When Chakravartin Samrat Ashoka promos started airing on television, the lustrous city walls and graphically enhanced landscapes caught my imagination right away. There was that promise of bringing back a bygone era, with an impressive degree of authenticity. I could almost smell the ink on the parchments, hear the hoof beats of racing horses and see the sculpted carvings on the palace walls in great detail. Was Ashoka going to be a fantastical time machine, capable of transporting me to India’s glorious ancient past in all it’s splendor?
Reconstructing history from 2000 years ago is not a simple task. Besides, the ancient monarch has been like a jigsaw puzzle to historians who have pieced together his life from whatever is left of his rock edicts, pillar, stupas and some versions of Buddhist texts which are often contradicting. Surprisingly, this show has turned these missing puzzle pieces into an area of opportunity. The gaps have been filled with interesting fictional turns with creative imagination. The writer of the show Ashok Banker , is already known for his novels which present fantastical renditions of Indian mythology with unabashed creativity and it looks like his magic is paying off as well on screen as in his books.
The premise of the story is set by Chanakya right when the show begins. There is of course no historical reference of Chanakya’s role in establishing Ashoka on the throne, but there is no reference of him not establishing him on the throne either. Placing Chanakya at the center of the plot is an intelligent attempt to involve viewers to a deeper degree as he often serves as the keyhole through which we get to peep into Ashoka’s life and times. However, I would definitely not watch Ashoka for brushing up my history (for that there are history books). I would watch it for the same reasons I watch all good shows and that’s good creative entertainment.
The major strength of the show is the script. Tightly knitted events follow each other in quick succession and leave no room for filler scenes. Bindusara is a valiant king but surrounded by enemies from all corners. The most dangerous among them is his Greek stepmother, who wants the throne for her son Justin. Chanakya understands the gravity of the danger from this enemy because she is one of the most trusted by the king and therefore impossible to eliminate. This is what leads Chankaya to search for the future savior of his beloved empire and he finds it soon enough in a rowdy kid on the outskirts of Magadh, who charms him with his wit , courage & inherent wisdom.
The story inside the palace walls is no less intriguing. Two queens compete constantly for the king’s affections in hopes of securing the throne for their respective sons. Queen Noor Khorasan is haughty, jealous, and fiercely possessive. To spice up things a little more, she is having an affair with Justin on the side. On the other hand, Queen Charulata , the mother of the eldest son, who feels insecure after Noor’s marriage to the king, has found her refuge in black magic. She believes offering human sacrifices will secure the throne for her son.
The queen mother, Helena, married to Chandragupta Maurya in lieu of the defeat of Selekeus Nikator, holds the secret ambition of destroying Magadh by securing the throne for her son Justin. She is ruthless yet extremely cautious to never reveal her treacherous intentions and no one but Chankaya suspects her. The story therefore is an instant potboiler with elements of treachery, ambition, adultery and occult thrown in with precision. Amidst all of it is an unsuspecting Bindusara who falls in love with Subhadrangi, a regular woman who lives in the jungle teaching Vedas to kids when she is not nursing hurt animals. He is rescued by her after an attack. Even though he marries her, he has to leave her behind when Khorasan finds him and reminds him of duties towards Magadh.
The greatest king to have lived in Indian history, is born out of this union. Ashoka is raised un- aware of his true identity as Subhadrangi keeps the secret guarded from him. He has also been raised strictly on the principles of non-violence. Siddharth Nigam, who plays the teenage Ashoka has done complete justice to the character in more ways than one. The myriad expressions of anguish, love, triumph & conflict reflect on his face effortlessly when he goes through all these experiences soon after he is brought to the city (Thanks to Chanakya’s deliberate plotting!)
What’s notable is the way Ashoka’s inner conflict starts to manifest once he goes to the Royal school with other princes who treat him like dirt, with an exception of Queen Noor’s son. He faces constant physical and mental violence from the spoilt , unscrupulous prince Shusheem, It forces him to fight his inner battle and that’s when he starts questioning the principle of non- violence ingrained in him by his mother. The conflicting shades are a delight to watch: You can see how he yearns for battle almost instinctively but keeps a reign on himself out of an uncompromising love for her mother. Siddharth lends just the right amount of vulnerability to Ashoka at this age, an aspect which will disappear as he grows up and hardens into a cruel war mongering king. He will return to non-violence after Kalinga War, and adopt Buddhism for the rest of his life. The future Mauryan king has been rightly portrayed as competitive, ambitious and even bitter, but his inborn sensitivity towards people in need, and compassion for friends and poor, shines through at apt moments. The characteristics of a great ruler have been showcased meticulously, to establish that despite a dark period in his rule, he was always bound to come back to his original nature of compassion.
While the show has all it takes to ride high on popularity charts due to an intelligent script and good casting, the drama gets a little too overt at times. The raised eyebrows and malicious looks can be notched down a little bit. There’s a little too much effort on display in all the negative characters, intentional ofcourse because what’s Indian TV without a little drama? In my opinion, the subtle is more sinister, especially because the actors playing Helena & Noor seem very promising. The Bindusara –Subhadrangi romance gets dangerously near to Bollywood lines, which is a little incongruous keeping the genre in mind. And on a lighter note, I would have sued Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat if I was Bindusara, for portraying me to be so clueless all the time. He gets attacked time and again yet never finds out who is behind them. When the love of his life, comes to his palace & treats him for days, covered with a thin veil , he never recognizes her, even while having an intimate tete a tete with her! But his scenes with Ashoka make up for everything else. The father-son bond, even though they are unaware of it, is heart warming. The mutual respect is delightful because it brings out the just and unprejudiced Bindusara. Little slips of vocabulary are hard to notice because you are either busy admiring the staggering perfection of costumes or the grandeur of the sets. The camera angles are careful to showcase the VFX effort in full glory. The exquisite sets flanked with the graphically enhanced landscapes are a candy to the eyes.
Just 3 months into the show, the story has galloped at a striking pace and it’s going to keep me hooked for a long time. Ashoka’s story is multi-dimensional. It is as much about his journey to the throne, as Chanakya’s love for Pataliputra. It is as much about Helena’s revenge for the defeat of her father as Subhadrangi’s righteous love and sacrifice. Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat is easily one of the best shows on Colors right now , offering viewers a ride back in time with added flavors of fiction, mystery and splendor. I am sure it will remain as thrilling till the time it does not fall into the usual circle of adding tracks just for the sake of filling screen time, long after the script is exhausted. I And as an eternal hopeful Indian TV viewer, I sincerely hope it never does!