War zones are usually as commonly seen in cinema as in real life. Directors & scriptwriters seem to enjoy placing utterly normal (read boring) characters into the surreal climates engendered by human conflict, only to use it as either a foil to demonstrate the extraordinary (read heroic) fortitude inherent in humans, or to demonstrate just how brutal and barbaric humans can be. Given the nature of war zones, it probably isn't too out of place to reflect on these two aspects of human nature - we're either heroes or villains when the shit hits the fan.
Kabul Express therefore is a bit unusual, and not just as a Bollywood movie. It's non-Hindi fillum quality is echoed by the brevity of the movie (a shocking 104 minutes) with a total lack of songs (only background music for short durations) and fairly skewed gender mix making romance impossible (3 guys, 1 woman - not even a love triangle possible). This movie is groundbreaking, simply because of its utter departure from well established norms of Hindi movie making. But the change in format alone isn't what makes Kabul Express unique.
The most important point to make about Kabul Express is that its not a war movie - it's a road movie set in a war zone. Kabul Express is the name of the trusty Toyota 4x4 that takes the travellers across the Afghan landscape - five individuals, with very different experiences, backgrounds and slants to the Afghan crisis, travelling across dramatic landscapes and inhospitable terrain to an unknown consequence at the end of the journey. The story is straightforward enough - two Indian journalists out in post 9/11 Afghanistan, looking to get that one interview with the Taliban. This is a rare journalistic opportunity for the two men, who are only too happy to get away from covering press conferences & domestic politics. They are accompanied by an opinionated Afghan and occasionally run into an American photojournalist, who is as hungry for a scoop as the two intrepid reporters. They eventually encounter their elusive target, a Pakistani member of the Taliban, and things get a little complicated as he takes them & their American rival/colleague hostage to cross the border to Pakistan. Kabul Express takes this story and explores how characters respond to these unusual circumstances.
The cast is fairly international; the casting director selected an actor from the same nationality as the character being filled. The result, possibly inadvertantly, is to add an extra layer to the acting process. The Indian journalists are as naive and bumbling as the actors who play them, the Afghan has a traumatised element about him, while the Pakistani Talib has this jaded, tired atmosphere about him. And while it may be a cliche, the American journalist is as indifferent to the circumstances and environs of her photo essay as George Bush seems to be.
The director, Kabir Khan, has made several documentaries in Afghanistan, and his feel and knowledge for the countryside and terrain is palpable. The dramatic, inhospitable and rugged terrain of Afghanistan is as much a character in this movie as any other, with some fantastic camera work capturing the ravages that war has brought upon this landscape.
But that is not what makes this movie unique. What is truly exceptional is how Khan has taken what is from the outside an extremely difficult & violence ridden conflict zone and found humanity, humour and compassion within. Most importantly, and in this one aspect Khan does not deviate from Hindi cinema, there is no demonisation of the terrorist. As we saw in Fanaa, Maachis & Dil Se, the "terrorist" is as human as any other character in the narrative - his motivations are never clear, but they are clearly separable from the violence that he engenders. Imraan Khan Afridi is as much a victim of the conflict as any other person, and his being a perpetrator of violencedoes not detract from this fact.
The movie has some brilliant dialogues, with my personal favorite being reference to "flowers blooming in the desert" (can't explain this joke - just watch for it when you watch the movie). Arshad Warsi plays the unwilling heroic cameraman to John Abraham's journalist, and walks away with the best footage. His comic timing and rueful takes on life give him the best lines in the entire movie. Abraham gets the more intense, and arguably less interesting, lines to spout. Khan takes a leaf out of Hollywood movies, and uses the movie to push as much pro-India propaganda as he can fit into his movie as any average Hollywood movie does for the USA. And in a reference that any Indian who has travelled in the Middle East can attest to, Hindi cinema is often the first and only bond that can be forged with people who do not speak your language, do not share your reality, but definitely share your memories of watching Zeenat Aman & Dharmendra.
But its not all action and comedy. The script writing is able to fit into some poignant references to the horrors of war, including briefly focusing on the problem of children maimed by landmines, the trauma of losing loved ones, and perhaps most powerfully, the pain of separation from family. There is a brief scene when the Talib goes to visit his daughter, married into an Afghan village, but who is ashamed of her father because he is part of the hated Taliban. The moment is beautifully, if poignantly, filmed, with not a single second seeming unnecessary or excessively melodramatic.
Almost paradoxically, the Pakistani mercenary ends up with the best footage and the most sympathy of all the characters - primarily because he is in a sense the only one who will be unable to exit the extenuating circumstances of the conflict. At one point, he wryly comments to the Indian journalists that they would not understand his actions or motivations, because their realities are different. And that one line captures the entire pathos of his existence - of the prison that his own life is for him, and how it is impossible to fathom the extent of entrapment that it engenders.
And this is what makes Kabul Express worth watching - for being able to emphasise the utter and often helpless humanity of us all in times of conflict, for being able to capture the ability of a human being to laugh and joke at the worst of times. Kabul Express could not have been an easy movie to make - filming an entire movie in a war torn country would takes something exceptional, and the entire film crew deserves to be applauded for taking on the challenge. But what is truly enjoyable is to recognise that their bravery was not misguided - the end product is well worth the effort.
Go see it - you won't be disappointed, unless you were expecting the Taliban or the Mujahideen to be performing item numbers in the mountains!
Movie seen at: Cineworld Haymarket, London
Movie images from: Yash Raj Films