“The Kite Runner” Is a Difficult Afghan Story
By Ras H. Siddiqui
“For You a Thousand Times” is an expression of loyalty that has few parallels in Western societies. But ever since Afghan-American story teller Khaled Hosseini brought his controversial best-selling novel, “The Kite Runner” to the American reader a couple of years ago, Afghan expressions are now becoming better known here (thanks to subtitles). And the idea that a film could one day be made based on his novel, on such a difficult and controversial story, was once quite difficult to imagine. But this week as I watched it on its first day playing in Roseville, California , there was no longer surprise, but a great deal more to ponder over afterwards.
Potential viewers of this film need to be strongly cautioned about parts of its content. The assault on a young boy by another in this movie, although tactfully portrayed, still elicits a strong reaction. And if that scene was not as central to the movie (or the book), it could have easily been left out. But since the rape of Afghanistan is at the heart of The Kite Runner story, that segment just could not be avoided.
The Kite Runner starts off in California where the San Francisco Bay Area comes into focus. It zeroes in on a young Afghan American writer Amir (played by Khalid Abdalla) and his wife Soraya (Atossa Leoni), a childless couple who are excited about his first book being published. And while they are admiring the first delivered copies of the book, Amir gets a telephone call from Peshawar, Pakistan. The person on the other line asks him to come home and that is where the past comes crashing back into his sheltered life. It appears that there is no escape for the immigrant in America and his baggage of memories. There is something about the call to “come home” that rattles him, especially since he can no longer clearly say where ‘home’ really is anymore.
The movie goes back to Kabul in 1978. The communists are taking control and we are at a critical point in history just before the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. And here we meet the two boys, the Young Amir (Zekiria Ebrahimi) and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada) who are growing up in the Kabul that once was, a city with a passion for many beautiful things, including kite flying. They like to see movies and watch “The Magnificent Seven” (of Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen fame) dubbed in the local language. This superbly portrayed duo of kids and Amir’s father Baba (Homayoun Ershadi) literally are the core of this movie and steal the viewer’s attention almost immediately. Baba is trying to do some good by donating to worthy causes locally in Kabul. He jokes with Rahim Khan (Shaun Toub) about government corruption that will eat at his donations, where if only 50% of his money is being stolen then the bureaucrats are becoming too “lazy”.
Amir, the rich man’s (Baba’s) son is a sensitive boy who likes to write stories and is the emerging local kite flying/fighting champion. Hassan is a servant boy, an ethnic Hazara who is Amir’s constant companion and devoted assistant (especially during kite flying). Hassan’s devotion is such that since Amir is not known for any fighting skills, Hassan even fights for him. Observing their closeness, the neighborhood bully, a prejudiced and fascist boy Assef (Elham Ehsas plays young Assef) taunts them. The fearless Hassan aims his slingshot at him to fend him off and in the process starts a feud that culminates with his being assaulted later.
Amir, with Hassan’s assistance is crowned the King of kite fighting at the colorful Kabul festival (which reminds one of Basant in Lahore). And the final kite that he cuts is chased by Hassan, the finest “Kite Runner” in town. Hassan does find the kite and intends to present it to Amir as a gesture of his friendship and loyalty. But in the process he encounters Assef and his gang and this time he is without his slingshot. He still refuses to give up his kite and is assaulted instead while Amir stands at a distance and does nothing to assist him. It appears that this loyalty and friendship is one-sided, and that fact eats at the heart of cowardly Amir, the writer of dastaan’s (stories). Amir even lies to his father to get rid of Hassan, his servant friend, after that incident. But the guilt factor still haunts and accompanies him all the way to America.
Amir, the Afghan who refuses to fight (to confront injustice and the assault on Hassan) remains the symbolic heart of Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” story. It somehow also represents the betrayal of Afghanistan by not only historically foreign, but also local forces. Maybe it was the author’s intent to include Afghans themselves in Afghanistan’s ongoing tragedy. In this movie, the travel back and forth between Kabul-Peshawar and the San Francisco Bay Area (where Amir and Baba finally settle) presents a vivid picture of the dilemma of the displaced people. Ironically, this movie made in the Dari language is really an American story too. The courtship of Amir and Soraya under the watchful eyes of General Taheri (played by Qadir Farookh) is also quite interesting. And what of Baba, the proud Afghan who refuses to be examined by a Russian ancestry doctor and carries with him the sample earth of Afghanistan here in America?
It is not the purpose of a review to reveal the entire story of a movie. The film critics in the mainstream American media have not been overly generous with The Kite Runner although they are appreciative of its making. There are certain cultural nuances that they may not have been able to capture, because this movie is just plain beautiful if one puts aside issues of political correctness. The older Assef (Abdul Salam Yusoufzai) does later join the Taliban and internal Afghan ethnic tensions are a part of this story too, but again this should not be focused on as a battle between Pashtoon and Hazara. The fight between Amir and Assef over custody of Hassan’s son Sohrab (Ali Danish Bakhtyari), because the child abuse continues for more than one generation, is certainly one between a flawed hero and the truly evil one.
Khalid Hosseini, like many Afghans is a poet at heart. Here with the assistance of screenwriter David Benioff, the essence of The Kite Runner remains intact which is the longing for the return of the author’s memories of a much more culturally open Afghanistan, the one that once existed and can hopefully return. There may be inspiration derived here from one of the Persian language’s greatest epics the Shahnamah by Ferdowsi, and then again Sohrab’s name may be just a coincidence. But in any case “For You a Thousand Times” is said more than once in this controversial film. The person saying it and to whom it is being said are more important, and in that regard we can all learn something from The Kite Runner. It is just sad that the movie had to be filmed in western China and not Afghanistan due to various reasons beyond the filmmaker’s control. (This movie is for mature audiences.)