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Birthday special: Meet Irrfan Khan, the warrior


As the acclaimed actor turns 50 today (7 January), we go back in time to examine his first leading role as a man seeking redemption in The Warrior (2001).

Sonal Pandya

The Warrior (2001) was British-Asian filmmaker Asif Kapadia's first feature film. Since then, Kapadia has gained much acclaim for his documentaries on two distinct personalities with Senna (2010) and Amy (2015). Senna won British Academy Film Award for Best Documentary in 2011 and Amy garnered Kapadia his first Academy Award for Best Documentary last year.

Based on a screenplay by Kapadia and Tim Miller, The Warrior began as a footnote in a Japanese book of essays on samurai upbringing and transformed itself into a film. That inspiration is evident from the first frame in the film. Starring Irrfan Khan, Kapadia's warrior is much like a lone samurai, with strong morals on what is right and wrong. This was Khan's first international project.


Today, he is an in-demand actor on international projects like the billion-dollar blockbuster Jurassic World (2015) and Inferno (2016) with director Ron Howard and actor Tom Hanks. He has worked with award-winning directors like Danny Boyle and Ang Lee in Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Life of Pi (2012), respectively. But for his first leading role in a global production, Khan took on the part of a silent but ruthless warrior who gives up his sword after experiencing a sudden epiphany during battle. The experience was a complete 180-degree turn from a typical Hindi film. It was a career risk that got him noticed.

In the making-of featurette of The Warrior, Khan commented that "he was longing to do this kind of film where I can portray a character where I don't have to explain any story through my lines, where the director takes the responsibility to take a story." Kapadia prefers minimal dialogue and doesn't pepper his sequences with many words. The actions and glances shared between characters convey it all.

A British production filmed in India, The Warrior features some stunning vistas from dusty deserts of Rajasthan to the snow-capped mountains of Himachal Pradesh. Khan played the nameless warrior or henchman of a local lord who terrorises villagers and metes out punishments as deemed by his master. A vision amidst a routine raid propels him to spare the life of a little girl. His actions there go on to change his whole life. He lays down his weapons but is unable to save his young son, Katiba.

Puru Chibber as Katiba

Khan is one of the few actors who can hold a scene with his eyes alone and the wordless anguish at the murder of his son is incredibly moving. As is his final confrontation with the man who killed his son. The look on his face as he is compelled to pick up the sword again speaks volumes. The film's review in the Boston Globe stated, "His quiet performance carries the film, and his puffy, worldweary eyes haunt every frame, even after the camera's focus drifts heavenward to let the end credits roll." There's a wonderful yet tragic arc from his epiphany to a path to redemption and probable atonement for his past sins saving a young thief, Riyaz, whose past is quite possibly blackened by him.

Khan's subtle performance and Kapadia's masterful direction won rave reviews on the festival circuit before being honoured with two major awards at the BAFTAs. Kapadia won the award for Most Promising Newcomer and the film won Best British Film. Interestingly, UK had even submitted the film as its submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film but was rejected on the grounds that the film's language, Hindi, isn't native to the UK. But since 2006, that rule has been altered, allowing the submitting country to select a film not in its homegrown language.

Two Indian filmmakers were also part of the film's success. Tigmanshu Dhulia was the film's casting director who recommended Khan to Kapadia. Dhulia would go on to work with Khan in several renowned projects including the National Award-winning Paan Singh Tomar (2012). Amit Kumar was the film's associate director who also had a small role as a villager. Kumar cast Khan along Nawazuddin Siddiqui in his student short film, The Bypass, two years later. His debut film, Monsoon Shootout (2013) got its world premiere in the Midnight Screenings section at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013.