Kabul Transit

Thanks to Moacir, I watched the documentary Kabul Transit. Eschewing the usual talking heads approach – or even much of a linear narrative at all – it allows us to follow some people in Kabul for short periods of time. An entrepreneur, some government officials, some Canadian force members of NATO-ISAF, a yunani physician, some Kabul University students, either tell us directly what they think, what they remember and what they see in Kabul or we learn it from their conversation with others. 

It is a powerful work, though it takes a while before you sink into that world and I am undecided on whether the lack of narration and the lack of some explicit structure hurts or help. As someone who knows a little bit more about the history and languages of Afghanistan, I was soon immersed but the people I was viewing with had a harder time contextualizing what was on the screen. 

In the Director’s Statement, David Edwards concludes: “Kabul is an ancient city in which one is continually made aware of how the past shapes the present and intimates the future. History in the film had to seem to emerge out of psyche and experience, as it does when one lives in a place. We vowed not to impose a history upon the place as is done so often in many documentaries…Our goal was to allow insight to emerge out of experience, to reveal rather than describe, and to listen rather than speak.”

Well, sure. I agree. But, there are happy mediums. Since the documentary is indeed geared towards US audience, I don’t see any good reason not to, at least, locate their audience. Tell them what year it is, or why we only see Canadians giving out shovels and building sewage, or how much history lies buried in the rubbles of Kabul. As it is, the people remain nameless even – we only learn their names in the credits – and their personal histories unknown, except for those that share them. The camera obscures far more than it ever reveals.

In any event, it is something that you should try and catch. You can buy the DVD at their site. There are some clips that didn’t make the cut, and best of all, here is Alexandr Rozenbaum’s amazing Monolog Pilota – set to the best sequence in the whole documentary.


I highly recommend that you go out and watch Tarsem Singh Dhabdwar’s The Fall. Think of it as a companion piece to del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth – obsessed with stories, story-tellers and the corrosive realities that surround them both. I was hesitant to go see it, until I read Ebert’s interview with Tarsem (worth reading every line) and the details of the amazing on-location filming and the commitment to his vision. Also worth reading is another interview with ion-cinema (as well as these tid-bits about the framing device). It is not a film upon which you can hang too heavy an analytic curtain – the story and the sub-text is simple enough but it does contains some traces of a quixotic endeavor that is endearing. So, yeah. Oh, the visuals are amazing (especially of Jodhpur and the Jaipur observatory). Go Tarsem and the power of a broken heart.

Jodhaa Akbar

Jodhaa Akbar Poster courtesy of Raver“Gowarikar came before the media with half a dozen history books and said that he researched the subject thoroughly before making the film.” You will just have to imagine my cheshire cat grin upon reading that sentence in an otherwise eye-rolling reportage on the “controversy” surrounding Ashutosh Gowariker’s bollywood spectacular Jodhaa Akbar. I want every director of every historical movie to come with such arsenal to press conferences.

The movie, which I had the pleasure of seeing, along with two dear friends, at a run-down, mob-front, theater on the north side of Chicago, is underwhelming. Purportedly, it is the story of the Mughal emperor, Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar (1556-1605) and his “romance” with the Rajput princess Jodhaa. The controversy seems to be in the realm of that pesky popular memory and history. Apparently, the offending parties claim that Jodha Bai is the Rajput wife of Jahangir – Akbar’s successor – rather than Akbar’s wife. And that brings some dishonor to some one. I really stopped reading after a while.

The movie doesn’t deserve any controversy. Irfan Habib and Muhammad Amin have the right attitude as historians: “… nothing to get worked up about”. Because if historians are indeed to huff and puff, the one-on-one combat sequences for all of Hindoostan are far more an egregious crime against history than whether Jodha Bai was Akbar’s wife or daughter in law. Man Singh, Pleez. Akbar did have (a number of) Rajput wives, and other wives, and not every one’s name is recorded. The one from the movie is named only by her given title, Maryam-e Zaman (Mary of the Times), in the medieval sources. A title that gave 19th century popular colonial narrators all kinds of wrong ideas about Christian influences on Akbar.

What I did find more troublesome than Jodha Bai, was the particular brand of Hindu-secularism at display in the movie. Wherein the open-ness of Akbar is needed only to give triumphal space for the Hindu dieties. And while Outlook India notes that this movie is the most noted example of an intercommunal romance where the man is muslim, I simply noted that every villain in the movie is a devout Muslim. Jodhaa Akbar, is a story about contemporary India and the world we live in, not about Akbar the Mughal King.

As teaching tool, I appreciated the bits of social and court historical display available in some scenes – the Diwan-i Aam, the Parcheesi, the night camps – but the rest would have to be avoided outside of a class on popular history and memory. My favorite scene was the “throw him over head first”. I dug.

For those who care, I have put the account made famous by British Orientalist about Jodhaa and Akbar, below the fold.
Continue reading “Jodhaa Akbar”

Chapati Review: Wristcutters, A Love Story

(Suggested listening while reading this review: click here; don’t bother to watch the clip, since it’s just a fan slideshow) The film version of Etgar Keret’s novella “Kneller’s Happy Campers” (which is also recreated in the graphic novel Pizzeria Kamikaze) has finally been released in the US (see the earlier review of Keret’s work here). Despite some major and possibly regrettable alterations to the setting and plot, it is still an excellent movie. The biggest disappointment is the location. The story takes place in an afterlife universe where people go after they have committed suicide. In the novella and graphic novel, this place is a city and surrounding countryside that bears a remarkable resemblance to Tel Aviv. The movie was shot in the Wristcutters: bleak landscapeUnited States in run-down parts of LA and somewhere near the Nevada-California border, which makes sense, since most cinematic universes are relocated to California. The characters are now mostly American, or recent immigrants to America. Choosing to make the whole movie American and losing the Israeli element of course robs the story of some of its original flavor, although in the novella the place is never named, and is only meant to resemble the lousy places where the suicides lived before they killed themselves. Suicide is not a culturally flat construct and in the context of an ironic Israeli tale it takes on an especially dark and provoking resonance. Goran DukicOn the other hand, the Croatian director, Goran Dukic, has done a superb job choosing the grimmest and most derelict locations imaginable, and this does make up for the initial disappointment that our hero is now from New Jersey and his life has probably improved quite a bit now that he is dead and living in California.
Continue reading “Chapati Review: Wristcutters, A Love Story”

Round Up VI

» Following last week’s military crackdown in Pakistan and the detention of hundreds of lawyers, the Harvard Law School Association has decided to award Pakistani Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry its highest honor: The Harvard Law School Medal of Freedom.

» “Mentally and in my heart, I am not a dictator. In my heart, I have introduced democracy,” appeals The General during a recent sit-down with Sky News. The proof? He was not a dictator when he was commanding the army. The mind boggles at the logical contradiction buried in there. (Try imagining a democratic army). But, I am giving him too much credit if I say he is contradicting himself. He is lying. There is news that he has arrested key members of the leadership of Pakistan People’s Party in Punjab including Abida Hussain, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington. Democratic, no?

» I went to the sneak preview of Persepolis – based on Marjane Satrapi’s comic book (see this for background). It is a poignant film – amazing 2d illustrations, perhaps some of the best music I have heard in a movie recently, and lots of “applicability to our current situations” (as I heard one sage describe it on the way out). The story takes place immediately before the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and follows Marjane through the early 90s. Especially notable is the nuanced portrayal of a child growing up and learning what it means to know who she is and how to live with integrity. History and memory weigh heavy on Satrapi, though I am sure she will flick her burning cigarette into my eye for such academic l33t speech. I also know that Satrapi did not write this to “explain” the Islamic Revolution or life under the Mullahs in Iran to the United States at the moment we are actively contemplating “liberating” that nation from its suicidal regime. But that is how the US media will see this movie. I predict lots of reviews about how factual or authentic the description of life under Islamic regime is; how she is an apologist for the mullahs or handmaiden to the Great Satan etc. etc. There is no denying that this movie is grist for the hard news-wallah’s mill.

16_01.gif» Nicholas Schmidle, reporting in TNR compares Musharraf and the Shah in Iran – with the backdrop of US support of a dictator. The comparison is mostly facile and the fear is not a new one. General Zia ul Haq thought as much in the immediate aftermath and went on to inject his Sunnification policies into the Pakistani bloodstream (often mislabeled ‘Islamization’). The Iranian example does provide one crucial point to ponder: the role of the cultural intelligentsia and their ability to know and predict what is going on in their own country. We are focused on the middle class and the youth but we need to guage where the country’s over all mood is tilting towards. Let us not get carried away and forget that two of the biggest states in Pakistan are effectively ungovernable by the Federal regime; that an incredibly ruthless adversary is currently operating in Swat; that the people of Baluchistan have long awaited justice and that the Pakistani people are just as scared and helpless to control the direction of their country as we have been in this country. I am hopeful that Musharraf and his uniform and his throne will part soon enough but we need to know what happens next.

In the meantime, we can take heart from Schmidle. After all, it did take two years of hanging out with nastiest Islamists around before he got spooked from anti-Americanism:

At least, not yet. After living in Pakistan for almost two years and traveling to all parts of the country meeting some of the nastiest Islamists around, I had my first encounter with visceral anti-Americanism on Saturday night, an hour after the State of Emergency was declared. I was walking from one side of a police cordon, back into a crowd of anti-Musharraf protesters, when a tall man with a long beard called out from 15 feet away, berating me and accusing me of being a CIA agent. “America is destroying a nation of one hundred and sixty million people to save one person!” he yelled.

I looked back at the line of riot police and wondered if they were going to come to my rescue. But I didn’t fault the man with the beard; even though the White House has criticized Musharraf in the last few days, they have spent the past six years telling Musharraf that he could do no wrong. I just wondered how many American journalists faced a similar barrage in the months before the Shah fled Iran.

» In some earlier post I mentioned Zakaria and his particular brand of “realism”. He now demands our attention with Pakistan’s Pinstripe Revolution. Pinstripe? The analysis is so off-base that it screams for a proper fisking – for which I have no energy. Can I just say that when so-called “liberal pundits” are proclaiming “Periods of transition are never placid” a la Donald Rumsfeld than we really need to re-assess the meaning of the word “liberal”. The meaning of the word “pundit” thankfully should remain what it is.

» Imran Khan finally came out – went to Punjab University – and was tossed un-ceremoniously into the hands of the police by the members of the IJT (student wing of the Jama’at-i Islami, the hardline mullahs). Imran Khan needs to be released, now. He has justifiable fears for his safety.


Aliens in America premiers tonight on the CW. Can someone tell me what that poor kid is wearing?

P.S. Considering it was filmed in Pasadena and Vancouver, let’s not forget to keep a tally of inaccuracies about Wisconsinites as well as Pakistanis.

P.P.S. Alessandra Stanley places Aliens in the genre of imaginary friend comedies. As she wisely observes: “Wish fulfillment gone awry is the essence of many a comedy, and there is no wish as potent and deep-seated as the yearning for an imaginary friend.” Thankfully she clarifies this assertion later on in the review with this clarification:

“Aliens in America,” which begins tonight on CW, follows in the same tradition except that the wished-for best friend is a Muslim exchange student from Pakistan, not a supernatural creature.

It seems that the Pakistani character is named Raja Musharaff.