Salman Shahid—a Pakistani. Hanif Hamgam–an Afghan. Both essay their own nationalities in Kabul Express. Both are politically aware. As reel turns real and vice-versa, Rishi Majumder listens on
Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
SALMAN SHAHID: You know this is the first time I’ve worked in an Indian film. It’s been a fulfilling experience—right from the places I have visited to the fact that this is a ‘different’ kind of an Indian film. What do you think Hamgam saab?
HANIF HAMGAM: It’s been a good experience (laughs). Over 50 per cent of the population understand Urdu, so following a Hindi film is not a problem. Everything has been destroyed though, thanks to the 30-year war. We have been plucked out by the roots.
SHAHID: And yet, you have a film like Osama—made by a resident of Kabul.
HAMGAM: …and which has won a Golden Globe as well. But I’m talking generally. I hope India, Pakistan and Afghanistan work together in future. I hope we make a lot of films again and can show them abroad, like Indians do. I hope we can unite, possess a world market… and Inshallah… make excellent cinema!
SHAHID: The Pakistan government is not as supportive of the arts as its Indian counterpart. But to fight is in man’s nature, and so you have filmmakers putting out work like Khamosh Paani—which had Kiron Kher, an Indian actress, in the lead. The rise of pop culture is inevitable–one cannot cry ‘uniformity’, but heritage breathes via state patronage.
HAMGAM: We’ve had war in our country for over 5000 years. We’ve been attacked many times during the British—and they have lost. And so we have never been ‘colonialised’. There was a saying that an Afghan is invincible. But the bombings to end the Taliban regime, has shaken our belief in that. We had a King Amanullah, who in the 1920s launched a reform programme which if implemented, would have made Afghanistan the first country, to give women the right to vote. But the British, sensing his power, sponsored a coup to topple him—they were the Taliban then. Ironically the Taliban regime subjected women of the same country to such oppression. Even during Dawood Khan’s rule – which was heavily communist, there were some excellent reforms instituted. These were disbanded for a long time—but now, post the Taliban regime, we are going back on the track of those reforms.
SHAHID: But do you think the Taliban are from Pakistan? Because that is the impression being given by Kabul Express, and an opinion held by many. The Taliban may have been used by Pakistan and the USA—their strong fervour may have been exploited, but they were and are from Afghanistan itself.
HAMGAM: Yes. For Afghans may fight against one another, but will kill any foreigner who comes to rule them. But the Talibans played a role in a script… written by Pakistan on being pushed to do so by USA.
SHAHID: (laughs)… well, a lot of things which were done on being pushed by USA. Nevertheless, that man named Pervez Musharraf may say a lot of untrue things, but what he’s saying about the Taliban today is true—they are beyond Pakistan and USA’s control. Just like so many problems in India—the North East, for instance—have gone out of control.
I think what the Afghans need the most today is to be united, and not fight amongst one another in their own backyard.
HAMGAM: What the Afghans need is a Gandhi like India had—who did not fight for a position, or a Jinnah like Pakistan had, who was a national figure. The old Badshah has been re-instated but he couldn’t do much even earlier… we notice a lot of problems… problems Pakistan does not have.
SHAHID: Pakistan also has problems, come on!
HAMGAM: Maybe, but not to the extent that we do… but yes we must change this attitude. We keep fighting among each other—only to turn together on a foreigner who tries to intervene. We need a permanent nationalism.
SHAHID: Absolutely! Not an ‘eye for an eye’ tribal system. Leaders should be determined by vision, not guns.
HAMGAM: Arre, people have come to be very disillusioned by all this politics. What about your country, Shahid saab, and the American influence therein?
SHAHID: Well, there was Ayub Khan’s removal… Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s removal. It is amazing how many things we, being mere actors, come to know of. One evening I was sitting with a social worker and the American Consul General and we brought up this issue of American intervention. The Consul General got up to leave in irritation, dismissively saying, “It is not important!” And that’s the crucial problem of the west at large: indifference on the field and ignorance at home.
HAMGAM: In our country the poorest village boy will give you his analysis of what the politics is… he hangs on to every word he receives on the radio to give him an idea.
SHAHID: Because it matters to his life and death, and he doesn’t have other ‘preoccupations’. The Americans have their burgers, coke and computer games. It’s like a rich kid asking his mummy, “Who are these starving people?”
HAMGAM: (laughs) And mummy says, “Grow up… maybe then you’ll know.”
SHAHID: (laughs) And then we have American tourists coming down to Afghanistan and Pakistan, looking genuinely befuddled as to why people are hostile, or want to kill them! They haven’t the faintest clue! Whereas people in Afghanistan or Pakistan or India know lots about the happenings in America.
HAMGAM: But how much do you think Indians know about Pakistan or Afghanistan?
SHAHID: Very little, considering how much we know about India. I think there again it’s because India is the richer country which is always more isolated. I often get asked about how suppressed freedom of speech is, for instance. People should read the Pakistani newspapers to see the amount of open criticism the government receives.
HAMGAM: In Afghanistan too, I do a TV show calledZang E Khatar in which I openly criticize everyone in power and their misdeeds. But nothing matches Michael Moore’s film, where a government has received criticism while in power. Even Osama was made after the fall of the Taliban regime. But our film industry as a whole must be given time to develop.
SHAHID: We have had films like Hawa Ke Naam. Also Kabul Express has a very South Asian viewpoint, which is different from the normal lot of films on the issue, and is quite objective. Yet it isn’t totally objective – the partial truth but not the complete one. It is a film made to succeed at the box office after all, and pop culture has the attitude of reinforcing public opinion instead of changing it. Still, I see it as a huge effort.
HAMGAM: You know, we don’t want an external cultural invasion in Afghanistan. We have a very distinct culture—in our villages and towns. Only the media can, by being responsible, attain this. For instance, we don’t want our languages to be corrupted.
SHAHID: I think along borders—whether with India or Afghanistan—our cultures are very similar on either sides. But still, if borders have been made, people must understand their purpose. Many Belgians speak French, but their borders are still respected. Only if this respect is sustained can one go along building ties.
Masrood Ashini a youngster from International TV of Kabul, with Hanif Hamgam: Having sat through this entire discussion, I want to say something. If a house catches fire, and people either ignore it, or pour in some petrol – either way with the aim of destruction – then the house may be burnt down, but the fire will continue to spread…
HAMGAM: Not so far back, this fire spread all the way to New York.
This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/osam