[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written in 2001]
Asif Kapadia’s accomplished debut feature (following on from his acclaimed short “The Sheep Thief”) offers a variation on a classic story – feared bad guy tries to go straight, and his former employers put a price on his head. 29-year-old Kapadia himself has described it as a samurai film set in India (in, erm, “Hindu”, as the BBC review has it), and has said that it took its inspiration from a Japanese folk tale. The film was awarded the Sutherland Trophy at the 2001 London Film Festival, and lives up to the brief: an original and imaginative first feature. (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)
While the story is pretty well-worn, Kapadia’s variations and visual brio work well with the journey from Rajasthan’s deserts to the Himalayas. The Warrior, Lafcadia (Irfan Khan) is the ruthless head of a warlord’s private band of warriors, who, in the process of meting out punishment to a village late with its dues, has a mystical encounter with a young girl he is about to kill. The girl is wearing his son Katiba’s amulet, which Katiba (Puru Chibber) gave to her when she saved him from a group of bullies. Returning to himself, he immediately runs home and flees with his son. On hearing this, the warlord (Anupam Shyam, full of detached, bored menace) demands his head. While his father prays at a shrine for safe passage, Katiba returns home to get his knife, is captured by the warriors loyal to the warlord, and taken, along with the head of a lookalike, by Lafcadia’s former deputy, Biswas. Pressured to identify the severed head as his father’s by the deputy, whose own neck is on the line, Katiba does so, and his throat is slit – witnessed by Lafcadia, who has slipped unnoticed into the watching crowd. Lafcadia flees, and on his subsequent journey of redemption and retribution encounters a young orphan thief (Noor Mani), and an elderly blind woman on a pilgrimage.
Although The Warrior calls to mind the unswerving trajectory of a Western, the preoccupation with landscape, a real urge to situate, it recalls the early Chen Kaige, Yellow Earth (1984) in particular, with its curious mix of anthropology and epic, even heroic framing. Set in a barren desert region, where spilt water leaves no trace, Lafcadia’s band display a barrenness too – disrupting sacred and communal moments, raping and pillaging. The contrast between their behaviour in that landscape, and the cool contemplative atmosphere of the mountain towards which Lafcadia instinctively heads gives the film much of its momentum. Casting for faces, as Kapadia has admitted, has its merits too, especially in such a silent film. The textural qualities of the film are enhanced both by the extremely distinct cast members (some non-actors) and their controlled performances, and by the sound design, which privileges the background to an unusual degree. Asif Kapadia’s boldness – in design and execution – is to be commended, and though it’s rather slow, and rather simplistic, its many merits far outweigh the gripes. And he’s from Hackney, so this is one gangster-heavy Britflick you don’t need a frontal lobotomy to enjoy.