The Indian feature film on the Mahabharata hero Arjun is a welcome, if incomplete portrayal of a nation and its own, distinctive codes.
Familiarity with Indian animation is almost non-existent outside its native soil. So it is a welcome fact to see an animated feature, on one of the Mahabharata heroes. Screened in competition during the 2013 Annecy festival, Arjun the warrior prince is loosely based on the Indian epic.
The action-epic film is directed by Arnab Chaudhuri, and produced by UTV Motion pictures and Walt Disney Pictures. Yet the empire of the mouse does not have any visible influence on the plot or the characters. There are no animal sidecicks, and an almost sober atmosphere pervades the animated treatment of the celebrated Arjun. But this is no dark film; its historical, heroic attitude makes sure that children will be able to identify with the main characters, and grownups to get lost to the tapestry of Indian chaste system.
The story starts in the manner of Michel Ocelot's Kirikou: a boy, the young prince of Viratnagar asks a maid to tell him a bedtime story. Semi-lit faces and light through blinds give away an atmosphere of compromised bravery, and Arjun's story is always a fight between royal duty and personal courage.
Arjun is being caught from an early age in a feud between his cousins Kaurvas and his brothers, the Pandavas, for the throne of the old king Dhitrashtra. Even though he is an exquisite archer, Arjun seems nevertheless to blindly follow his family's fate.
The moustached Duryodhana is the stereotypical bad but thoughtless opponent. He is complemented by the scheming, fat, short and more dramatically interesting Shakuni, Arjun's unchle, who devises a plan to take away from Arjun all that he cares for.
But the real obstacle to the coveted throne is not the evil characters, but the laws of caste. Honor and loyalty make the Pandavas accept a swamp for their kingdom, after an unfair royal command has been issued. They are the same laws which move the plot and the characters forward, from plain fields to exile to battlefields.
Arjun brings more than a portrait resemblance to Tarzan, showing off his swimming and jumping ability, yet he is far from being a savage superhero. His mastery in archery will only be used to bring a princess bride to the family, and be able to reclaim with renewed arguments the throne denied of them. He will also fail to stand for his wife Draupadi in one of the film's most haunting moments.
Torn between family duty and personal predicament, Arjun would be the model of a tragic hero -if only he participated enough in the film. As is, Arjun the warrior prince is more interested in describing minor characters (such as Arjun's brothers and his archery teacher, even Lord Krishna) as if the whole film were an assembly of majestic, but exclusively establishing shots. Narration helps bring forward the characters' intentions that the action lacks.
Action scenes are always interesting to watch, though. There are no extraordinary fights, but the feeling of equally respected peers (such as the fight between Arjun and his teacher) and the virility of animation make up for a worthy combination.
The third part of Arjun also brings a welcome twist to the superior role of women in the film.
Even though Arjun shares none of the feminist and playful spirit of Nina Paley's also Indian-themed, Sita Sings the Blues, women ignite character in the too loyal warriors. Yet overall, what remains after watching Arjun the warrior prince is the board game of chauper and its implications. Here the dilemma of loyal prince or brave warrior should have been solved once and for all.