Saturday, December 16, 2006

Kabul Express trundles along

I went past somber ticket helpers dressed in maroon pathan suits and Afghan turbans on the opening day to see Kabul Express in a packed cinema hall in Vadodara. Kabul… has a short running length by Hindi film standards, weighing in at just over one and a half hours. But that is not the only convention it breaks. It doesn’t have a traditional male lead – John Abraham who gets most media junket publicity shares screen time – almost equally and selflessly with two other male leads – Arshad Warsi and Salman Shahid, it doesn’t have any songs in the movie and it doesn’t have a romance of any kind. Normally these types of movies in Bollywood tend to be the arty, serious types. But writer director Kabir Khan tackles weighty subject matter in a mainstream way while still eschewing traditional Bollywood trappings. It’s a bold and noteworthy effort by a filmmaker who is leading off a 3 picture deal with Yash Raj films, enough to make anyone want to play it safe.

Unfortunately, Kabul… is poorly written and dies a very early death although my curiosity to see the experiment come to its logical end did engage me fully.

Kabul… is the story of an Indian reporter, Sohail played by Abraham, and his cameraman Jai played by Warsi, who travel to Kabul to interview a member of Taliban just as the American siege is coming to an end. Driven around in the titular SUV by an Afghan guide Khyber (Hanif Hum Ghum), they meet an American journalist Jessica (Linda Arsenio) and get kidnapped by a Talib (Shahid) who wants to make his way back into Pakistan.

With primary photography in Afghanistan, Kabul… is supposed to be a thriller with political overtones and human undertones. Although Afghan politics take center-stage, the movie’s primary resolution comes along the Indo-Pak relationship between the Indian journalists and the Pakistani taleb. The script focuses on how the characters discover (amidst some healing and bonding) that they are not so different after all and might even have been friends under different circumstances.

In other words, it’s a fairly warmed over plot.

As in all such endeavors, the plot trappings are significant. This is where the movie fails badly. Let me count the ways.

  • There is no initial character development that engages you. Abraham and Warsi’s journalists are given very meager treatment hardly enough to make you want to care when they are put in peril (which is really in the first scene). The characters do unfold as the movie progresses, but this is done in very simplistic and stereotypical ways with pert summary dialogues. (Hey Bollywood, can we have an Afghan in a movie who doesn’t talk like Kiran Kumar in Tezaab?)
  • There is no thrill in the thriller. Kabir as a director fails to infuse any sense of dread or peril in the scenes that call for close-calls and tense face offs. This results in a movie that feels underwritten.
  • While the complexity of the politics has been acknowledged, it hasn’t been explored fully. Kabir takes on Afghan, Pakistani, American and gender politics, but dwells primarily on Afghanistan and gives the others cursory treatment. He even makes a neat if heavy handed statement on journalism. But at no point does he address ethnic divisions or the role and position of India in any of this, which I would think should have been central to this movie. The two Indian journalists come across as saints where the reality should have been presented to be far more complicated.

Some positives: there are some genuinely touching moments in the film – I counted three. There is some deft comedy in the film, mostly keying off of Warsi’s motor mouthed delivery, which is reigned in at the right moments. And there is some lush music and camerawork.

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