Review: Kabul Express

Posted on December 17, 2006


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The emotional core of the mess in Afghanistan makes for an unexpectedly moving — and quite entertaining — film.

DEC 17, 2006 – THERE ARE MANY PLEASURES to be had from Kabul Express, the latest release that instantly jumps onto the list of worthies in what has been a terrific year for Bollywood. For one, John Abraham is in a scene that requires him to have tears brimming in his eyes, and your eyes don’t automatically avert in embarrassment. (Maybe they should have cashed in on this with a campaign along the lines of “Garbo speaks!â€?: “Abraham acts!â€?) Then there’s the thing the film is about – a not-easily-definable mix of adventure and drama and absurdist comedy that somehow works. But the best and biggest reason for cheer may be the fact that there’s not a gauzy dupatta in sight. Kabul Express takes you back to the lean, mean age of he-men like Sunny Deol – a.k.a. heroes with hair on their chest, who got phased out as the three Khans came in and Bollywood turned all metrosexual and made audiences resemble the girls after Georgy Porgy was done kissing them. I’m not saying that the leads here flex their dhai-kilo upper arms and spout clenched-teeth, Dharam-paaji lines about drinking the baddie’s blood. But they’re men. They have silly arguments about Imran Khan versus Kapil Dev with the deep-down sureness that there’s only one opinion that’s right, and that’s their own. This is such a guy thing, and it’s everywhere – everywhere but in our cinema – and the fact that Yash Raj, a.k.a. the studio that won’t hire a hero unless he’s been to the waxer’s, has tossed this bit of macho maleness right back on the screen is surely reason to celebrate.

For this, we have to thank first-time director Kabir Khan, who appears to have grafted his specific experiences in Afghanistan – he made documentaries there – onto the general tropes of the wisecracking buddy-movie and the meandering road-movie, and filtered it all through an off-kilter sensibility similar to that of David O. Russell’s Three Kings. (The latter was a comment on the American involvement in the Gulf War, while this one touches on the American involvement in Afghanistan, post 9/11 – and at least one image seems to be some sort of homage, where a truck has Pepsi pouring out of it, just like the truck in Three Kings that had milk pouring out of it.) But I’m not suggesting this is a remake, or even an adaptation – for the fact that Khan has seen and experienced things first-hand is evident by the perspective in his film. There’s an ironic, even amused, distance to the earlier events – surrounding Indian television journalists Sohail Khan (Abraham) and Jai Kapoor (Arshad Warsi) – that keeps us at an arm’s length, and then, gradually, the story opens up and draws us in, and though you can see the end coming from a mile away, that doesn’t make it any less affecting. (The coda that spells things out in the plummy tones of Roshan Seth – if I read the credits right – could have been axed, though. And I guess we’re not supposed to ask questions like why, at the beginning, Sohail and Jai are dropped off in the middle of nowhere without even a contact address. Journalists don’t just get airlifted into the wastelands of Afghanistan and begin hunting for a story, do they?)

Kabul Express is set in 2001 – and it’s some sort of space odyssey, all right, an expedition across the vast, rugged barrenness of Afghanistan – and it gets going when Sohail and Jai are taken hostage by a Talib (the droopy-eyed Salman Shahid, who looks uncannily like Pran from certain angles). Their journey thereon – along with an Afghani driver (Hanif Hum Ghum) and an American photojournalist (Linda Arsenio) – is as much metaphorical as it is literal, for it’s as much about them getting from Point A to Point B as reaching a new understanding about one another. Expectedly, such a construct requires that Big Issues be raised, like The Talibs Are People Too, and The Muslims In India Are Quite Secular When Compared To The Muslims In The Rest Of The World. (The latter observation is possibly further driven home by the fact that said Indian Muslim is played by an actor named John Abraham, and this is the kind of smart, urban role that he should be doing.) Thankfully, these Big Issues are raised with very little fuss. Another director may have milked the visual of a smiling child with a missing leg for all its sentimental value, but Khan – probably due to his no-frills background with documentaries – makes his point and moves on. But this lack of sentimentality isn’t the same as a lack of emotion; a scene in which a character meets his daughter after a long time packs the kind of wallop that made me imagine what it might have been like when Tagore’s Kabuliwallah finally left India and returned to his child.

There are times Khan seems to be trying too hard. He contrasts the spectacle of locals cheering a game of buzkashi with a much-after visual of locals cheering when two Talibs are being beaten up. (The idea, I think, is that the Talibs eventually became fair game for a kill.) And while I enjoyed the absurd humour of the American photojournalist’s instinctual reaction to a Talib who’s just been captured and bound – she clicks pictures of him, but naturally – it’s a stretch when she conveniently grows a conscience later on. But thinking back, it may have been intentional that she comes off as more than a little vague, for she’s the token white in a film whose predominant colour is brown – from the sands to the rock formations to the skins of the actors from the subcontinent – and Kabul Express may be the first look at the troubles in Afghanistan from our point of view. It may not be the most profound political thesis, but it’s a humanitarian one that shows how we – in the subcontinent – are really a different animal altogether, and how we understand one another in ways a Westerner can never understand us. When a blindfolded Warsi – with his superb flair for comedy – gropes the air in front of him and exclaims, “Doctor, mujhe dikhai nahin de raha,â€? he laughs and so do we, recognising this movie-cliché that’s all ours. What will a western audience make of this scene? Rather, what can they make of this scene? And when the group listens to Main zindagi ka saath, that Rafi beauty from Hum Dono – surely it’s no coincidence, in this story about people left to their own destinies, that the line we pick up the number at is Jo mil gaya usi ko muqaddar samajh liya –it’s no surprise that the Indians hum along, but when the Talib does too, you may find yourself thinking: how could the American possibly realise that what to her is simply a song is to the others a piece of their soul?

Copyright © 2006 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi