Saturday, March 03, 2007

Kabul Express and Robert Fisk: Stories of War and Humanity

It may appear strange to many that I am writing an apparent review of a movie – Kabul Express – nearly four months after its release, especially since I watched the film on the second day after its release, back in December. But I needed to digest this one before I wrote anything…

I wasn’t disappointed by Kabir Khan’s simple, moving yet patchy film even though it plays at times like propaganda; the American government is really bad and Pakistan’s military is its people’s worst enemy; beyond their guns, turbans and beards, the Taliban are simply humans with families and fears and sentimental memories of well-loved songs; that humans are similar and can connect despite political and military differences. In short the film encapsulates a vision of the world that is typically Indian, perhaps “Bollywood” in many ways, right down to showing ultimate horror – for an Indian at least – of one’s own army shooting a returning soldier.

The acting is uneven: John Abraham and Arshad Warsi as TV journalists – Jai and Suhel - looking for the big scoop are hilariously reminiscent of some of Indian news journalism’s great escapades including Barkha Dutt’s “kidnapping” of Sharad Pawar for an interview. Abraham, despite his recent brush with the Oscars will never be a great actor but Warsi more than makes up for that lapse. Linda Arsenio’s American reporter is annoying and superficial (or perhaps that is intentional). Khyber – played by Afghan actor Hanif Hum Ghum - embodies the tragedy of his country, with each glance at the ravaged landscape echoing the war trauma this actor has experienced in his own life. Pakistani actor Salman Shahid is gruff and tender by turns as the Talib, Imran Khan Afridi, and does a good job of portraying a man caught by forces beyond his control.

The stunning landscape of Afghanistan is at once familiar and forbidding, evoking memories of a thousand literary texts from the subcontinent, from Alexander’s grim march to the Babar-nama and Khuda Gawah (1992). Perhaps that is why Khan includes the mandatory buzkashi game in the film. After all, an Indian film on Afghanistan would not be complete without buzkashi and the honourable Pathans (there are many in the film, including Khyber and various other warlords).

Yet this is no Khuda Gawah. Despite the breathtaking scenery and Warsi’s hilarious lines, Khan never lets us forget the ravages this beautiful land has survived over the past thirty years. He focusses on a child crippled by a landmine admiring Jai’s physical prowess, and lovingly pans on golden piles of rubble and fragments of beautiful jaali-worked windows, with each shot evoking the horrific and prolonged violence the Afghan people have experienced since the mid-1970s when the world’s super-powers opened a new chapter of the Great Game, using Afghanistan as its chessboard.

Curiously enough – or call it a twist of fate – I watched Kabul Express at the same time as I was reading Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East. Now Fisk has his critics – many feel that he is too partisan, although this is a curiously Western conservative critique. It is telling that few non-Western people see Fisk as “partisan,” finding in him one of the few voices that speak against the politically and economically powerful (from all countries) and on behalf of the disenfranchised masses.

His book – a strange but compelling amalgam of personal memories, thirty years of reporting and political analysis – is one of the most comprehensive tomes on the region I have yet read. In addition, unlike most Western correspondents, Fisk actually speaks Arabic, and knows the Middle East intimately, which frankly makes him far more credible than most “foreign correspondents.” His knowledge is astounding – not only for his ability to make sense of the complex social and political structures of the region, but also for his ability to make connections beyond superficial and simplistic lines. One of the most chilling observations in his book is that the many of the videotaped “beheadings” of Westerners in Iraq since 2003 are carried out in the exact same manner as that employed by official Saudi executioners. Fisk takes this no further than observation, but the conclusions are obvious.

Fisk’s weighty tome – for at nearly 1300 pages of writing, it can be considered nothing else - relentlessly lists all the atrocities he has witnessed and reported for the past thirty-plus years. He details the genocides, mass killings, torture, and human rights violations committed by the state structures composed of Iraqis, Iranians, Afghans (of all stripes), Saudis, Algerians, Israelis, Americans…The list is endless. And the descriptions can turn most stomachs!

Kabul Express and Fisk’s book are inextricably linked in my mind now, despite the difference in medium and genre. Both are laments for the opportunities that so many humans in lands torn by war can never have. Both are unrelenting in demonstrating the brutalization of war that can numb humans to all idea of compassion or kindness. And yet, strangely enough both Fisk and Khan are equally compassionate in documenting those brutalized minds that can find no other way of coping but by perpetuating more violence.

Fisk’s book details an incident that made international news: when he was attacked by a group of Afghan refugees in the wake of American post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan, and rescued by another set of brave Afghans. His statement that he found that action understandable had drawn derision and scorn from conservative Western commentators. Khan’s film too takes a similar stand despite the violence the unit faced during the filming: having run into a brutal mob execution of Taliban fighters, the journalists can’t bear to reveal that their “kidnapper” too is a Talib, although such a revelation would end their predicament.

Khan’s achievement is not necessarily a great film, but his ability to demonstrate the unreasonable – yet utterly human - compassion of his characters. His journalists aren’t heroes but merely humans fortunate enough to be untouched by years of unimaginable brutalization, and no amount of covering “riots,” crime or corrupt politics can ever prepare them for the dehumanization that an absolute break down of civil society and war can cause to humans. They aren’t the heroes in the film the way Khyber (their Afghan guide) and Khan Afridi (the Pakistani Talib) are. Khyber can still find kindness within himself, and loyalty just as Afridi can find sorrow, shame and love for his daughter (their meeting forms one of the most touching yet harrowing moments of the film).

The two journalists – like Fisk – can do no more than narrate the “reality” – brutal and kind, violent and beautiful – with as much compassion as humanly possible, because, but for the grace of god (or universe, or fate, or sheer bloody luck), there go you and I!

And in good Indian/"Bollywood" tradition, not surprisingly, the most profound line is also the cheekiest: “A flower blooms in the desert, and you want to know its colour?” Warsi quips. Perhaps we should take a cue and just be grateful that the desert still throws up a bloom, solitary though it may be…