When, I first heard that a movie is being made on this book, I was skeptical. I was apprehensive that the extremely complex and delicate emotions and the tragedy of the characters will be turned into – a) a sappy Hollywood’esque drama b) an overtly political viewpoint of Afghanistan and Taliban or c) a verbose movie with a lot of voice-over narration to help the viewers understand the subtext.
Then I IMDBed the movie, saw that Marc Forster was directing and that no known stars are a part of this project. I learnt more, the majority of the movie will be made in the local dialects of the Afghans – Dari, Pashto and Urdu. These factors helped me qualm my initial fears to a large extent. Marc Forster’s impressive resume – the hugely tragic “Monster’s Ball”, the incredibly optimistic “Finding Neverland” and the quirky but brilliant existential dramedy “Stranger than Fiction” made him an eligible candidate to captain this project.
I was still a little jittery when I popped in the DVD this past Sunday afternoon. The movie started and I was transported back in the life of Amir and Hassan, in the harsh but humbling landscape of Kabul (Kashgar, China posing as Kabul), in the innocence of the actor playing “Hassan”, in the kite flying and kite running. The final effect was not as draining as the book had, (not the movie’s fault) but it did not disappoint me.
I must praise the brave decision of the filmmakers to use the local dialects instead of English. Using English would have killed the impact, sure more people would have watched it, but the scriptwriters and the directors stuck to their instincts and it was a wise decision. (I do not understand why people are so put off by movies which are of a different language and they have to read subtitles. They are robbing themselves off of a treasure of good movies out there). Although the movie was shot in China, I personally think the scenery was very close to what I had imagined when I was reading the book.
The child actors are perfectly cast – Zekeria Ebrahimi as young Amir looks like a rich Pashtun kid that he is and displays the vulnerability, diffidence, confusion and helpless guilt of the character with tremendous maturity. But the part that was the key to the story was of young Hassan, a Hazara (lower caste) boy with a pudgy nose. Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, who plays young Hassan, is impeccable. He brings out the emotions of his unconditional love and devotion towards his friend Amir Agha very gracefully. The metamorphosis in his demeanor and mannerisms after the ghastly act which forms the turning point in the story is meticulous. Watch for his eyes before and after the key event, it’s heartbreaking. The reason I say that this was an important role to cast is because, the audience needs to understand the devastation and constant persecution that this character undergoes in order to understand the drastic actions that the Amir character will take in the later part of the story.
The book goes to great lengths in explaining the persecuted Hazara clan throughout the Afghan history, the movie skips over this aspect. The movie leaves out a lot of such details depicted in the book which help in understanding the Afghani way of living, the motivations of the characters etc. The character of Amir’s father is described extremely well in the book, but the movie chooses to sideline that character. I am sure this was to keep the screenplay focused on the two main characters and the central storyline. The scenes from the book that had a universal appeal have been retained and I am extremely glad for that. For example – the pomegranate tree scene, the conversations between Rahim Khan and Amir, the storytelling scenes between Amir and Hassan.
Let me talk about the background score now. When one reads a book, the reader visualizes the story, the characters, and the locations but does not weave music with his or her visualization. In the movie version of stories as powerful as this one, music (and lighting) creates an environment that the book does with pages of description of the place or the characters. Alberto Iglesias (a Spanish composer) has composed a soul-stirring score and has helped the movie in achieving that impact of tugging at your heart. His music in the kite flying scenes is especially noteworthy, it soars high just like the colorful flying kites in a blue sky with white fluffy clouds.
It must have been a difficult film to make logistically – a German director, an Afghani cast, a Chinese crew, an American script writer, a Spanish music composer, Pashto-Dari dialogues. Imagine this – you as director have to explain the scene to the Afghani kids and at the same time explain the shot to the Chinese crew. Marc Forster has demonstrated a keen understanding of portraying children and extracting beautiful performances from child actors. He did that in “Finding Neverland” and he proves himself once again. Having non-English speaking child actors makes it doubly difficult but he emerges victorious.
Fans of the book will not be disappointed in the movie; they will once again be reminded of the universal appeal of this story that takes place in a land largely unknown to the rest of the world. Even for those who have not read the book, the movie will be an enjoyable experience. There is no requirement of having read the book for this one.
The movie has the same impact when young Hassan says to his Amir Agha “For you, a thousand times over”. Those words pack an emotional blow in the movie as it did in the book.