Reel Life: A cinematic walk through Afghanistan

A look at five films, of filmmakers from Afghanistan, Iran and the UK, that present a sensitive and persuasive look at what it means to live on Ground Zero in Afghanistan

Reel Life: A cinematic walk through Afghanistan
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Namrata Joshi

With the US withdrawal of its troops in Afghanistan and the Taliban regaining control, the country is currently the focus of world attention, including the global filmmaking community. The fundamentalist, totalitarian group is infamous, among many things, for its brutal repression of women and its vilification of various forms of arts, culture and entertainment.

Yet it has also been the subject and setting for several films—be they mainstream or arthouse, Hollywood, Indian or from world cinema. If Zero Dark Thirty focused on the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, popular Western films like Charlie Wilson’s War and The Living Daylights looked at the US and James Bond’s tryst with the mujahideen.

In Hindi cinema, one of the earliest and most memorable representations of the Pathan was in 1961 film Kabuliwala, based on a story by Rabindranath Tagore, with Balraj Sahni playing the titular character of a dry-fruit seller from Afghanistan pining for his homeland and little daughter. Another version of the same story, Bioscopewala, came out recently with Danny Denzongpa reprising the iconic character and the backdrop shifting to the 1990s during the Taliban rule.

Dharmatma is known to be the first Hindi film shot in Afghanistan and Khuda Gawah regarded as the most popular Indian film amongst the Afghanis. After travelling through Afghanistan and making several documentaries on the country, Kabir Khan made his feature film debut with Kabul Express. About two Indian journalists reporting on life in Afghanistan after the US led invasion of 2001, it gave a glimpse of the havoc wreaked by the years of the Taliban rule.

Perhaps, the one film to take the viewer through the entire gamut of tumultuous Afghan past would be The Kite Runner. Based on Khaled Hosseini’s novel, it captured Afghanistan all through the recent history of monarchy and its abolition, the Soviet invasion, the civil war and the rise of the Taliban.

However, it’s not just the politics, the conflicts and the wars but their human dimension and repercussions that the best of world cinema has taken us close to and made us aware of. I would pick five films—of filmmakers from Afghanistan, Iran and the UK—that present a sensitive and persuasive look at what it means to live on Ground Zero in Afghanistan.


1) Samira Makhmalbaf’s At Five In The Afternoon (2003)

One of the first films to be shot in Kabul after the US led invasion and toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001, At Five In The Afternoon premiered at the Cannes Film festival where it won the jury award. About a woman aspiring for education and nurturing the ambition of becoming the President of Afghanistan, the film is a moving and heart-breaking account of dreams that get nursed and flourish even in the thick of violence and wars and conservatism and oppression.

2) Michael Winterbottom’s In This World (2002)

The recent horrific images of Afghan men falling down from the airplane reminded me of a similar frantic situation portrayed in Michael Winterbottom’s In This World that won the Golden Bear at Berlinale. The Afghan men had clung to the wheels of the US aircraft in a desperate bid to get out of Kabul. Winterbottom’s film is a similar searing account of two Afghan boys trying to get an illegal passage into the UK from a Pakistani refugee camp via Iran, Turkey and Italy. A group of asylum seekers is shown resorting to smuggling themselves stealthily in an unventilated ship container, not bargaining for the death by suffocation that lies ahead for them. For them freedom matters, and at any cost.

Reel Life: A cinematic walk through Afghanistan

3) Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar (2001)

The Iranian film, set in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime (though shot in Iran), premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. It is about an Afghan woman living in Canada who returns to the country to prevent her sister, left behind in Kandahar, from committing suicide. Her mission becomes a harrowing tour for the viewer to come face to face with the brutal reality of Afghanistan—a country weaponised but with minimal medical facilities, people deprived of food, water and other resources and women trapped in their veils. A powerful indictment of the ruthless rulers of the country.

4) Siddiq Barmak’s Osama (2003)

A co-production between Afghanistan, Netherlands, Iran, Japan and Ireland, Osama was the first Afghan film to have been filmed in the country since the Taliban imposed ban on filmmaking in 1996. It looks at the oppressive rules imposed on women by the Taliban—denial of education and employment and the compulsory wearing of the burqa among others. A young girl cuts her hair and masquerades as a boy to support her destitute family of herself, her mother and grandmother. But how long would she be able to carry on with the charade?

5) Shahrbanoo Sadat’s The Orphanage (2019)

Screened at the parallel Directors’ Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival, The Orphanage is about the life of adolescent boys in an orphanage in Afghanistan even as the country is transforming from a republic into an Islamic state with the withdrawal of the Soviets and takeover by the mujahideen.

What is of interest for India is that the film deals with the Afghan boys’ endearing obsession with Hindi films, particularly Amitabh Bachchan. Bollywood is a refuge for them from a life that is lesser than ordinary.

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Published: 29 Aug 2021, 11:00 AM