KABUL EXPRESS . Director: Kabir Khan. Players: John Abraham, Arshad Warsi, Linda Arsenio, Hanif Hum Ghum, Salman Shahid. Theatrical release (Yash Raj Films).
Set in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban’s forced ouster from power in Afghanistan in 2001, Kabul Express has one or two trick cards up its sleeve. Seen through the eyes of two international reporters, Kabir Khan’s film is a brave effort to juxtapose international perception of how recent events in Afghanistan have affected geo-politics against the profound and often horrific losses suffered by common Afghanis. Two reporters meet up in an Afghanistan ravaged by a fleeing swarm of Taliban usurpers. Suhel Khan (Abraham) is an ace Indian reporter while Jessica Beckham (Arsenio) is a roving Reuter’s dispatcher. Both Khan, along with his teammate Jai Kapoor (Warsi), and Beckham have come to “interview the Taliban,” and are utterly dismayed that a group of black-robed, misogynistic ascetics—known to the locals simply as “Talib”—are not waiting at the local tea stall ready to take 20 questions. The outsiders seem strangely (and often annoyingly) ill-prepared for their quest. These would-be road-hardened journalists have little knowledge of the layout of the country or what regions to avoid or even the 100 reasons why women, regardless of profession, should not travel alone on strange roads known to be infested with highway robbers. Given the political polarities in South Asia, writer-director Khan can’t resist fingering the usual suspects. While blaming Pakistan for the Afghanistan mess seems outwardly far-fetched, Khan at least makes an intelligent argument otherwise. The ethnic and sexual stereotyping, however, misses the mark. The Hazara, a northern Afghanistan group believed to be descended from Genghis Khan, here are universally derided as backward and barbaric while more than one joke plays on the premise that a highly repressed single-sex environment transformed the Taliban into gangs of swarthy pederasts. Abraham is wonderful as a reporter who may have stumbled onto something far more sinister that he realized and Warsi provides ample comic relief. Ghum, as the Afghan driver, adds earthy local color to the script while Shahid’s stone-faced Taliban commander exterior befits the terrible secret he is prepared to kill for. Only Arsenio appears ill at ease. Even the Julius Peckiam and Raghav Sachar musical score, which is more a collection of “inspired by” tunes than any standout single track, is worth getting your ears into. The specter of a violent Taliban resurgence again looms large and that makes Kabul Express all the more timely. The enemy is not only a vicious band of black-turbaned theocratic thugs marauding in the name of religion but also the outside world’s ignorance of a breathtakingly beautiful country reduced to rubble. Despite Yash Raj Films’ bait-and-switch advertising (why was the intriguing “Look, Osama bin Laden!” line used in the promos but dropped from the film’s final cut?) Khan’s film succeeds just for raising questions that don’t necessarily have answers.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.