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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Rock the Kasbah, Review: Afghan star, American war

Rock the Kasbah, Review: Afghan star, American war                                                                            

In all probability, the plot of Rock the Kasbah was worked out backwards. Somebody saw an Afghan girl named Setara (meaning ‘star’) Hussainzada sing and dance on a local TV reality show, or heard about it. Or, even more likely, saw a 2009 documentary on Setara and some other Afghan pop contestants in post-Taliban Afghanistan, called, simply, Afghan Star. A girl, from Taliban territory, among the most orthodox communities in the world, singing and dancing on live TV? Good material for a film script. Now, how do we get in the American angle, the guns, sex and comedy? Here’s how they worked it out.

Richie Lanz (Bill Murray), a small-time, has-been, rock artiste manager, takes his last remaining client, Ronnnie (Zooey Deschanel) on a tour of Afghanistan, to perform ‘gratis’ at an American military base, Camp Phoenix. From the time they board a Kabul-bound aero-plane full of Afghans, Ronnie is at her wit’s end. Unable to adjust to the war situation there, she decamps with Richie’s money and passport. In the dubious company of a mercenary called Bombay Brian (Bruce Willis) and two rolling-in-money arms dealers (Danny McBride and Scott Caan), Richie manages to survive. While waiting for a new passport and help from the American Consulate to get back home, he makes two friends: a taxi-driver called Riza (Arian Moayed) and a whore name Merci (Kate Hudson).  

Out of the blue, he discovers a young Afghan girl, Salima Khan (Leem Lubany) with an extraordinary voice, and visualises the money rolling-in. Problem is--she is the daughter of, Tariq Khan (Fahim Fazli), a Pashtun warlord! Sensing an end to his woes, he helps her escape from her home, and, with a percentage deal promised to Merci, hides her in the Merci’s home. If only he can get her to perform on, Afghan Star, the equivalent of version of American Idol, hosted by celebrity Daoud Sididi (Beejan Land), he is confident he will have a star to manage.

Written by Mitch Glazer (Three of Hearts, Great Expectations, The Recruit, Scrooged), Rock the Kasbah has a confusing title. Across the world, not many will be aware that Qasbaah, or Casbah or Kasbah, means a fortress like town, in Urdu/Persian/Arabic. It is associated with citadels in North African cities, mainly Algiers. There is song, by a group called Clash, that talks about the Ayatollah (Iran’s Islamic Head) not appreciating the Kasbah ‘being rocked’. It is implied that rocking the Kasbah means breaking into a citadel, a fortress, and getting the locals to do what fundamentalists frown upon. Early in the film, when Richie tells his daughter that he is going to Afghanistan, to “Rock the Kasbah”, she informs him that Kasbahs are located in Africa, not the Middle East. Once you get the context, it makes sense, because Richie puts his head on line, to get a Pashtun tribal Chief’s daughter to sing live on television.

In this milieu, multiple tracks are woven in, with the affected, slowed down tone of Richie’s dialogue forming the linking strand. Too many stock situations and tropes are lined-up: a dysfunctional American family with the wife in custody of their daughter, a die-hard American optimist who remains hopeful in hopeless situations, an insignificant show-biz veteran who lies about his ‘glorious discoveries’, gun-runners who sell arms to both sides, jokes about the war, like an explosion explained by dubbing it a goat-killing ritual, whore with a heart (albeit with an eye on the moolah), American fixation for percentages from every deal, the taxi-driver who speaks fluent English and becomes a man Friday in a flash, the tribal chief who is saved from assassination by the American. Blame it on the sense of déjà vu, but some smart lines get lost in the barren landscape, while some pathetic puns stay with you. One smart line goes something like, “Do you now call yourself Mumbai Brian, since the name of the city has changed?” Why is he called ‘Bombay’ is never explained.

Director Barry Levinson (Man of the Year, What Just Happened, The Humbling) banks on the dead-pan visage and ambling strides of Bill Murray, and the sexual escapades involving Kate Hudson, to push the film for far too long. One particular scene of sexual bondage and sado-masochism involving Murray and Hudson, fails to generate the laughter that it had potential for, on account of its crude execution. Assembling a cast that finds representation from Iran, Palestine and Australia, besides America and Afghanistan, was a good move. Most characters look their parts and even speak like you would expect them to.

At 65, Bill Murray has mellowed, but the essential Murray is still alive. The utter nonchalance he carries through the movie is to be savoured. Five years younger, Bruce Willis can walk into a mercenary’s role blind-folded, even without the skewed face. Kate Hudson (A Little Bit of Heaven Something Borrowed The Reluctant Fundamentalist) goes through some decidedly uncomfortable scenes and lurid dialogue with professional finesse. Zooey Deschanel (Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Gigantic, Yes Man) provides some genuine fun in the first few scenes. Danny McBride and Scott Caan as the arms men are over-the-top, playing sinister, overtly friendly crooks, as stereo-typical s they get.

Australian Beejan Land (Mega Shark vs. Mecha Shark, Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir) is natural as the show host, except his turnaround is not convincing. Leem Lubany (Omar, From A to B) is Palestinian, not Afghan, but that does not matter. It is a poorly written role that will, nevertheless, elicit a lot of empathy. Fahim Fazli (Iron Man, Argo, American Sniper) is Afghan, and that adds to his persona. Of Iranian heritage, American actor Arian Moayed (Roadie, Rosewater, The Rumperbutts) is hopelessly type-cast, yet gets to mouth some enviable lines, as interpreter-cum-thinker.

Political messages abound, including digs at the American Consulate in Afghanistan, for taking two weeks to issue a new passport, and the refusal of a Private to help Richie trace his protégé, who took all his money and his passport, terming the crime a “personal matter”, notwithstanding the fact that the two had come to Kabul at the behest of the army. Of course, the larger political issues, like the need to help Afghan women to get freedom of expression and performance, are at the very core of the movie. The film is dedicated to Setara.

Rock the Kasbah is a disproportionate blend of the quintessential American style screenplay and an irreverent look at the war in the Middle East, some shades taking us back to that classic war satire, M*A*S*H*. Comparison, however, will be odious.

Rating: **1/2



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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