Asif Kapadia: In the heat of the light

'The Warrior' is not your average British film. Shot in the wilds of Rajasthan with a Hindi-speaking cast, it's an epic tale of revenge, desire and loss. And, as Matthew Sweet discovers, what the crew had to endure matches anything in the plot
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The Independent Culture

Perhaps this piece should be on the news pages. A young British director has made his first feature film, and it's not a romantic comedy, a gangster flick, or something with a part in it for Tom Hollander or Rachel Weisz. The Warrior, by Hackney-born Asif Kapadia, is as unparochial as a British film could be. Based on a Japanese source, its sparse dialogue is in Hindi, and it was shot on location in India with a cast of unknowns. And it's good. Very good. Especially considering that four years ago, its director swore never to make it.

I first met Asif Kapadia in 1998 at a short film festival near Oporto, where he was presenting The Sheep Thief, his graduation film from the Royal College of Art. He was justly proud of the movie, which he had filmed in Rajasthan with a cast recruited from the streets of its towns and villages – but still seemed shell-shocked by the experience. During the shoot, bureaucracy and illness took their toll, and his ignorance of rural etiquette caused offence in the villages to which he had taken his crew. "It was so difficult that we all went a bit loopy making it," he now says. And in Oporto that summer, he declared that he would never do anything like it again.

But two months later he'd changed his mind, and was working on a new script about a wayward Rajput warrior whose son is executed for one of his father's transgressions. And by 2000, Kapadia was back in Rajasthan, leading a 250-strong crew, making his first feature film in areas even more far-flung than those in which The Sheep Thief was shot.

There were just as many aggravations: a government official was on permanent snooping duty, to ensure that that he didn't deviate from the agreed script; a villager threatened to commit suicide if they filmed in his settlement, forcing Kapadia's team to construct their own village from scratch; the crew succumbed to dysentery, scorpion stings, sunstroke and malaria. "I was really nervous," he confesses. "On the first day, everyone turns and looks at you and you think, "Shit, I've forgotten how to direct. What do I say? What do I like?'" And as he was undergoing this crisis of confidence, his star, Irfan Khan, was contemplating running away from the shoot and never coming back.

Irfan Khan is the strange centre of Kapadia's film: an actor with the body of a young man and the eyes of Methuselah. "Irfan has seen and done things that you don't want to know about," reflects Kapadia. "He seemed to have this baggage with him. You could see it in his face." It was a quality he was unable to detect in the actors he auditioned for the part in London. "They didn't carry themselves in the right way. In India, I don't fit in myself. Right now, the way we're sitting, nobody would do this." (As we're slotted into a pair of leather armchairs in Soho House, sipping fizzy water, you can see his point.)

Certain elements of Khan's family background suggest why the part of a sword-slinging outlaw fits him so well – despite the softly spoken, spiritually inclined chain-smoker he is in the flesh. Ask him about his childhood, and he'll talk about being taken on his father's nocturnal hunting expeditions in the forests of Rajasthan, or the evening when a panther came padding into the family home. "I used to hate hunting," he recalls, "but I went from the age of five, just to experience the mystical part of it. At night everything is transformed. Everything looks like something else." And just in case you find this impossibly romantic, be assured that Khan senior also used to shoot rabbits and fish as well as tigers and panthers. "It used to annoy the local fisherman," the actor notes, remembering his father's habit of aiming rifles into streams, "but really it's a very efficient way of killing them."

But these experiences didn't prepare Khan for the physical hardships of the Warrior shoot, which took him from the desert to the peaks of the Himalayas. "The conditions were very tough. The temperature was 48C. I had long hair, and armour – real armour. If you touched the armour, it would give you a kind of shock, it had become so hot. I used to feel suffocated from its weight. I considered running away, but as the film progressed, things started working." Khan claims that this process was almost spiritual: "I got rid of my temptations. When you're in the city, you are constantly thinking about women; on the shoot I stopped thinking about women. I was freed from such desires. When I told Asif about this, he said, 'Yeah, it's a journey, man.'"

Once the project had been completed, Khan had trouble fitting back into his old working routines. "It started affecting my subconscious. It became impossible for me to go back to the studio and do more ordinary jobs. For three months I was refusing work. My wife really got worried about me." He backed out of a film one day before shooting began. "I used to read that sometimes Hollywood actors would ask for the help of a psychiatrist after they finished a role. I was rather sceptical about it until I did The Warrior. But as an actor I'm looking for that kind of experience. I need it." And the most moving experience he had on location with The Warrior was seeing snow falling for the first time. "It was like magic," he asserts. "I just watched it falling and I was amazed."

The Indian landscape is an important part of this film. The dialogue, meanwhile, is sparse (there are only seven pages of it in the 90-minute script). "I wanted to make something that you had to see on the big screen, that you had to actually watch, not just listen to," explains Kapadia. "I used to watch British films with my eyes closed, and I felt that I knew everything that was going on. It was just yap, yap, yap. Even if you miss something they tell you again 20 minutes later. It's amazing that something that tries to tell a story in visuals should be so unusual. We're talking about cinema here, not radio."

This, I think, is Kapadia's most significant achievement. A few weeks after seeing The Warrior, I saw Jean de Kuharski's The Emerald of The East (1928), probably the first British feature film shot on location in India. The interiors were completed at Elstree (painfully obvious from the number of turbaned white extras), but the location work bore some similarities to Kapadia's film: particularly a scene in which a man and a boy hide in a desert gully as pursuing soldiers gallop past. The Emerald of the East is a silent epic: its minimal dialogue is conveyed with the use of intertitles. By comparison with The Warrior, however, it seems an unconscionably noisy film.

'The Warrior' opens on 3 May