If we could "map" films onto literary genres, what would we find? Some films are just trashy airport novels (Fanaa), some are weighty albeit ponderous dissertations (Dev), while some are mere Archie comic books (Main Hoon Na); others "read" like fragments of a lost poem, perhaps incoherent but immensely suggestive (Dil Se), or like fully realized lyrics (Iruvar), while yet others read like novels we return to again and again (Lagaan), like stirring ballads (Mangal Pandey), or visionary prose (Ghulami). For every one that is a wry stance given form (Bluffmaster) or a racy read that grips and won't let go (Khakee), one has all too many farces (whether amusing -- Mujhse Shaadi Karogi -- or merely puerile -- Kya Kool Hain Hum), documentaries (Ab Tak Chappan), or simply circus show bills (Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham).
And then there are films that read like parables, somewhat enigmatic yet strangely compelling -- which brings me to The Warrior. For me, the film's essence is revealed in the moment when Lafcadia (Irfan Khan) nearly decapitates the girl in the middle of the burning basti: time stands suspended, the desert gives way to a mountain backdrop, and then back to the hell that is the present, except Lafcadia steps out of his footprints to reveal gleaming snow. No surprise that Lafcadia's life can never be the same again: the irruption of the real, that is to say of an irreducible singularity, an experience that is absolutely unique, deranges the ordinary mode of his existence. He cannot be what he has hitherto been. Small wonder that Lafcadia -- always taciturn -- retreats into bewildered wonder and silence. After such an epiphany, what is there to say?
The scene I've described above, one of the most memorable in recent cinema, is itself worth the price of the movie, and is imbued with a powerful resonance in the context of Indian cinema and culture, in light of the epiphanic experiences commonly associated with the Buddha, Muhammad, and (perhaps more pertinently where The Warrior is concerned) the Mauryan emperor Asoka. Kapadia cannot but be aware of the parallels, yet this awareness merely heightens Lafcadia's plight: unlike Gautama Siddharta or Asoka, he is not a prince, but merely a minion. In other words, once having abjured the path of violence, his life is forfeit to his erstwhile master, the brutal warlord who terrorizes the local villages in the film. The irony, perhaps, is that nothing has really changed: Lafcadia's life was never his; the epiphany has merely allowed the essence of the relationship between Lafcadia and his master to stand revealed. The wider resonance of this theme might explain why, for all Kapadia's worthy focus on material detail -- from the characters' footwear to the doorhangings to the weapons -- the historical time represented is strangely abstract: we might be in the Rajasthan of the eighteenth century, or of the sixteenth century, or even of the fourteenth century. That is, as I read the film, Kapadia's point is not the imagining of a particular historical setting so much as it is the evocation of a plausible setting for his fable.
Nothing else in the film matches its epiphanic moment as far as I am concerned, and certainly The Warrior is far from perfect: in particular, it suffers from an over languid execution, and takes itself far too seriously (reflected in its occasionally pompous background score), and I for one found myself wishing for more of Sergio Leone's playfulness. Perhaps the film might have been better served if Lafcadia had been essayed by an actor of iconic significance (not because that actor would have done a better job than Irfan Khan, but because the disordering of a persona that the viewer is more used to seeing loom larger than life might have been more in keeping with the film's "fabulist" character), such as (oddly enough) a Vikram.
But these are reservations, and do not detract from Kapadia's very real achievement: for a first full-length feature, his control over the medium of film is remarkable, and puts many far more experienced directors to shame. More importantly, Kapadia can be forgiven much because he is never trivial: every act of violence in the film is serious, and seriously ugly, a reflection of the fact that for Kapadia violent acts are not just committed by brutal men, but in turn brutalize the men who commit them. Lafcadia's epiphany turns this order inside out: the frightened girl, with a blade poised to slice her neck, is not an argument against violence, but instead an exposure, a presentation of pure vulnerability to the gaze of one who possesses the power of life and death. And it is Lafcadia's turn to be violated, rendered vulnerable to the gaze of the one he is about to kill. "About to..." but not yet, and then: never again.