It was always going to be tricky to pull off a quirky road movie centred upon the Taliban, but Kabir Khan almost pulls it off. And seeing as Kabul Express is produced by Yash Raj Films (the most successful Indian film studio, more used to financing over the top Hindi blockbusters) it's a miracle that this is as restrained as it is. Khan's background as a documentary filmmaker puts him in good stead, but the movie can't quite resist the slide into cliché despite its sobering setting.
The first international feature film to be shot entirely on location in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban meant that there were days when the crew were often outnumbered by the armed soldiers providing security. As you'd expect then the scenery is fantastic and sombre at the same time - majestic mountains forming a backdrop to bombed out buildings and the rusting remains of stripped down tanks. Into this landscape are dropped two Indian journalists hoping to make it big on their first assignment. Jai and Suhel are driven around Kabul in the titular four by four by Khyber, an Afghan. They stumble across a group of captured Taliban, but they become the story they were looking for when one of the captives takes them prisoner and forces them to head for Pakistan. Along the way their paths cross with an America journalist who also ends up heading for the armed border.
At first Imran seems to be the villain you'd expect, but over the next 48 hours perceptions begin to change. Of course it’s hard to relate to a character who for most of the film seems itching to kill the likeable Khyber, but can't because he's the only one who can drive. Then there's the backdrop of executions and violence that at times seem to seep in from a different movie. Indeed the opening shots of the World Trade Centre and Taliban 'justice' are completely at odds with the almost feel good movie that follows. If we mention that the Taliban fighter's full name is Imran Khan Afridi and that the American journalist's name is Jessica Beckham you can see where some of the light relief comes from. There's a running gag about cricket and Indian cigarettes that also help the strangers bond while a shared appreciation of Hindi music opens up an almost sing-along road trip vibe broken only by the occasional roadside execution and game of Buzkashi (rugby with a dead lamb instead of a ball).
Linda Arsenio though is the real weak spot - bless her for trying, but she can't act for toffee. Her role seems to be to provide eye candy and to represent the one thing that all sides in the conflict can agree on - that the Americans are the real problem. Again this is given some comic mileage, especially when the gang find a bombed out convoy carrying a leaking brown beverage that prompts a Coca Cola/Pepsi challenge. We're guessing this wasn’t simply product placement as it’s hard to think about 'The Real Thing' when there's a charred corpse just out of focus in the background.
Oh and there's a suicidal donkey too.
Kabul Express plays twice at the Odeon West End on November 2nd.