Saturday, December 30, 2006

Kabul Express

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

I KANK stand it...

Fellow blogger and film addict Filmiholic wrote an article recently for India Abroad magazine, about the travails of watching Hindi movies outside India. She posted it on her blog this week, and you can read it here. Your's truly also has an honourable mention, where I had a chance to share my Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna experience all over again...

Coming soon - a review of Kabul Express, as well as a summary of the best books I've read in the past month.

Monday, December 25, 2006

What I'm Listening To...

A brilliantly cold Christmas Day - it's early in the morning, and after an evening of watching Lord of the Rings, drinking wine & sitting by a fire with the Christmas tree in the corner, I'm up early today to enjoy the sounds of the church bells tolling in the distance...

Lyrics by Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel

Let us be lovers, we'll marry our fortunes together
I've got some real estate here in my bag
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies
And we walked off to look for America
Kathy, I said as we boarded a greyhound in Pittsburgh
Michigan seems like a dream to me now
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I've gone to look for America

Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said be careful his bow tie is really a camera

Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat
We smoked the last one an hour ago
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field

Kathy, I'm lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I'm empty and aching and I dont know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They've all gone to look for America
All gone to look for America
All gone to look for America

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Chronicle of a Sati Foretold

The following review of With Krishna's Eyes is by Christopher Rollason, and appears on both the critic's and author's blog - it is syndicated here with their permission.

Sunny Singh’s new English-language novel, With Krishna’s Eyes, is a disturbing and eloquent exploration of the dark side of “Shining India”, in which the modern and globalised coexists cheek-by-jowl with the archaic and traditional, in a contradiction seemingly without issue and yet lived to the marrowbone by its intensely engaged characters. It confronts the vexed question of Indian modernity head-on, by boldly centring its plot on so controversial an issue as sati. In the process, it draws on the resources of Indian English and the Indian and non-Indian literary heritage to offer the reader an exploration of fear, in a specifically subcontinental context, that may justify its being taken as a highly original piece of what might be called “Indian Gothic”. The author, born in Varanasi, now lives in London: the global reach of her work may be deduced from the fact that With Krishna’s Eyes came out in Spanish translation (Sunny Singh was resident in Barcelona at the time) before it was published in English, while her earlier novel, Nani’s Book of Suicides (published in 2000 and also translated into Spanish) was awarded the Mar de Letras literary prize in Spain in 2003.

The title might already raise eyebrows, for the reader may legitimately ask whose are Krishna’s eyes. Krishna is in fact the novel’s female protagonist: women named Krishna are fairly rare, but they do exist. If a gender barrier is being crossed through this naming of the character, we discover that Sunny Singh’s Krishna, in many ways a warrior woman, is not without her resemblances to the Krishna the combatant sage of the Bhagavad Gita (though rather less so to the playful blue-skinned Krishna of the Puranas). The female Krishna of this novel is a warrior in the world of film-making, a US-educated member of a proud Rajput clan who is suddenly called on to make a documentary, all too non-fictional, about a willed and voluntary sati, the conscious choice of an educated woman at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Forced as a matter of family honour and obligation to live this intense contradiction, Krishna finds herself accepting a major part in a drama which she does not approve of but tries her level hardest to understand. She herself is a globalised Indian who has recently emerged from an intimate relationship with Natchek, an NRI and financial consultant even more globalised than herself. Now, back home in her ancestral village east of Delhi, she comes face to face with Damayanti, a friend of her family’s: an educated, apparently modern woman, a graduate of Miranda House, Delhi, a Supreme Court lawyer who had in her time chosen a love marriage, a gadget-happy mobile phone owner, who nonetheless actively and obdurately campaigns for “her right to be sati” (145) as soon as her ailing husband leaves the world: “I have petitioned the court for permission to be sati, when my husband dies” (100).

The inevitability of Damayanti’s sati is etched into the reader’s consciousness from the very beginning – it is as certain to come to pass as the honour killing in Gabriel García Márquez’s Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold), a book to which Sunny Singh’s tale bears some resemblance. Krishna is impressed again and again with its necessity, by the familial pressure that descends on her from her grandfather, her sanyasi uncle, and, from beyond the grave, the voice of her late grandmother. It is a lesson of dharma, of unquestioned and unquestionable duty, of loyalty to family and clan. It is also the manifestation of a harsh and literal reading of the Bhagavad Gita and the homilies of Krishna’s divine namesake. Between this novel’s lines, one may hear the reverberation of the sacred text’s slokas, but we are talking about no benign or liberal interpretation of the concept of dharma. The voice of Krishna which we hear through and around the other Krishna is that which, in the Gita, declares sternly: “Through fixed devotion to Me, it is possible to know Me thus, O Arjuna, and seeing Me truly, to enter into Me, O vanquisher of foes” (Bhagavad Gita, 11-54). For Krishna’s relatives and for Damayanti herself, living in such a world of “fixed devotion”, the sati is as necessary as the elimination of the Kauravas. It is her grandmother who declares: “See Krishna, first we must do our duty. Follow dharma, and most times, it hurts. But to love something doesn’t mean to give up dharma” (91). Her uncle sings to the same tune: “Do what you have to do. That is the dharma of a warrior, right?” (283). Under such pressure, the young and modern woman comes to a large extent to internalise the ancestral belief-system herself.

It is as if Krishna the film-maker had to go through the ultimate anguish of living someone else’s sati under her own skin; and indeed, fear is a major element in the novel, signified as it happens through certain trappings of the Western Gothic transposed into the Indian context. Krishna has already lived through the trauma of 9-11, the quite literal explosion of American Gothic in all its darkness. Used to a New York where “two tall towers rose to the sky like the crowning jewels” (36), she suddenly comes to see the city as “a sinister killing place, full of smoke and death and suspicion” (41). Now, in India, Krishna is confronted with atavistic fears – “dark shadows that crowded my mind”, “long tongues of flame that flickered at the edges of my vision” (226). When first she enters Damayanti’s house, she finds herself in a darkly oppressive Gothic space that recalls Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher, as first experienced by its fear-struck narrator: “I was led discreetly through gloomy carpet covered halls, where the ancient, heavy furniture lay carelessly scattered through the rooms”. Damayanti, “on a low couch, leaning against the many cushions that were piled up behind her”, greets Krishna like a second Roderick Usher, to induct her into a world of ancestral oppression (98). Poe meets Rajput tradition, to generate an atmosphere of Indian Gothic that culminates in the scream that rises to the skies at the moment of the sati – a shriek that is not Damayanti’s but Krishna’s, “my scream that went on and on, forever in my head” (289).

Sunny Singh’s novel does not neglect the sociological and ideological aspects of the sati issue – the saffron militants who demonstrate for Damayanti, the leftists and secularists who oppose her, the local peasants and functionaries who end up worshipping her as a sati-mata. However, the experience of reading this book is that we are dealing not with a tract one way or the other, but with a textually mediated perception of an Indian reality, communicated through specifically literary effects and emotively charged creative language. Seeing the sati with Krishna’s eyes (those of the character and those of the god), reliving the dark tale through the Indian Gothic of Damayanti’s House of Usher, the reader of this novel, Indian or foreign, will sense something of globalised India’s attempt to come to terms with itself, its ancestral fears and still-alive past anxieties, its painful efforts to live through them once again in order, it may be, finally to exorcise them.

NB: the quotation from the Bhagavad Gita is from the version translated, edited and introduced by Vrinda Nabar and Shanta Tumkur (Ware, England: Wordsworth Classics, 1997).

You can read more of Christopher's works here
You can read Sunny's blog here