As a mainstream Bollywood film, Kabul Express does stretch the boundaries: no songs, no dances, no picture post-card Swiss landscape and a lingo that’s an unapologetic mix of Hindi, English and Pushto. What’s more, the film’s just 12 reels long and 100-odd minutes in duration. It’s a window to a Bollywood positioned in a world arena, not merely in terms of film technique and craft but with regard to its stories, characters and themes. You have journalists Suhail (Abraham) and Jai (Warsi) traversing the bombed-out Kabul landscape in search of an elusive interview with the Taliban. The entire film is about the two of them, an Afghani driver (Ghum) and an American photographer (Arsenio) transporting a Pakistani Taliban Imran (Shahid) to the border so that he can cross over to his country.
You can look at the film as half full or dismiss it as half empty. There are some genuinely nice moments. Like spotting the truckload of Cola cans in the midst of nowhere and the ensuing argument between Jai and Suhail as to whether it’s Pepsi or Coke. Then there’s the funny tug of war between Jai and Imran over who is a better all-rounder: Kapil Dev or Imran Khan. However, they do come together over treasured cigarettes. And then, all the nationalities unite to sing a Rafi number: Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya.
But the film also lands itself in a problematic terrain. Since it’s about Afghanistan, the point of comparison cannot be Bollywood but films like Siddique Barmak’s Osama and Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar. And Kabul Express wilts before them. Perhaps it’s the uneasy mix of realism and thriller-road movie format. Or that Warsi and Abraham seem a bit too filmi in the entire scenario. Here the realism becomes either too cloying, more a display than a creator of empathy (like the scene of a boy handicapped in the war) and the politics gets too literal, the critique of America and Pakistan too pat and simplistic. The most uneasy part: the game of buzkashi, a sort of polo played with a dead goat, and the punishment doled out to a Taliban in the village. Didn’t it seem to make Afghanis into an exotic, uncivilised other?
Source by Uday Reddy