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Shah Rukh Khan
Gerson Da Cunha
Author, Making of Asoka
Hype 'n' Hoopla
Buoyed by the tremendous response Santosh Sivan's Asoka got at the recent Venice film festival and the delayed screening at the Toronto event, its producers are confident that they have a winner in their hands.
The film, produced by Shah Rukh Khan's banner -- Archlightz and Films Pvt Ltd -- will get the biggest ever release for a Hindi film in the UK and US on October 26.
"In UK, Asoka is prime for a crossover," the film's associate executive producer and US distributor, Mark Burton says from his Los Angeles office. He added that the film will open on 80 screens in UK, even in theaters which have never screened Hindi films in the past.
Big productions such as Sooraj K Barjatiya's Hum Saath Saath Hain Aditya Chopra's Mohabbatein and Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan performed very well in the UK market. But in each case, the film was released on less than 30 screens -- all showing Hindi films exclusively.
"South Asian culture is now a part of the British culture," Burton states. "In the US, it is little bit behind, but it is catching up. The consciousness of the Indian film culture is making its presence felt in American culture, though it does not have the same level of penetration."
In US and Canada (commonly referred to as the North American market), Asoka is scheduled to open on at least 68 screens, Burton informes. So far, the credit for the biggest Hindi film opening -- on 59 screens -- belonged to Hum Saath Saath Hain in 1999.
Asoka is Sivan's fourth film as a director. He had pitched in Shah Rukh while the two were on top of train shooting a song, Chaiyan Chaiyan, for Mani Ratnam's Dil Se in 1998.
Sivan's works as a cinematographer include Ratnam's Roja (1992) and Iruvar (1997), Shaji Karun's Vanaprastham (1999), Aziz Mirza's Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000), Khalid Mohamed's Fiza (2000) and Raj Kumar Santoshi's Pukar (2000).
In 1998, he directed a small independent film inspired by Rajiv Gandhi's assassination -- The Terrorist. The film won the top prize at the Cairo International Film Festival and found patrons in actor John Malkovich (who wrote a major article on the film for The New York Times) and nationally syndicated film critic Roger Ebert. Shown at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, the film went on become an art house hit in the US.
Burton, a line producer for several Indian film production companies, first met Sivan during the shooting of producer Boney Kapoor's Pukar in the US. (Burton's first Hindi film was Kapoor's Judaai, where he arranged for the shooting of the film's songs in California and Nevada). The two ended up collaborating on The Terrorist, with Burton, the executive producer, bringing the Malkovich and the Ebert support to the film.
Another sign of the strength of Asoka -- star Shah Rukh Khan is making a second trip to UK to promote the film. He will attend two premiere screenings on October 23 and 24. From there, he will head to New York for the big opening night event on October 25.
In September, Khan and Sivan released the film's soundtrack in New York, en route to the Toronto Film Festival. Their stay got extended due to the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
For the UK release, Asoka's marketing has included a cover story in this week's Time Out magazine, Burton says.
"Shah Rukh is on Breakfast TV. The major media outlets are running pieces on the film. The buzz on the film in UK -- not only in the Indian community but for the rest of the country -- is quite high. This is a commercial mainstream film and it's being marketed in a very commercial mainstream way."
In the US, Asoka will be released in a combination of traditional Hindi film theaters, mixed with the more mainstream Hollywood circuit screens. In Queens, New York, the film will open in a United Artist theater and Jackson Heights Triplex -- a 600 seat screen.
Burton added that in smaller markets such as St Louis, Missouri, Huntsville and Alabama, the subtitled version of the film will open for a week in multiplexes. Normally, these cities show Hindi films over the weekend.
A Tamil version of Asoka will be released in Southern California, New Jersey and Toronto.
"Ajit (who plays the role of Susima in Asoka) is a big Tamil star. In fact, the posters of the film in South India show Ajit's imagine larger than Shah Rukh's," Burton says.
Also in the works, is a re-release of the film in 2002 for the mainstream American audience. That version of the film will carry fewer songs, and will be distributed through the channels of a major theatrical chain, he adds.
Burton is also considering releasing Asoka in Manhattan.
"Manhattan is a tricky zone because it is a crowded film market. There are so many western films opening in the city on the same day."
In the past, film distributors have tried to release Hindi films in Manhattan, but the results have been mixed.
Last year, Sony released Mission Kashmir in a Times Square theater. Again this summer, Lagaan was screened in a multiplex in the Battery Park City area.
Both the films fared much better in the tri-state area, outside of Manhattan. Attempts by film distributors and exhibitors to run theaters in Manhattan, which are exclusively dedicated to Hindi films have met with failures.
Burton also reiterated Shah Rukh's and other Hindi filmmaker's strong statements against video and DVD piracy.
"It is an epic, a huge film with 7,000 extras and hundreds of elephants," Burton says. "It must be experienced on a big screen. It's fine to re-live the memory on a DVD, but the fact is that this is an experience that we want people to have in the theater."