It’s quite off the beaten track, so it’s not really a touristy area.
—Asif Kapadia, commentary
As you spend some minutes watching the first, stunning shot in The Warrior, director Asif Kapadia explains his thinking about it. While it does some usual business, like “setting up the character and tone,” rendering masculine ritual and the warrior’s definitive loneliness, it also suggests the film’s interest in aesthetic particulars: no matter how violent or frankly awful the action, no matter how distressing its “male kind of universe” (as Kapadia calls it, by which he means a “very violent world”), the film repeatedly offers lyrical, even delicate imagery. The idea, he says, is that this world becomes “a lot more feminine,” as the warrior suffers and comes to terms with the suffering he inflicts.
The film, part of Miramax’s “clearing house” rush of releases to U.S. theaters last year, traces this world in the relationship between a father and son, which is disrupted when, as noted by Kapadia, “one of them is taken away.” In addition to the commentary track, Kapadia elaborates on his themes in “Making of The Warrior,” which describes the process from original story to production (with attention to stunts and weather), with surprising little narration and some breathtaking shots. He says, “It’s not an Indian movie, it’s not a Hindi movie. It’s not got songs or anything like that… [It uses the] aesthetics of European art cinema or commercial cinema, hopefully… things that I kind of know about.”
Working with an international crew and over a broad landscape, Kapadia focuses his film intently on the ways that the loss of Katiba (Puru Chibber) will affect his father, the warrior Lafcadia (Irfan Khan). A mournful meditation on killing for a living, by turns poetic and preachy, the movie follows the crisis of conscience suffered by a Rajput mercenary, and his efforts to make sense of his remorse and the bloody horrors he’s left in his wake. Lafcadia does his damage in India’s northwestern desert, his warlord’s (Anupam Shyam) most efficient, most ruthless minion, willing to menace, rape, behead, and brutalize peasants who fall behind on paying their taxes. Commanding his men, including the ambitious Biswas (Aino Annuddin), with deft assurance, Lafcadia rebuffs his son’s pleas to come along for a raid, less because he wants to protect him than because the boy is unable to keep track of his prized dagger, handed down from his grandfather.
As efficient as he is over a long and fearful career, Lafcadia is almost instantly determined to change, during a harrowing attack. Arriving at Tarang village (the lord has sent him with the directive: “Teach them a lesson”), he faces a young girl while his killers obediently whirl and strike down unarmed citizens all around him. Time seems to freeze and fly at once: Lafcadia is suddenly surrounded by snow and wind, then heat and dust, as well as the ghosts of his many victims. “Not a word is said,” observes Kapadia, but Irfan Khan’s eyes convey all the pain and narrative you need. “It looks almost like a painting,” the director says of the snowy backdrop for the warrior’s meeting with the girl, “But it’s real. We’re up in the middle of the Himalayas.” As Lafcadia drops his sword, never to pick it up again, Kapadia remarks the close-up of his feet—surrounded by desert, yet with snow beneath them, as his brief, alarming mystical transportation has left a physical remnant. “I’m a big fan of close-ups,” he says. “I just love cutting from a close-up to a huge wide shot.”
Such contrast makes clear the shift in the warrior’s perspective. Now, the smallest detail is meaningful to him. He returns to his lord and declares he must stop his butchery, that he’s had a sign. The ruthless warlord sees this decision as disloyalty (“No one leaves my service”), and sends the warrior’s own men to execute him. As Lafcadia has already sworn he will “never lift a sword again,” he’s at a disadvantage when the vengeance-takers show up.
Soon alone and bereft, the warrior endeavors to lose himself in the Himalayas, where, Kapadia says, they used fans to blow sand, which clogged machinery and nostrils: “I will not be doing a sandstorm shoot again in a hurry, I tell you.” In this desolate, unforgiving space, Lafcadia sees again the mystical mountainscape, a probing close-up of his eyes revealing that this distant otherworld is “what’s calling him.” At this point, unable to defend himself against nemeses, he’s actually in need of help. He finds this in the form of a young thief, Riaz (Noor Mani), who admires the warrior as a model of virility and courage. Kapadia says of his young actor: “What we had was a kid who from the age of seven had been living rough. He knew that character much better than I ever could. I think he found it quite tough, I think he has some of the toughest scenes in the film.”
A blind woman (Damayanti Marfitia) has a wholly other reaction to the warrior, however, rejecting his help and announcing, “I don’t want your help. I’ll go on alone,” because, she says, “There’s blood written all over your face.” Try as he might, Lafcadia cannot escape his past, which means—no surprise—he must return to the violence he has renounced in order to save someone else. The director sees the The Warrior as “timeless,” because its themes remain pertinent (though “architecturally, I suppose, it’s 18th century”). At the same time, its immediacy is underlined by Roman Osin’s astonishing cinematography (endless horizons, bleak deserts, smoldering, post-attack villages, and repeatedly, poignant close-ups—as well as Khan’s face, which fills the frame repeatedly. Working with a tragically and traditionally “masculine” backstory that draws from Sergio Leone and Akira Kurusowa movies, Lafcadia combines ferocity and vulnerability in a way that more than makes up for his lack of dialogue.
The Warrior explores the multiple tolls exacted by violence, whether directed against helpless victims or worthy foes, and even when the aggressor presumes his righteousness, as an employee, a man acting according to duty. But what happens when the warrior can’t claim innocence or that he is “just doing his job”? At once the film’s most provocative and poignant question, this indictment of the warrior dissolves conventional viewer sympathy or identification, and leaves much room for doubts.