The setting is Kabul, 1989, and in the opening shot of this lean Afghan drama, a boy wakes up, cracks his knuckles and pulls on a well-scuffed pair of trainers, ready to face the new day. But what could have been a cliched opener is subtly subverted: his alarm call is the distant bark of dogs, the colour palette is the kind of arid, dusty ochre that makes your throat itch, and rather than a bed, the boy is waking on the back seat of an abandoned car on a stretch of fenced-off wasteland.
The boy is 15-year-old street kid Qodra (Qodratollah Qadiri, who also appeared in Sadat’s previous film, Wolf and Sheep, to which this picture is a loose sequel). An abrupt edit transports us from the makeshift car park to the inside of a cinema. On the screen is the hokey Bollywood vigilante movie Shahenshah, starring a dashing Amitabh Bachchan. Crammed into the cheap seats, surrounded by animated men and boys, Qodra is transfixed by a fight sequence, eyes and teeth lit by the flicker reflected from Bachchan’s leather jacket and glistening, immaculate hair.
It’s telling that the movie theatre is the first place that the film takes us after Qodra wakes. For this teenager and many of his peers, films, specifically crowd-pleasing Indian blockbusters, take priority over most of the essentials of life. They provide a much-needed escape from a hardscrabble existence, a means to make money (he peddles tickets on black market), and the language he uses to process the world. In its understated way, this film is as heartfelt a love letter to the power of the movies as Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso.
It’s the ticket touting that lands Qodra in trouble with the authorities. Pulled from the street along with a ragtag band of other teenage boys, he is taken to a state-run orphanage. There, his survival instincts kick in: Qodra quickly realises that, to negotiate the hierarchies and power structures within the institution, he is best off making himself invisible. Others are not so shrewd. Sixteen-year-old Fayaz (Ahmad Fayaz Osmani), who was brought to the orphanage along with his 14-year-old uncle Masihullah (Masihullah Feraji), is assigned a bunk in the room in which Eshan (Eshanullah Kharoti), the main bully, lords it with his crowing henchman. His red hair and emotional fragility mark Fayaz out as a target, and intimidation soon takes its toll.
But Qodra’s reticence brings with it a specific challenge for the film-makers. Non-professional actor Qadiri has magnetism in the role, but his performance is inscrutable to the point of being unreadable. Sadat’s inventive solution to the problem elevates The Orphanage from a standard social-realist grind to something more original and endearing: Qodra’s interior life is vividly envisaged through the language of Bollywood musicals. Thus the first stirrings of a crush are reimagined as a coy duet, complete with his-and-hers matching knitwear, a seemingly random assortment of picturesque backdrops and a chaste campfire flirtation. Plaudits are due to cinematographer Virginie Surdej, who infuses the sequences with a layer of suitably synthetic kitsch, a striking contrast to the unvarnished immediacy of the rest of the film, which put me in mind of the work of Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi.
It works rather well. The Bollywood segments provide sparky punctuation in a film that can feel slightly episodic and lacking in context and background texture. There’s a goofiness and naivety to Qodra’s flights of musical fancy, reminding us that, for all his well-honed survival instincts, he is a child with a narrow spectrum of experiences and a limited emotional vocabulary with which to process them. Tenderness, grief, vulnerability are all easier to understand when filtered through the lush lens of Bollywood.
Other boys choose other means of escape. Qodra’s friend Masihullah is a chess whiz. In two separate, intensely concentrated scenes, he triumphs at the game. The first results in an explosion of joy, the second of violence.
Some things, however, are beyond the comprehension of the children: they are perplexed by an announcement heralding a change in the government – the pro-Soviet regime of Najibullah has been toppled and the boys must gather together for burning any documents that link the institution to the government. At this point, the focus shifts slightly to Anwar, the tough but fair orphanage supervisor, played by Anwar Hashimi (on whose unpublished diaries both this film and Wolf and Sheep are based). Anwar’s anxiety, carved in hard angles on his face, hints at danger to come. But it’s another Bollywood fantasy, a glorious battle between the orphanage kids and a rabble of mujahideen, that foretells a darker chapter about to open for the boys, who will soon find themselves on the frontline of a devastating civil war.
Source: The Guardian