(

Dolce and Namak said...

@ Hari - LOL Someone's been sipping on the hatorade this morning, eh? :) Just kidding!

I know there's a lot of hate for Asoka, and I know part of that hate is owed to SRK. Guess I just don't feel the same way about it as most people. While I am far from SRK's greatest fans (in fact I do a great job at avoiding his films and particularly the romantic roles) I found him suitable for this particular one. He does still slip into his annoying mannerisms during the first half, but the saving grace was that he brings an arrogance and a bratty quality to the character that I don't think another actor would have. And it seems to me like that's exactly what the director had in mind, because I know Santosh made considerable efforts in many other aspects of the film to keep it modern and not get lost in the heaviness of a historical film. He wanted the dialougues to be fresh and snappy, he wanted to characters to be relatable, he wanted Asoka to be like every other dude. Whatever his resons were for that I'd say he has succeeded. So whether or not you are aligned with his vision, that's a different question, but for me it worked just fine.

Do I think that SRK could have done better? Yes, for sure. As I also think Genelia could have done much better in Urumi, but unlike Genelia who was completely miscast, I think SRK was a good choice, he just didn't deliver on all counts. Swades convinced me that SRK *can* acty, but it's still a mystery to me why he can't be bothered to do it most of the time. This was still a great improvement compared to all the other stuff I had seen from him before Asoka, so maybe that's why I am always willing to cut him some slack on this film. :D

Also, I was not bored for a second, even after a few rewatches. I always find something that makes me think or that pulls me in. Guess it's a matter of taste...

But I will agree on the wig and the haircut. LOL Pretty fabulous. Expect to also be awed by Prithvi's coiffure in Urumi, I don't think I had enough warning :)

Also, if the "modern feel" annoyed you in Asoka, expect it to also annoy you in Urumi during the scenes between Prabhu Deva and Nithya. Other than that, I think you may like Urumi better than Asoka, for sure it's... cleaner :)

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey mm, I left you for last because this will be the longest reply :)

Like I said, I am aware of all the hate for Asoka, I just don't agree with most of the criticism that it got. Could be my Western mind, or it could be that I'm such a sucker for Santosh Sivan's work in general, though if it were the latter then I'd also be a Sanjay Leela Bhansali fan and that I am not. Speaking of which, everything you said about the empty beauty of Sivan's films for you, that's exactly how I feel about SLB's films. I feel that the cinematography never lives up to the empty stories. With Sivan on the other hand I see a lot more depth in his stories and I find that the visuals do complement the narrative rather than just embelishing it. Maybe I read more that I should into it but I tend to find meaning in everything he puts on the screen, nothing seems gratuitous.

I did see both Raavan and Raavanan and quite a few other films that he has been the cinematographer for and for me it just doesn't get old. Like I said it could totally be the fact that Hollywood doesn't really do this type of cinematography (except for the occasional Lord of the Rings) so for me it's always a treat to watch a movie that puts some emphasis on the visuals too. It's one reason why I love Indian cinema. But I do prefer the films where there is substance behind these great shots too and in Santosh Sivan's films I do find that substance.

Speaking of the visuals, I agree that some are recycled from one film to the other but I don't mind that as long as they have meaning. So for example watching them back to back, I was also surprised at how many elements were repeated from Roshni Se in Aaro Nee Aaro, and I read a bunch of other reviews where other similar elements were mentioned, but like I said, to me it doesn't get old so it's not really relevant that he used the same props or the same poses.

I do disagree vehemently though on the theory that he can only make the same movie. Despite the similarities in shots and poses, you will see that Urumi is a completely different type of film. I tried to touch on some of that when talking about the heroes, but Urumi is very much a perfect hero's tale (which is in complete contrast with Asoka), a revenge story set in a historical background. It doesn't have all the philosophy that Asoka does, it's much more action oriented. Also yes, this would be the fourth film I have seen from Sivan as a director, but I wouldn't even know where to begin comparing Tahaan to any of his other films, for example. So yeah, I think if anything certain scenes in Asoka were a preview for Urumi and they are expanded there, but to say that he can only make the same movie is completely out in the left field, so it's hard for me to even understand that statement enough to comment on it.

Last but not least, to answer your question, I've been known to be wrong before on certain aspects where I am lacking the cultural background, but I would be very surprised if the ash scene in Asoka was not aiming to show a hero defeated by his world getting turned to ashes, and his wish to become one with whatever was left of his loved one. And that is pretty much universal. If there was any religious significance to the gesture then yes, I have missed it, but when I was talking about that scene I was actually thinking more of how the "smeared" face appears in two scenes in the film and every time it's to show another layer of what was Asoka's personality in the beginning getting lost (or "hidden behind a mask" if you will). Of course, more than willing to accept corrections if I am completely wrong in my interpretation.

As far as Urumi goes, I would advise watching it first without too many preconceptions about what kind of movie it is. If you still don't like it, well, that's that :)

Anonymous said...

MM commented:

Hi Dolce, I speak as one who saw Asoka in the theater six (count 'em, 6!) times, so I'm hardly a hater of that film! :)

I'll respond to the rest of your reply in a couple of days, if you don't mind. I'm involved in something that's coming to a head on Saturday, so I'm not sure how coherent I can be in the meantime. (Like that "making the same movie over again" line -- that's how it *feels* to me, not that he is actually making the same movie over and over).

Anonymous said...

Louella commented:

I hate how you dissed Genelia. and the movie in whole.
Genelia was for me defenitely good. And Bebo's character was still deifferent. I actually planned to write my review of Urumi in the same way, I mean comparing it to Asoka but then I just though that these movies are way different, even if they seem pretty same.

Dolce and Namak said...

Ooooh, mm, in that case I envy you so much! :) I would LOOOVE to have seen Asoka even once in the theatre!

Take your time with the answer for sure! I'm not going anywhere :)

Anonymous said...

Nicki commented:

I thought Asoka was loved? Or maybe money wise, it didn't do well?

It's funny you compare it with Asoka cause Louella did the same thing.

I don't know when I will buy another dvd. Okay, when Vedam offiically releases :D but I haven't watched much!

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Nicki, heh... as far as I know Asoka bombed at the box office and there is not a whole lot of love for it generally speaking :(

And yes, I'm not surprised that comparing the two is not terribly original :D When you watch Urumi you'll see that they are practically begging to be compared even if they are totally different films. The historic context, the cinematography, the relationships between the characters, you'll see why it's so easy to think of Asoka while watching Urumi (or the other way around depending on which one is first).

I would totally recommend Urumi on BluRay when it does come out, it's going to be worth it in my opinion. And for all we know, it may even be before Vedam! LOL

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Louella, well, nothing I can do about you hating the fact that I dissed Genelia, but I did not find her adequate. I don't think she's woman enough for a role that demanded her to be all woman and all fighter at the same time. We can certainly agree to disagree.

But I definitely did not diss Urumi, I thought I was pretty clear on loving it. Wonder where you got that idea. There are certain things that I loved more about Asoka, namely the character development (which is pretty much inexistent in Urumi) and the general philosophy of the film (because Asoka is a film about redemption whereas Urumi is a film about revenge), but then when I see Urumi with subtitles I am sure there will be elements in it that I love more as well.

And yes, I completely agree: they are different movies. Hence my last paragraph there :)

Thanks for the link too, I'll be sure to check out your review! Cheers!

Dolce and Namak said...

Well... hopefully that takes care of all of them, I had to copy and paste from my email as the option to republish the original comments was not available. So that means you're all showing as anonymous :(

But better than nothing I think, so have at it if anyone still feels like pitching in :) And thank you for the patience everyone, it took me forever to redo this post, I hate having to write something all over again.

Anonymous said...

Awesome review of the film.

I liked the film, the visuals and the dialogues as well in it except for two things.

1. Prabhu Deva’s own dubbing was jarringly out-of-place in this film. While he was supposed to have the Malabar Muslim Malayalam slang (which we mallus consider to be the toughest slang in the toughest Indian language), his voice sounded more Tamil than Malayalam.

Cant blame him for it, but the director should have done something about it.

2. The second half was slightly boring…….. including the buildup to the climax.

Apart from Prithviraj, Jagathy Sreekumar has also done a brilliant job in this film.


Anonymous said...

and if you want to watch more of Prithviraj, I have a few recommendations:

1. Thirakkatha, Classmates, Arjunan Saakshi, Thalappavu in Malayalam

2. Mozhi in Tamil.


Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Ajit, Glad to find more people who liked Urumi. I can totally get your frustation on the first point, as I am sure that would really bug me in a language that I speak or understand (accents are usually one of my pet peeves: if an actor can't get it right, something should be done about it, it's unacceptable), but I suppose these are the moments when I am happy that I don't speak any of these languages. That way my enjoyment of the movie is not spoiled by things like that.

And I do agree with you on point 2. We thought that the subtitles would help a lot with that, because we were quite bored in the second half. I always blame it on the lack of subtitles especially with movies that are very wordy, but yes, we knew where the story was going, so at that point it was all about getting it there. But I'm still fairly sure I would have been a lot less bored had I understood the dialogues. That's why I cannot wait for the DVD :)

Oh! And THANK YOU for the Prithi reccos, I already bought Classmates and plan to watch it soon, and noticed that Mozhi is now available with subs (which it wasn't in the past) so planning on hitting that one on my next shopping spree. I'll keep an eye on the other 3 you mentioned as well, I love having a new crush :) So much to discover and explore! :D

Thanks for the visit and for the recoos! :)

zeeniebaby said...

I came to your blog through Beth's and am now going through all your old posts.

I have not seen Urumi but I wanted to say something about Asoka. I loved the movie and I love SRK (don't judge me, I was 15 when DDLJ came out). Having said that, I can see why the movie did not do very well. The entire Pawan-Kaurwaki love story in the movie has no historical basis as far as I know. There is some reference to a Kaurwaki (a fisherman's daughter) in history who was probably Asoka's second wife but even the people who believe this interpretation, say that she was forced in to marrying Asoka after the defeat of Kalinga. This historical inaccuracy would not have been a very big deal but Asoka (the emperor) is very highly regarded in India so much so that the national emblem of India is an adaptation of the lion capital on an Asokan pillar. Given this background, it was a little difficult for most people to swallow one of the most respected characters from Indian history prancing around with a nearly naked princess of Kalinga under the waterfall. Beautiful though it was, the love story came across as a gratuitous attempt to draw crowds. I do believe that this was the case because the marketing campaign for the movie put a lot of emphasis on the star-crossed lovers angle often at the expense of the personal growth part of the story. Even though I like the movie, I have to remind myself that this is just a cinematic interpretation and I should not take it very seriously. In your earlier (or maybe later) post you were wondering about how Indians can so easily accept the reinterpretations of Ramayana. As an Indian and a Hindu, for me, this reinterpretation of history was a lot more blasphemous than any interpretation of religious mythology.

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey there zeeniebaby! And welcome! :) Glad you made your way dowen here and flattered that you stayed to read other posts! :D

I love that you're more ok with interpretations of the Ramayana than with a fictional take on Asoka. I don't think it works the same for those of us who grew up with Hollywood, famous for bastardizing any kind of history inspired personality or situation. LOL We must be so used to it that we don't even notice it anymore (point in case I've been looking forward to Immortals for half a year even though I know the inaccuracies related to Greek mythology will piss me off to no end).

So while I did know about the issue you're describing regarding the perception of Asoka, to me it still doesn't seem like such a big deal. :) Then again, I come from a culture where no one is sacred, to the point where in primary school along with the heroic poems you also learn the rhymes that mock those same heroic poems and historical personalities. :) So an Asoka philandering with some princess would be perfectly acceptable in my culture.

That may be the main difference. That said, I do appreciate the explanation. Anything that makes me understand why people react in a negative way to a movie I really liked helps.

Hope to see you again and looking forward to more comments wherever you see me completely perplexed. :)

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