In documentary filmmaker Kabir Khan’s debut feature Kabul Express, John Abraham and Arshad Warsi play Indian news television journalists who arrive in Afghanistan just months after September 11, 2001 to report on the fall of the Taliban regime in this war-torn nation.
The film tracks their efforts to survive in a troubled land they are unfamiliar with, among people whose language they don’t follow. But most importantly I think the film urges its audience to ask itself if we are aware of who our real enemy is.
What sets Kabul Express apart from all the other films that release every other week at our cinemas is the success with which the filmmaker merges the documentary-style realism of the plot with such popular elements as comedy and mainstream stars.
So it’s with the help of John and Arshad and some very clever lines that Kabir Khan is able to draw attention to his story, which, had it been told without these trappings in pure documentary film format, might have failed to cross over.
The film’s script is peppered with intelligent pop cultural references like the arguments between the Indians and their Taliban kidnapper over cricket and movies. Who’s the better cricketer, Kapil Dev or Imran Khan, they ask each other and rankle each other repeatedly.
One of my favourite moments in the film is that very telling scene in the car when an old Hindi film song begins playing on the radio. Almost spontaneously, both the Indian journalists and the Taliban kidnapper start humming along to the tune.
Then there is that scene in the film which is obviously intended to convey so much – “Madhuri do, Kashmir lo,” says the Taliban kidnapper to the Indian journalists. “But Madhuri’s married and she’s moved to the US now,” they tell him. “That’s just it, isn’t it? All our best things end up making their way to the US,” the kidnapper replies.
Sadly, Kabul Express doesn’t come without any flaws. It’s got a screenplay that could have easily been tighter, and in a sense, the film tries to pack in too much all at once.
That early scene where John calls a young boy to work out with him, only to discover he’s lost a leg certainly causes a lump in your throat. But think about it, that scene works because it’s done subtly. Every time the director tries to hammer home a point, it comes off looking too contrived.
The director wants to say: Judge every individual as an individual and not as the group he belongs to. He wants us to remember that even members of the Taliban are fathers who miss their daughters dearly. Well-intended, yes, Mr Khan. But also unfortunately, very laboured.
In the end, it’s unfair not to acknowledge the sincerity behind the filmmaker’s effort. Kabul Express is brave and takes the road less traveled. Anshuman Mahaley’s picture-postcard cinematography is easily one of the film’s biggest strengths as is Arshad Warsi’s ability to deliver the film’s funniest lines with poker face. Kabul Express is a film you must watch once. It may only half-succeed in its endeavour to truly make a difference, but it’s a whole lot better than many of the films you’ve seen in recent months.