The fact that it is the first international film shot entirely in post-Taliban, war-ravaged Afghanistan certainly isn’t the only reason why Kabir Khan’s first big screen feature Kabul Express is a significant effort.
Kabul Express, premiered at the 31st Toronto International Film Festival, is a film that matters and deserves wholehearted support, especially on the domestic exhibition circuit, because it promises to take Bollywood to a new level altogether.
The intrepid spirit of a documentary filmmaker and photojournalist is the fuel behind Kabul Express, even as the film is bolstered by the skills of an engaging storyteller. Kabir Khan’s narrative chugs along nicely and without too many bumps all through its one hour and forty-five minute running time.
|John Abraham plays a war journalist in the movie, Kabul Express.|
Is there a flip side? The storyline is rather thin and the film seems to meander just a touch at times, but it is quite easy to see that most of the situations in the narrative are drawn from the first-time director’s past experiences in Afghanistan. There is truth and sensitivity in the film all the way through.
Well, not everything about the film is completely perfect. For one, the characters, especially the two Indian lead actors (John Abraham and Arshad Warsi) look far too well washed, cheery and at peace with themselves for a bunch of blokes who have been on the rugged, dusty road to nowhere through one of the world’s most dangerous stretches for all of 48 hours.
Moreover, rather ironically for a film conceived and executed by a reality-chasing documentary filmmaker, some of the action looks rather staged and the issues of war and peace is a bit romanticised, even smacks of a degree of oversimplification. But all said and done, Kabul Express works both for its intrinsic cinematic qualities – it strings together a series of absolutely stunning visuals – as for the unwavering human quality that informs it.
Two Indian television journalists, reporter Suhel Khan (Abraham) and cameraman Jai Kapoor (Warsi), land in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban with the intention of pulling off an exclusive interview with the now on-the-run extremists who had ruled the nation for six years.
In this landscape, death is always only a gunshot away. It is difficult to tell an enemy from a friend and life forever hangs in the balance. Too scared out of their minds to make informed choices, the two men find themselves in the same vehicle as a liberal Afghan, a Pakistani member of the Taliban terror brigade and an American photojournalist as they drive across the devastated but beautiful terrain towards the Pakistani border with the threat of sudden death hanging over them at every turn.
The writer-director invests the kidnap drama with little touches of humour, irony and pathos as five characters from different worlds collide against each other and inevitably end up discovering the humanity that lies embedded deep inside each of them.
The film alternates between dark satire and pointed expose as the disparate characters struggle to fathom each other when not baying for each other’s blood. The eventual message that the film leaves the audience with is: even your enemy is a human being first and foremost and that hatred can never solve any problem. The point is conveyed without taking recourse to any didactic narrative tactics.
The elements all add up to create to fascinating collage that celebrates humanity in all its diversity. Kabul Express is full of little stories that would have been delightful hadn’t they been so disturbing. The ageing Pakistani soldier, played by Lahore actor Salman Shahid, keeps bumming cigarettes from Jai at gunpoint. The latter doesn’t of course love it one bit. But when it is time to part, his cigarette pouch is all that the Indian has for the Pakistani.
The former Talib is desperate to get out of Afghanistan before the Northern Alliance Mujahideen can lay their hands on him, but he does find the time to attempt a final reconciliation with his now married daughter, estranged from him because of his decision to fight on the side of the Taliban.
His constant banter with the Indian cameraman over who the world’s greatest all rounder is: Imran Khan or Kapil Dev is settled one way or the other, depending on who has the gun in his hand. In a world where life itself is a game of dice, does it really matter?
The deep distrust that the friendly Afghan driver harbours against the Pakistani extremist, the flashes of guilt that the American girl feels vis-à-vis her relentless pursuit of war ravaged landscapes “to sell some more gore and stories of inhumanity”, the unlikely bonding that develops between the Indians and fleeing Pakistani soldier and the final act of betrayal that the latter is subjected to by his own army, complete the Kabul Express story.
Kabul Express has the potential to go places. Having watched the film in a downtown Toronto theatre with a mixed international audience, the feeling that one walks away with is that Kabir Khan can be proud of what he has achieved. We certainly are.