If a film tries to position itself as a product that is entirely different, something that does not conform to the usual Bollywood stereotypes, and is not escapist and fun fare, but a brave new film about post 9/11 Afghanistan, it is challenging the definition of a Bollywood film. It is setting itself to be measured by a different yardstick altogether. So does Kabul Express prove itself? Now therein, as the Bard would not say, lies the rub.
Kabir Khan's ambitious yet flawed debut film starts with a wholly unnecessary establishing montage of the 9/11 attacks, and the oppressive Taliban regime, and cuts to our maverick rookie reporters' rough chopper landing somewhere in war-torn Afghanistan. After putting a date to the events - 20th November 2001 - the Afghanistan they show strangely doesn't seem to have much war going on. There is a war-torn land, yes, but no war - only evidence of past battles.
Suhel (John) and Jai (Arshad) are two friends-cum-colleagues from a major news channel from India, in Kabul to cover the war on terror and shoot an exclusive Taliban footage that will help them hit the big time. They need a local guide and they enlist the help of Urdu speaking Khyber (Hanif).
Putting a date to the events is fatal to the film's logic, as that was the time when the Northern Alliance was establishing its hold over Afghanistan, and the Taliban were being uprooted from all their strongholds. However, the footage largely consists of deserted towns and villages with little to no armed presence over this area. Leave alone armed NA fighters, journalists are conspicuous by their absence, with only 3 journos in all of Kabul. C'mon Kabir, where's CNN?
One thing to say though is that the towns and ravines and large flatlands are shot lovingly, and framed well to deliver maximum impact while making you experience the true beauty that are the Afghan flatlands. The look of the film is consistent and stark, and it works for it in its entirety. Speaking of beauty, there is also an American journalist, Jessica (Linda), thrown in the fray as the only other journalist, who claims to be a seasoned pro but follows our boys for scoops and inside information.
When a Pakistani talib, Imran alias Jaan (Salman), kidnaps our duo along with their talkative guide, Jessica follows and lands herself in trouble as well. Imran is really Sub. Maj. Jaan of the Pakistani Army, and he desperately wants to get home. Thus begins a journey to the Afghan-Pak border, where Jaan and his ilk are not welcome anymore.
A lot of conversation and and some vignettes of post 9/11 Afghanistan later, they realize that they are all, after all, human, and begin to respect each other. The dialog is fresh and crisp, with some surprising moments of lighthearted verbal crossfire. There are some darkly humorous moments, and Arshad and Salman excel in their repartees. The vignettes are surprisingly engrossing, and barring some odd editing choices, very neatly produced.
Despite the promos and the first act, this film is largely Imran's journey, and his often changing relationship with his fellow travelers, especially the stark animosity with Khyber. The dynamic between these two is clearly inspired from 2001's No Man's Land, with even some dialog pilfered shamelessly. Nevertheless, Salman and Hanif both give an inspired performance, and you can't help but enjoy the ride.
Salman also has some of the best lines in the film jointly with Arshad, and Arshad's comic timing, which is honed to perfection by now, coupled with Salman's controlled performance, lends the film a very breezy tone. This film would have been truly lost without these two.
John is a decent actor capable of intelligent portrayals, but here he appears as if he was hired only to add to the appeal of the film pre-release. He has nothing much to do except look annoyed and mildly scared, and he does that with less enthusiasm than you would have expected. Linda is in this film only to justify the "An American" bit in the film's tag line. Her role is criminally underdeveloped, and she really has nothing to do in the film.
I wanted to like Kabul Express, I really did. And it does have some good things going for it. The lines are well-written and intelligent. The portrayal of Afghanistan is relevant and makes sense most of the time. There are some nice breezy moments, and there is some gorgeous photography. Not to mention Salman and Arshad's stellar performances and Hanif's strong presence and enunciation.
But this film wants to be taken seriously as an intelligent, atypical Bollywood film, and the yardstick to measure intelligent films does not allow for niggling holes in the script. Nor do you expect any Yash Raj film to have inconsistent production values. There are a lot of moments near the end of the film where the scenes with the Afghans and the scenes with John and Arshad are clearly shot in different locations and pasted together (Afghanistan for the former, and I am guessing Bhuj or similar for the latter).
Couple that with disappointing performances and characterizations from John and Linda, and I'm not so sure anymore. It's a fast-paced film with less pontificating or message mongering, and a lot of entertainment value. On the other hand, the faster the film runs from its mistakes, the more tired it is when they eventually catch up with them.
Even so, this is a movie with some good moments, and serves well as a wholly engrossing road movie. At about 105 minutes of running time, this is also one of the most low fat entertainers to come this year, and you are promised a fun time. Just don't go expecting a brilliantly executed post war commentary.