Cast: Nelofer Pazira, Hassan Tantai
Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Iranian cinema operates on a tangent completely different from the films we see mostly. They are richer, more thought-provoking, and infinitely more engaging than those made in other languages. One of the pioneers of this movement is Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of the focus filmmakers in the retrospective section of the ongoing 45th International Film Festival of India in Goa. His hugely acclaimed 2001 film Kandahar was shown on the sixth day of the festival.
One of the few films that can enrich any language and make any filmmaker proud, Kandahar was released in 2001 when Afghanistan was under Taliban’s draconian rule. Such is the power of its storyline and the texture that are you are transported to those dark days when terror ruled and every place smelt of gunpowder (not that much has changed in the country since then).
Kandahar is much more than a film. It’s a chronicle on the life and times of women under the Taliban rule. It’s a magical film, its surrealism so strong that it seeps into your conscience as the canvas unfolds a territory that wasn’t known to the outside world till then.
Neither is Kandahar just about a story. No, it is also not about the endless journey of its protagonist Nafas (Nelofer Pazira), an Afghan-Canadian journalist who wants to meet her sister before the last solar eclipse of the 20th century. Her sister is depressed and Nafas is willing to brave every trouble in the world to be with her. Is this possible because she has to walk for countless hours to reach Kandahar, an illusionary place that can test the limits of human patience?
This is the general story, but make no mistake: Kandahar is definitely not this simple. It’s simple in narrative but complex in presentation. It has been made with so much intensity and vigour that you’d become restless after a while. What is the world up to? Why are women in this part of the world so faceless? What makes people accept a fate they never deserved?
Kandahar follows a linear progression that a West-educated, English-speaking woman is trying her best to reach Kandahar, but the strange demography of the area puts her in direct confrontation with the morally and ethically bankrupt people. Everybody here is living a dual life without questioning the sense of it. Women are at the bottom of the pyramid waiting for something to happen in their otherwise suppressed, colourless, meaningless life. The only colourful thing in their lives is the veil that is strangely beautiful and conceals their tormented faces.
Nafas arrives in the desert on a UN chopper with a recorder. She talks to herself about the glimpses of the new world she’s in and calls the equipment her personal blackbox. The journey begins and she starts following a child Khak (Sadou Teymouri), who helps her in exchange of some dollars. We are told that he is not good at learning religious texts and is thrown out of the school by the local mullah. By the way, the mullah teaches the disciples the meanings of Shamshir (Sword) and Kalashnikov. The kids read and learn like parrots with a sword or Kalashnikov by their side for live demonstration. And, all this is happening because the Mullah wants the children to become a mullah like him. It’s a god forbidden country.
People talk about landmines like they are asking for bread from their mothers. Several of them have lost their limbs to landmines and they are so used to it that asking for a new pair of UNO’s duplicate legs seems like inhaling air. The audacity of the subjects baffles you when they say, “Give me one extra pair please. It’s always good to have a spare pair, you never know about the mines.” It’s maddeningly innocent and weird. The most powerful scene of the film shows some people on crutches running like police dogs towards the UN helicopter to grab a pair of badly designed duplicate feet that are dropped with the help of parachutes. People who say that life is not always a bundle of joy have never been to this place.
Then there is an American-African war veteran Tabib (Hasan Tantai), now a healer in search of the truth, which he also calls the god. His life is paradoxical but he is trying his best to make peace with it despite being in the middle of famine, deadly diseases and ruthless weather. He is not a doctor, but he says, “The average knowledge of a Westerner about medicines is far better than the locals.” He talks to his patients through veil or children, and gives them remedies like bread, water and nuts. It may sound odd to you in written form, but on-screen there is absolutely nothing funny about it. In fact, it may lead you to the brink of existential crisis.
But Kandahar’s most important aspect is something completely different. It’s a film that tells a story you’ve probably never seen or imagined in your life, especially those who live in peaceful areas. When I say peace, I mean a life of dignity and one that is less exposed to bloodshed. If we make a comparison on the scale of 10, the average lives of the likes of average New Yorkers or Delhites or Londoners will not even touch 2 while the people shown in the film will easily cross 8.
Every scene in the film fills you with a strange emotion. They are so well-constructed and new that you are forced to wonder: “How can this happen… this cannot not be true.” But, somewhere deep down in your heart ,you’re assured of the fantastic details. The phrase ‘never seen before’ was perhaps coined for such a film.
But, what happens to Nafas? Does she reach Kandahar in time? Well, hope is the driving force of Mohsen makhmalbaf’s Kandahar.