“You seek penance with a bow and arrow?”
Arnab Chaudhuri’s Indian animated action film Arjun: The Warrior Prince (2012), co-produced by UTV Moon Pictures and Walt Disney Pictures India, remains Disney’s most brutal and unique animation to date. The story is loosely based on Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata, the longest poem ever written and one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India. It recounts the struggle for power between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, in the Kurukshetra War.
At the tender age of nine, Arjun shows great potential as a future warrior. As years pass and his skills sharpen, Duryodhana, his cousin and the king’s son, settles his suspicious gaze on him. Tensions rise and assassination attempts ensue, threatening the stability of the kingdom. Unwilling to allow a war to break out, king Dhritarashtra asks Yudhishthira, Arjun’s older brother, to be the king of a faraway and unkempt territory of the empire, taking the rest of the Pandavas with him. Duryodhana’s greed knows no bounds, however, and his scheming leads not only to the royals’ dishonour, but to Arjun’s close encounter with the gods.
Unlike Peter Brook’s nine hour-long play The Mahabharata (1985), then the 1989 three hour-long theatrical release, Chaudhuri’s animation encapsulates the complex and winding story in as little as 96 minutes. By bypassing much of the war in favour of developing the human element within the story, the animation is made immune to dullness. The characters remain achingly vulnerable throughout, even though the plot refuses to give in to the type of gratuitous sentimentality that can be expected of most Disney productions.
In fact, Arjun: The Warrior Prince thrives on charisma, wit, treachery, deceit and the duality of human nature. Rejecting the cumbersome structure of most legends, the film appears to celebrate the fragility of the human spirit, not augment it out of proportion. Arjun’s transformation from a boy to a warrior, rather than his automatic stepping into the shoes of a hero, is a journey that illuminates his many vices.
Nevertheless, his weaknesses are never treated as a reason for derision. On the contrary, his acceptance of the twisting path of his spirit seems to balance out his immense power. When one of his brothers commits acts of brutality, Arjun observes it all with horror-stricken eyes, effectively erasing the black-and-white perception of good and evil that suffuses many such stories.
Needless to say, this is not a film for children, both due to the carnage that follows years of repression, and the sheer complexity of the tale. It might even be described as convoluted because of the staggering amount of names the audience has to keep track of.
The visuals themselves are enthralling, and seem to breathe as much life as India itself. Specs of gold settle on everything, refining both the stately palaces and the swaying tree crowns, forming a world of twofold riches. Hemant Chaturvedi’s cinematography is so potent that colours bleed on-screen, blending with the sharp shadows that curve the characters into three-dimensional beings. At times, the quality of the animation resembles the Barbie film series, but more often than not, its realism is astonishing.
Arjun: The Warrior Prince‘s greatest strength, however, is its affinity for mysticism. Fates of men and gods are interwoven, allowing for a crisp tale of bravery. The spiritualism of the film can’t help but lure us in, forcing us to keep up with the punching rhythm of Dhruv Ghanekar’s background score. As befits all Indian productions, the film is layered with songs, forming a multi-tiered delight of native chants that fuse the world of men and beasts. Snapping bones and steel licking steel are sounds that only seem to texturise the experience.
Sadly, the ending severs the uncoiling tale of warfare, but with the clock ticking, anything more would have felt unforgivably rushed. Overall, Arjun: The Warrior Prince is an exciting insight into the world of an ancient civilisation, even in its most simplified form.