2001 / Colour / 86 m. / UK / France / Germany / India
Starring: Irfan Khan, Puru Chhibber, Sheikh Annuddin, Manoj Mishra, Mandakini Goswami, Sunita Sharma, Anupam Shyam, Noor Mani, Damayanti Marfatia, Trilok Singh
Cinematography: Roman Osin
Production Designer: Adrian Smith
Art Directors: Henry Harris, Roy Aguiar and Isolde Sommerfeldt
Film Editor: Ewa J. Lind
Original Music: Dario Marianelli
Written by: Asif Kapadia and Tim Miller
Produced by: Bertrand Faivre and Elinor Day
Directed by: Asif Kapadia
Reviewed by Lee Broughton
The Warrior (Irfan Khan) works as the chief enforcer for a tyrannical landowner (Anupam Shyam) in Central Asia. He experiences a mystical vision while leading a destructive raid on an unproductive village and vows never to wield a sword again. Unfortunately, his plans to escape to the village of his birth are upset by a personal tragedy that reduces him to a state of near-catatonic torpor. When his former lieutenant (Sheikh Annuddin) is ordered to catch and kill him, another vision prompts the Warrior to stagger into the desert. This marks the start of a journey of recovery and rediscovery, which eventually results in the Warrior being ‘reborn’ through his interactions with the people that he meets along the way.
In 2001, the Indian director Santosh Sivan produced the excellent Asoka. Asoka was a bold and successful attempt to infuse a traditional Bollywood historical epic with the kind of production values and semi-art house aesthetics needed for such a film to be accepted by a sizeable Western audience. In the same year, a young British director, Asif Kapadia, travelled to India to make his own similarly-themed but really quite different film. Although Kapadia used a crew that were mainly from Bombay, and ultimately drew upon elements of his own personal knowledge of Asian culture and cinema, he chose to reject the conventions of Bollywood and instead produced a film that evokes the best elements of the European art house and world cinema traditions.
Everything about The Warrior seems to indicate that the action is taking place at some point in the 18th century, but the locations are so remote, and the basic elements of the story are so timeless, that it could conceivably be set in the present day. The inspiration for the film’s story can be found in a Japanese folk tale and so it’s not too surprising to discover that, when we first meet them, the Warrior and his men bring to mind the type of characters regularly found in the Samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. In fact, Irfan Khan really does look the part. With his long hair, serious face and well-worn body armour, he cuts a moody and threatening figure. There’s a hint of Kurosawa in elements of the cinematography too, particularly the impressively staged horseback sequences.
Reviews of the film’s theatrical run also tended to make reference to the work of Sergio Leone and David Lean. And the reasons for this are fairly obvious: starting in the deserts of Rajasthan and concluding at the top of the Himalayas, the Warrior’s journey is one of epic proportions and it features some exquisitely framed – and at times almost painterly – ultra-wide shots of some fantastic views and locations. The Leone influence seems to extend further, taking in held shots, some extreme close-ups and a couple of scenarios where the taciturn Warrior’s intentions are communicated by a series of intense stares as opposed to formal conversation. But Kapadia’s approach here does not come across as being derivative: the overall impression is that he is simply well versed in, and consequently wishes to communicate via, the cinematic language associated with grand and epic filmmaking.
When the Warrior first heads off into the desert, he seems to be walking nowhere fast and his actions and demeanour bring to mind Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis Anderson character from Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984). But he eventually finds himself back on the trail to his home village, seemingly seeking some form of redemption by offering his help to people who don’t really want it. At this point the film appears to reference Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) but the character relations found in that film are inverted here. First the Warrior attaches himself to a young thief (Noor Mani) who is searching for a family and a place to live, having previously lost everything during a raid on his village. There’s a suggestion here that the Warrior himself might have led the raid.
Then the duo insist on tagging along with an old woman (Damayanti Marfatia) who is trying to get to a Holy Lake in the mountains. She has second sight and can detect the nature of the Warrior’s past by simply touching his face. The trio then impose themselves upon a traveller with a cart (Trilok Singh), who isn’t at all convinced that he needs their company. The Warrior eventually succeeds in helping both the thief and the old woman find what they are searching for but the film holds several dramatic false endings for him. And when he finally reaches his home village, a surprise twist results in the Warrior’s vow of non-violence being sorely tested.
Kapadia himself described The Warrior as being an ‘Eastern’ – that is a Western that happens to be located in the East. I’d go along with that but at the time of the film’s release, such a description ran the risk of selling the film short: back in 2001, it had been a while since a Western as impressive as The Warrior had played in cinemas. The film’s sets, costumes and locations are excellent and a feeling of authenticity is added by some very natural performances by several non-professional actors. Both Noor Mani and Damayanti Marfatia are non-professionals but they handle their main character roles extremely well.
Irfan Khan is a professional actor and he is convincing as the Warrior. Even when Khan successfully adopts a purposefully understated approach (after the Warrior has taken his vow of non-violence, cut his hair and disguised himself as a peasant) the Warrior’s presence still remains commanding. Much as he might try to hide it, the Warrior possesses an aura that implies that he is not a man to be messed with.
The cinematography here is top-notch and virtually every other technical aspect of the show is of an excellent quality too. Dario Marianelli’s superb soundtrack score features the type of dramatic and sweeping movements that are typically associated with historical epics. But he also mixes in slightly more modern sounding pieces that have an almost ‘new age’ quality about them. His music both compliments and amplifies the emotional themes that run through the film.
The Warrior is a tightly edited film but it unfolds at an un-rushed and supremely even pace. And it is so completely involving that it seems to run for much longer than its actual running time of 86 minutes. Ultimately, The Warrior deserves to be classed as an historical epic and it should be filed alongside the very best examples of the genre.
Psychotronic Cinemas rating: Excellent
© Copyright 2002, 2017 Lee Broughton.