July 7, 2012 by bluberie
Ayush Prasad reads through layers of hope and hopelessness in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar
“I have come to believe that if someone who has lost their legs does not become a champion runner then it’s their own fault,” says Nafas at the end of Mohsen Makhmalbaf‘s Kandahar, capturing its meaning in one swift stroke. The world of war‐ridden Afghanistan is full of the absurd. It is ravaged with destitution, savagery, conflict, disease, death and infernal religious indoctrination, and beset with the indifference of the world, but it is also resilient and with a hope that cannot be found anywhere else. It is the only place where young girls and boys need to indoctrinate themselves not to touch attractive dolls and playthings. It is the only place where those who do not have legs sprint, using crutches, to their targets, their legs, falling from a searing sky onto parched desert lands, hopeful that grabbing them would let them walk and would let them be free from slavery to their handicaps.
In Kandahar, Afghanistan emerges as a casualty and a playground of modernity. The mechanised and modernised West has chosen Afghanistan as the place where it can play the teasing game of airdropping, a dangerous game in which mass‐manufactured fiber legs are airdropped for those whose real legs have been blown‐up by dolls that were landmines–beautiful trinkets of death that have been furnished for the simple pleasures of eliminating another man and another land. The West has chosen Afghanistan as the stage to rehearse its play of debilitation and weapons are its favourite props.
True enough then, and as the Afro‐American Muslim quack in search of God tells Nafas, “The only modern things in Afghanistan are weapons.” This repentant ex‐soldier, a representative of the limits to which a God‐seeking, violent West could stoop over a lumbering Afghanistan with gestures of care (even as it destroys the very fabric of the Afghan society at the same time), nonetheless, and quite predictably, offers Nafas a pistol. Nafas rejects it, stating plainly, “I don’t need it,” and instead looks for hope in speech and engagement with the other, showing the only way ahead, the Afghan women’s way, a way that rejects violence and weapons and tries to suture life even when it is coming apart.
Incredibly, and therefore, not a single shot or scene in the film takes place at night. The film seems bathed in daylight, even if it is the scorching daylight of the desert. It is also for this very reason that the film hinges on the motif of the eclipse both when it begins and when it ends. The awareness of the eclipse and a hope for that which lies beyond the eclipse in the realm of possibility sweeps through the entire film. Afghanistan has experienced a historical eclipse, but it shall emerge again in that very daylight which Afghan women experience everyday as hope and as freedom from imprisonment within their times and within the impediments of the patriarchal, clouding veil. The Afghan girls, who we see queued up at a refugee camp in Iran, waiting to be sent to a militant, school‐less and freedom‐less Afghanistan, shall walk out of the eclipses in their lives by “standing together.” In times of oppression, they shall “pretend to be ants” so that their world looks larger and freer than it is, and by appearing such, help them survive.
Nafas too shall survive the eclipses in her personal history—her experiences in Afghanistan and her fears—and reach her hopeless sister in Kandahar before the latter, tired of her imprisonment in a ‘supposedly’ (and whose supposition is this, but of the West and its media?) hopeless Afghanistan and marooned in her handicap, kills herself at the hour of the actual solar eclipse. Like those refugee Afghani girls who stand united, Nafas shall stand together with her lost sister and help her survive the eclipses (her amputation and her incapacitation) in her life and emerge independent once again.
Kandahar also bares much of what makes Afghanistan’s many eclipses. It shows with chilling directness the project and process of religious and militant indoctrination in Afghanistan‘s Islamic inseminaries. Rows of boys—resembling a swarm of bees in a hive—sit and sway, hunched, humming the Quran, learning definitions of the Kalashnikov and the sabre. While one of them describes the Kalashnikov as “a semi‐automatic weapon with gunpowder and repeat action” that “kills the living, destroys their flesh and mutilates the bodies of those already dead,” another describes the sabre as “a weapon which executes God’s orders” as it “severs the thief‘s hand and the murderer‘s head.” All this happens under the direction of the mullah. Afghan mothers, unaware of what goes on inside such seminaries, beg these mullahs to admit their children into these brain‐washing camps so that their children can firstly, get food, and secondly, become the privileged mullahs of tomorrow.
The Canada‐bred Nafas desires to engage and get to know other Afghan women, but cannot because they are inaccessible to her not in language, but in culture. She is free and unveiled, whereas they are not. Nafas tells us that “unfortunately they are all under full cover” and there is no way she could know “how they feel” about her. Continuing with her mind‐numbing commentary, she pushes us out of our drawing‐room complacency: “I don’t know if it is the Afghan government which forces these women to wear these burqas or it’s the Afghan culture that does force the government to keep these women under these covers. In Afghanistan, each ethnic group has a name and an image of its own…but the women in the country, who make up about half of the society, have no name or image because they are all covered. Perhaps that’s why they are called siasar or blackheads.” Nafas’s commentary also tells us that “in Afghanistan these past twenty years one human being has died every twenty minutes from mines, from war, from famine or drought,” a fact that is good enough for anyone living there to “lose hope every five minutes” and make him or her want to “kill” himself or herself. Hope, therefore, doesn’t come easy in contemporary Afghanistan.
Kandahar’s journey then is an incomplete and ongoing journey of a devastated place, but nonetheless a journey that has the body of romance and the soul of seeking and adventure. Kandahar and Makhmalbaf’s feat lies in putting an Afghan woman at the helm of this journey. She is out to seek her chalice, her sister, her culture, the country of her origin, and hopes to get there without using violence, rejecting guns (things that a knight, a Western man on a romantic journey would generally use), rejecting hopelessness, embracing compassion, death and survival.
Therefore, as Nafas finally accepts the ring that the vagrant child Khak extracts from the finger of a skeleton in the desert–a present from the survivor Khak to Nafas’s hopeless sister–a raga floods in with notes of the sitar, the tanpura and the tabla. We see a setting sun, a sky covered sparsely with clouds, but definitely laden with some illuminating hope: the hope of people walking back to their homes in peace. Nafas’s acceptance of the ring emerges as her acceptance of Afghanistan that is both what it is and what it could possibly be. Her intention to carry on her journey through Afghanistan’s desert wasteland marks her love for both her sister and this land which she had once fled.
Kandahar fittingly ends with Nafas waking up to this double‐love, with her saying, “I’d always escaped from the jails that imprisoned Afghan women, but now I’m a captive in everyone of those presents, only for you, my sister,” with a flourish of the tanpura, the rebab, the tabla and the percussion, with checks of light on Nafas’s face, with the view of the evening through the embroidered net in Nafas’s veil: an evening broken into bits and with a broken sun, but still there.
PS: Published in Insignia, the monthly of UTV World Movies, in 2010, for Spenta Multimedia, Mumbai.