Kabul Express is loosely based on the experiences of Kabir Khan (who wrote and directed the film) when he was reporting from there. As the movie opens we see two Indian journalists, a reporter and cameraman, land by helicopter in Kabul. John Abraham is Suhel Khan and Arshad Warsi is Jai Kapoor.
Suhel is pretty and does push-ups against the rubble of a building, Jai is gruffly handsome and chain smokes. The two are falling over themselves to get some footage of any remnant Taliban, which would be worth a mint back home, and take off with a driver/fixer named Khyber (yes, like the pass). It’s Khyber’s vehicle that gives the film its title.
Before long on their trip, they are tricked and taken hostage by a Pakistani soldier turned Taliban named Imran. He is genuinely battle weary and all he wants to do is get back over the border and retire, hoping to catch a glimpse of his estranged daughter before the crossing, and so he uses the journalists for cover and the driver for his transport. The denouement of the film is about that journey and what happens to the unlikely quartet (later, quintet) en route.
As you might guess, under the stressful circumstances, conflict abounds. The Afghani driver and Pakistani kidnapper hate each other from the get-go, Jai gets irritated when Irfan keeps taking his cigarettes, but how are you going to argue with a man with an automatic rifle? Later, he tries to make chitchat, launching off the name Irfan to talk about cricket, but that road soon turns bumpy when Jai insists that Kapil Dev was a better cricketer than Irfan Khan, much to Irfan’s dissent.
There are doublecrosses and close calls, and, as one commenter to this post has mentioned, an encounter with members of one Afghan segment of the population, the Hazaras, who are spoken of by one of the characters as being a particularly ruthless and violent group. This is a move that the director has since apologized for, but it was something that caused anger in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan (where many Hazaras are settled) and led to a call for the film to be banned in Afghanistan. I don’t know enough about the history of Afghanistan and its people to say anything about this issue, but I guess the director tried to create dramatic tension by placing the characters in a situation where they would face some group of people they were supposed to fear, and I guess no matter who he wrote in the story, there would be offense taken (short of making up an ethnic group….).
John Abraham was o.k. in this film, somewhat of a lightweight, but Arshad Warsi owns this film, and the role is a great antidote to his Circuit from the Munnabhai films. He is totally believable as a camerman who is petrified of being killed and who is more interested in preserving his life, and his limited creature comfort (the ciggies), than getting a big story. He and John make a good pair of opposites here. And I loved Salman Shahid as the wily Imran, a character who has remarkable creativity and energy for the mission he’s on, regardless of the fact that he’s been fighting for years and is likely in his 50s. In some scenes, he looked to me like he could be Nana Patekar’s Dad, albeit a fleshier one.
See it or skip it?
See it. It’s a tightly made mainstream Hindi movie with no song-and-dance routines or costume changes, that is over within approximately 90 minutes.
And it’s a chance to vicariously see the blue skies and haunting, dry landscape of Afghanistan, and the gaping wounds of decimated buildings, cropping up like excavated ruins of centuries gone by. (Even the film’s website has some startlingly beautiful images.)