A couple of years ago, there was a little buzz about a film by a British filmmaker of Indian origin, Asif Kapadia. It was called The warrior, and went on to do rather well in the indie film circuit. But it took a long time to release on DVD here in the States. It finally was released last month, and I finally watched it a week ago.
As the titles rolled out on screen, in a stark desert backdrop, a warrior appeared, practicing his swordcraft. And soon, we plunged right in to the story. The DVD cover described this as “a timeless epic tale, of a warrior’s change of path, and quest for meaning in life.” Those words of course are used by marketing wizards to describe just about all movies, so don’t count for much.
But the tale is set in India, in the desert climes of Rajasthan, in feudal days gone by. It’s the story of Lacfadia (played by Irfan Khan), a yodha, a warrior-enforcer of a small-time local warlord. A normal day at work for Lacfadia would be to ride out on horseback with his band of fellow warriors, and raid and pillage a village or five on the behest of his bloodthirsty lord. But then, he would return from work to a home where his teenage son Katiba lives. A boy still dreaming of one day becoming a warrior, but currently busy in play, and visiting village markets.
On one routine raid-and-pillage act in a village, Lacfadia has “a moment”. One moment of blinding vision, just as he’s about to hack the head off a little girl. It’s his moment of nirvana. He drops his sword, and walks away from the battleground, abandoning his band of warriors. He then vows never to take up arms again, and tries to escape with his son.
But his lord is enraged at his abandonment, and sends out his warriors (Lacfadia’s own former mates) for Lacfadia’s head. If you’ve seen any more than five movies in your life, you will guess that along the way, tragedy will happen, and there’s little chance for Lacfadia’s son Katiba to survive. You’ll be right. But then, to keep the movie going, Lacfadia will have to escape, and he does, and he makes his way up north to the Himalayas.
Where else does an Indian go in search of peace and enlightenment?
Along the way, he makes the unlikeliest of friends, and meets simple, normal village folk, from whom he’ll learn much.
But this movie is not only about the story. There’s little hidden here, and the director, Kapadia, draws rather obvious inspiration from the classic “man with no name” Westerns, and much more so from the classic Samurai movies that made legends out of directors like Kurosawa and actors like Toshiro Mifune. This movie pretty well might be the first Indian Samurai film, made in Hindi.
Of course, it turns out that it’s not an Indian movie, but a British one, but why split hairs?
Like all good Samurai movies, this movie too builds slowly, and you are drawn to Lacfadia’s character as he wanders along the countryside. There are plenty of moments of subtle humor, as events seem to pass us by, just like all good Samurai movies must have. It remains, to the very end, a very earthy story, not a fantasy about great warriors with spectacular armies and magical powers, but a simple soldier-warrior, encountering peasants, and armed with a rusty old sword (which he renounces anyway).
And of course, he’s being pursued by his former-friends turned enemies. Which obviously means he’ll be forced to lift up the sword again. And the story slowly builds towards this inevitable, inescapable end.
In reality, the story is just average. Kapadia is so much in awe of the greats who made the Samurai flicks that he misses out on fleshing out the story well enough. There aren’t too many sub-plots that add to storylines. The buildup to the final confrontation leaves much to be desired. The final confrontation of Lacfadia with the other warriors, and his revenge (over his son’s death) is rather tame. His final enlightenment has a little twist, but nothing unpredictable.
But why am I complaining? Even simple, mediocre stories when made well can rise towards excellence. And Kapadia’s movie does that, through its moments and performances. The cinematography is absolutely spectacular. The arid desert landscapes of rural, medieval Rajasthan are captured beautifully, from the sand-dunes to the mud huts and forts, to the colorful people and camels. A far better job than any tourism website can boast of. And as Lacfadia goes towards the Himalayas, the transition from desert sand to rock to green and water, and finally snow is just breathtaking. There is obvious symbolism too, and the stark harshness of the desert to the calm serenity of the Himalayas accompany the transformation of Lacfadia himself and the completion of his quest.
Most of all, Irfan Khan underplays Lacfadia’s role to perfection. I’ve always been very impressed by the man, who consistently impressed in roles as varied as the menacing Ranvijay Singh in the excellent commercial flick Haasil, or the brilliant Indian Macbeth, Maqbool. Here, it’s his show from start to finish. Lacfadia’s little teaser games with his son, or his confrontation moments are all performed perfectly by Khan.
Dash it. The marketing buzzwords of “poetic, timeless, beautiful” work just fine for this movie.