There Will be an Exodus of All Artistes From Afghanistan: Kabir Khan
Filmmaker Kabir Khan says he feels helpless as his friends in Afghanistan reach out to him.
Kabir Khan is one of the few filmmakers in India who has worked extensively in Afghanistan. Apart from his first feature film Kabul Express (2006), Khan has shot a few documentaries in Afghanistan, including one post 9/11, which narrated the impact of 5 years of Taliban rule over the country. In a conversation with The Quint, the director of films such as Bajrangi Bhaijaan, New York and Ek Tha Tiger talks about how he fears for the creative community in Afghanistan, why the Indian government should have had a more inclusive policy towards Afghan refugees and his experiences with the locals during his trips to Afghanistan.
It's been reported that Nazar Mohammad, a comedian was killed by the Taliban, we've seen filmmaker Sarhaa Karimi's appeal, asking filmmakers in their respective countries to put pressure on their governments to help the people of Afghanistan. What does the taking over of Afghanistan, especially Kabul mean for the creative community there?
Kabir Khan: We all know what the Taliban did to the arts and culture, films and photography the last time they were here, so I don't think anyone would expect anything different now. I would really be surprised if they let the actors, the artistes and the entire film industry to survive over there. I don't think that they will let it survive. The last time they didn't allow photography, forget cinema.
I would say there is going to be an exodus of all the artistes, they would have to run away, which happened last time also. I know a lot of them who were my friends, who worked with me in Kabul Express, they used to narrate their stories to me about how they ran away to Iran because that's the only place they could easily get work, because Dari which is spoken in Kabul is basically a dialect of Farsi, so for them it's easier to get work in Iran. Some came away to India, some would go to Pakistan, so I think it's going to be tough for people in the sphere of arts and culture to survive over there.
You have shot several documentaries in Afghanistan, your first feature film Kabul Express was shot there, so you would have a lot of local contacts in the country. Are you in touch with them, are they braving it out or have some of them reached out for help?
Kabir Khan: We have so many friends there, not just because of Kabul Express but also because I have shot several documentaries there before Kabul Express. A lot of them had already relocated because even though the Taliban is in possession of Kabul today, but the Taliban resurgence started in 2006 itself.
Siddiq Barmak, a very dear friend of mine who made the film Osama, which was nominated for an Oscar, he relocated a few years back, he's in France. So, a lot of them have gone away. But yes, even then there are people we know - there is an actor who was a part of Kabul Express, who's very vocal, he's an anti-Taliban critic, he has very openly expressed his love for cinema and especially Bollywood and India, he's in Kabul. He reached out to us, day before yesterday they ransacked his house and he's underground now. He's been reaching out to us and saying can we help him get a visa and reach India.
But one feels heartbroken and helpless really because we don't know what to do - of course we are reaching out to authorities, we are reaching out to people and seeing if we can send guarantees, send some letter or whatever we can do to help them get a visa and come here but I don't think there is much one can do right now. Most of the time their phones are off, they are scared, they are underground.
We are also seeing an alternate narrative that's being pushed out - that this is a Taliban with a difference, they they are allowing women to work and girls to attend schools, they held a press conference yesterday. There have been tweets stating that they are allowing women news readers to carry on their work. How much of this do you buy?
Kabir Khan: I don't buy too much of that. There is a core ideology that never changes. I've been hearing this and right now they are doing all of that but let's also realise that right now the world press is there, people are watching from all over the world, so they are probably trying to project a certain image.
But firstly, Taliban is not the kind of organisation which is properly structured, so maybe some of the leaders sitting in Qatar and elsewhere can be saying these things, but are they going to be able to implement it at the street level? Are they going to be able to implement it in villages and smaller towns where the local overlord may have overnight sworn his allegiance to the Taliban? How is he going to operate? How are his foot-soldiers going to operate? So, I don't really buy it. I would be very happy if that's true, if they do prove to become different from what they were in 1996 and upto 2001, but I am not too convinced.
You've been tracking Afghanistan for several decades now, just a day ago the US President Joe Biden washed his hands off the American government's responsibility towards Afghanistan, and has been severely criticised for it. He said that America was never committed to nation-building in Afghanistan.
Kabir Khan: Somebody should have asked him the counter question - 'Sir, what were you committed to? What were you here for 20 years?' because I remember it from 20 years ago and I remember it very well because I was a documentarian at that point of time and I was working in Afghanistan and so I was following everything that was being said and I think it was very clearly said that the US was going in for nation-building. So 20 years later when the President says that nation-building was never their agenda, I wonder what was their agenda? Was their agenda to dismantle Taliban? Well, that didn't happen. Was their agenda to just spend 2 trillion dollars, we should also know how much of that 2 trillion dollars went back to the US, because when you build roads, you might build roads for let's say 2 billion dollars, all the contractors are American contractors. So the only money that came into Afghanistan is probably what the daily wage earners earned. I think it was the most ridiculous statement to make that they were never there for nation-building.
Earlier on 16 August, India's Ministry of External Affairs said that we would welcome Afganistan's Hindu and Sikh communities, this policy has reportedly changed now. At a time like this, when we are seeing the desperation of the Afghan people - do you think our approach should have started out being more inclusive - open our doors to refugees irrespective of their religion.
Kabir Khan: I think it's sad that at every given moment we start classifying people into religions and saying -'so and so religions are welcome and this religion is not welcome'. I think there was no need to have that statement, I was very disappointed when I heard that.
People are identifying Talibans as Muslims, but they fail to understand that the people who are suffering at their hands are also Muslims. The Afghans are Muslims and they are suffering and it's not like the Taliban are only going to be targeting some minorities, they are going to be targeting everybody. Thousands and thousands of Afghan muslims have died and suffered at the hands of the Taliban, so religion has nothing to do with it, we shouldn't be classifying people according to religion.
Taliban is an ideology that can transcend all religions. It's just an extreme view of religion and whenever there is an extreme view of religion, it leads to trouble. It doesn't matter which religion it is. It could be Islam, it could be Christianity, it could be Hinduism, it could be any religion. An extreme view which is based on division and hate will always be counter-productive to society and we've seen that.
I want to end by asking you about your memories of your first trip to Afghanistan and your interactions with the locals while you were there.
Kabir Khan: My very first visit to Afghanistan was way before Kabul Express, my first trip was in 1996, it was 2 months before Taliban had taken over Kabul. I had gone there to make a documentary for the International Committee of the Red Cross and the documentary was on the effects of war on children. Because even by then, they had seen 20 years of war. It was a very difficult documentary to make at a personal level because just seeing what the effect of war on children was just too much for us to carry on with and it became problematic also because at that time the Taliban were literally 20 kms outside Kabul and they would shell the city every day. So it became very dangerous for us to be there and we left at that point thinking that we'll come back when things got better, but they never did because 2 months later the Taliban had overrun Kabul and almost the entire Afghanistan was under their control.
I finally returned 5 years later, post 9/11 when the Northern Alliance started regaining ground and the Americans were bombing the Taliban. I did a documentary on the 5 years of the Taliban rule and what it meant in Afghanistan. My experiences there was what ultimately led to the script of Kabul Express.
I remember my trips to Afghanistan very very distinctly. I will always remember the people, the warmth of the people, and this is something that any Indian who has been to Afghanistan will tell you - the kind of warmth and goodwill they have for Indians at the street level is overwhelming. I cannot even exaggerate it if I want to, it's overwhelming. Any Indian who goes to Afghanistan is treated like such a dear friend and guest and it's really sad today when one is not being able to do anything for all the people there.
Were you surprised when the government of Afghanistan banned Kabul Express?
Kabir Khan: Not really, because it was actually an inadvertent mistake that we had made actually. It was one scene which they took offence to that mentioned one particular community and unfortunately there was a scene where that particular community was talking about another community - the attempt was to show how all of them talk about each other like this. But in the edit, one of the scenes got dropped, so for whatever reason they felt that we were targeting that one community and they didn't want to take that risk, it was unfortunate. But since then, we have spoken to them all and I went back and it was all sorted out, but yes that was an unfortunate incident that took place then.
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