Mainstream storyteller Kabir Khan had a treasure trove of small poignant human stories from his documentary days. Some of them have been used in his debut feature Kabul Express (2006) and the Bajrangi Bhaijaan director continues to draw inspiration from them in his films today. Here are 5 such anecdotes/experiences the man himself shared in several interviews over the years.
1. When Bollywood saved his life
All it takes for a journalist to get killed in Afghanistan is one wrong move. Kabir made several blunders while shooting a documentary in Taliban-occupied Afghanistan. But he had one distinct advantage over western journalists. Bollywood!
Jumping out of a bribed helicopter somewhere near Kabul, Khan was face-to-face with his death when a 7-foot tall Afghan aimed a Kalashnikov at him. His mind was buzzing through thoughts of how his body would reach his family when an idea struck him. He knew the northern alliance army of Afghanistan was friendly with Indians. He started shouting “Hindustan! Hindustan!” The stoic afghan held his ground with the Kalashnikov until his fondness for Bollywood took over. He broke into a smile and in his thick Afghan accent started singing ‘Mere Sapno Ki Rani Kab Aayegi Tu.’
Maybe the song was a fond remembrance of his wife in a war-ravaged country. Or perhaps the beautiful mountains in the song reminded him of a peaceful Afghanistan. Maybe he was a Rajesh Khanna fan. We’ll never know. But it sure brought a bright smile when I heard this story.
2. A sobbing father
Kabir Khan, in his mad adventures, once landed shooting a documentary inside one of the deadliest prisons in the history of humanity. Doab prison. The inescapable Doab prison was an amalgamation of some of the most fanatic terrorist groups like Al-Queda, Taliban, Chechnya and Pakistani militants.
Inside the prison, due to language barrier, Kabir and his friend talked most of the time with a Pakistani militant named Khalid. Khalid was one of the most articulate militants ever and would fascinate them with stories of Taliban, some cooked, some real. One day, he noticed Kabir had a satellite phone on him. Kabir never used it unless it was an emergency lest the American forces figured their location and bombed the place.
Khalid requested to call someone but Kabir denied. He continued to insist until Kabir reluctantly relented, to avoid escalating the situation. Khalid called his home in Pakistan and spoke to them after almost 4 years. His wife and parents assumed he was dead. He couldn’t stop his tears and when his 5-year old daughter talked to him, this hardcore Taliban fanatic crumbled into a sobbing father.
Thus the idea of Kabul Express was born to Kabir Khan.
3. The Bihar shootout
Despite being in the most war-torn countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., the closest Kabir Khan came to a bullet (close enough to ruffle his hair) was in Bihar, India.
He was shooting a documentary that involved two rival gangs that gunned for each other. The Thakur gang and the Yadav gang. After shooting his part at Pappu Yadav’s village, Kabir and his crew were travelling through a road just wide enough for a single car with muddy embankments surrounding it. A forest was just ahead of it where unknown to everyone, the Thakur gang had gunmen ready in a circle.
The documentary changed from “Gun Culture in Bihar” to “Shootout at Sunset” when a bullet hit Kabir’s driver. The car stopped and the shooting continued for 45 minutes. The ridiculousness of the situation came to a halt when some random police officers came to the spot and stopped the Thakur gang.
By sheer stroke of luck, Kabir and his entire crew came out unharmed as they crouched beneath the car while the car lay ravaged by the bullets.
4. The forgotten Buddha
Kabir Khan loves to travel. He was offered a chance to create a travelogue from Singapore to India by a TV channel. Not content with it being just a travel catalog, Kabir Khan took a unique decision of incorporating the story of Indian National Army which fought the British in the Burma region between Singapore and India in 1945.
During the shooting, Kabir took Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal and General Gurbaksh Singh through the places and battlefields.
Singh and his army used to hide in a cave in Popa, Burma which happened to be their last stand in the war. The cave was a safe haven during air raids. To boost the morale of the army, Gurbaksh found a statue of Buddha and kept it as a deity in the cave. The soldiers would light a candle for the statue and pray to it in their darkest moments.
Kabir and Gurbaksh were searching for this cave in present day Burma almost 55 years later. It was statistically impossible to find it. On the last day of their stay in Burma, a miracle happened! They found the cave. Both Gurbaksh Singh and Lakshmi Sehgal, now in their 80s, broke down when they saw the Buddha statue still sitting there. The team lit a candle just like the INA used to do it.
The forgotten Buddha was smiling as ever and one of the most magical moments of human spirit was witnessed by Kabir.
5. Soldiers of independence
The reverence and fond memories that soldiers of the Indian National Army have for Subhash Chandra Bose even today is unmatched. During Kabir’s documentary The Forgotten Army (1999), Lakshmi Sehgal met her colleague Mr. Bannerjee from the army days, who had settled in Burma after the war was over.
Bannerjee was a fine musician in addition to being a loyal soldier. He was well known in the army for his mouth organ and Subhash Bose would often request him to play a certain song in Bengali. It reminded him of the lovely childhood days in Kolkata. Bannerjee would oblige and the entire regiment would sing along including Lakshmi Sehgal.
55 years after the war, Lakshmi Sehgal sang the national anthem with Bannerjee for the documentary.
Shortly after that, she requested Bannerjee to play the song that Subhash Babu liked. Bannerjee hesitantly took the mouth organ and tried to play the song. He fumbled and couldn’t remember the notes. Lakshmi Sehgal hummed part of the song in order to help him, but Bannerjee just couldn’t catch on. He eventually gave up and embarrassingly admitted, “Main bhul gaya” (I have forgotten).
Noticing the disappointment on his face, Lakshmi hugged him lightly and they laughed. Their memory might have faded a little but their love for Subhash Chandra Bose was immortal.
By Shridhar Kulkarni
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