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Film Review: The Orphanage

23 June 20 words: Roshan Chandy

Roshan Chandy has high praise for this loving pastiche of Bollywood, war and magic...

Director: Shahrbanoo Sadat
Starring: Hasibullah Rasooli, Masihullah Feraji, Qodratollah Qadiri
Running time: 90 minutes

As a half-Indian child brought up on Bollywood blockbusters, I found this moving and magically realist Afghan drama to be a total treat. The Orphanage laces its ochre scenery in cine-literate nods to 70s and 80s Indian classics while belly-wriggling to a few of its own Masala-marinated musical numbers. Terrifically played by a diverse young cast, the film is a wondrous fable that’s simultaneously light and dark, scary and magical and a testament to the escapist power of the moving image.

Based on the unpublished diaries of writer Anwar Hashimi, The Orphanage is the second instalment in director Shahrbanoo Sadat’s planned pentalogy detailing the history of Afghanistan. It follows 2016’s Wolf and Sheep and shares its teenage star Qodratollah Qadiri. We first meet 15-year-old Qodrat awakening from a slumber in the back of an abandoned car. He emerges from the vehicle to the sound of barking stray dogs on a dusty, deserted street littered with scrap metal, rusted bins and overgrown weeds.

The setting is 1989 Kabul at the height of the pro-Soviet Government and Qodrat is akin to a modern-day Oliver Twist. Parent-less, homeless and living in abject poverty, he scrapes a life selling cinema tickets on the black market. This is the source of his passion and escapism; channelling a particular affection for Bollywood movies as a release from the growing political instability and civil unrest erupting in his home country.

There’s a sublime moment where Qodrat is in a movie theatre watching the 1988 Amitabh Bachchan-starring Shahenshah - a movie theatre incidentally picketed with posters for Sholay (1975). Hypnotised by the sight of Big B scissor-kicking thuggish goons, the dapper movie star’s leather jacket glitters off the boy’s eyes and teeth. He’s more swooned by gorgeous, gold-dressed Parveen Babi. Gazes of lust, love and adoration illuminate a room full of transfixed young men. Soon the whole cinema is standing, clapping and cheering to luminous song ‘n’ dance routines. 

Qodrat’s ticket-touting lands him in trouble with the authorities. Dragged from the street by police officers, he is taken to a state-run orphanage. Placed in a shared dormitory with rag ‘n’ bone teens, the young man is quick to make friends with the moustached Hasib (Hasibullah Rasooli). Other orphans are not so lucky. Arriving with his 14-year-old uncle Masihullah (Masihullah Feraji), the red hair of 16-year-old Fayaz (Ahmad Fayaz Osmani) becomes the butt of bully Ehsan’s (Ehsanullah Kharoti) jokes. “From now on, you are redhead!” taunts Asad (Asadullah Kabiri) - Ehsan’s sadistic wingman.

I told a fib earlier by saying the film’s titular orphanage is “state-run”. It’s actually, by definition, not even an orphanage, but a Soviet-operated juvenile detention centre. Albeit one where the kids receive regular meals, living quarters and a primary education. The influence of the USSR proves strong over the kids’ lives. Videos of then Afghan president Najib meeting USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze play before bedtime. There’s Russian language lessons taught by the beautiful Sima Petrovna (Daria Gaiduk). In one scene, the children are taken on a trip to Moscow to visit Lenin’s Tomb. 

It is here that Masihullah realises his passion. Just as Qodrat escapes the unpleasant realities of child poverty through Bollywood, Masihullah chooses chess as his coping mechanism. At two significant snapshots, he is seen triumphing at the game. One against a computer in Moscow, the other against Ehsan which results in a brutal beating.

The Orphanage uses exuberant Hindi belters to envisage its character’s Bolly-inflected imagination

This fight between the two boys is broken up by orphanage supervisor Anwar (played by writer Anwar Hashimi). He’s a Fagin-like figure who walks a fine line between didactic stalwart and parental daddy dearest. For example, he’s happy to beat the bully out of Ehsan when he starts on Masihullah. And yet, when the Mujahideen take over Kabul, he’s the first to send the kids inside.

Juxtaposing synthetic explosions of golds, turquoises and rouges against throat-itchy brown palettes, The Orphanage uses exuberant Hindi belters to envisage its character’s Bolly-inflected imagination. These songs are part of fantasy sequences that often themselves feel like mini-movies.

For instance, Qodrat’s interior crush on classmate Sediqa (Sediqa Rasuli) is visualised by a romantic ballad playing out amid a picturesque confection of aquariums, beaches and campfires. Aboard a motorbike, his bromance with Hasib becomes a plaintive paean to male friendship. Sentimental lyrics “I would rather die than leave you'' strengthen the grip of this very brotherly love. When a rabble of Mujahideen arrive at “the orphanage”’ doorstep, the invasion is lightened by a superheroic battle. The kids uppercut, undercut and scissor-kick the rebels to the action-packed zing of “Zindagi to bewafa hai ek din thukrayegi” from 1978’s Muqadder Ka Sikander.

Director Sadat contrasts such flights of fancy with down-to-earth darkness. As an example, one chilling scene has the boys loot an abandoned tank scattered with bloodied bodies. Later a young man lies dead in a broom cupboard having slit his wrists. Most significantly, news of the Mujahideen toppling President Najib foreshadows a far scarier chapter in the children’s lives. Soon they will be at the epicentre of a destructive civil war...

As I mentioned above, The Orphanage draws heavily on the work of Charles Dickens. It’s impossible not to think of Oliver Twist when ragtag Qodrat is tugged by the scruff of his neck from the streets for “stealing”. Ken Loach’s Kes (1969) has also been widely cited in critical responses. Although The Orphanage largely resists classification, I detected echoes of Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light (2019) in its fabulist divisions between social realist grinds and jukebox-happy singalong set-pieces. Yet what follows is closest to the childhood celluloid fascination of Cinema Paradiso. For Qodrat and his friends, cinema takes priority over most essentials of everyday life.

Along with Bollywood, war and magic, this film’s true stroke of genius is its casting. Sadat makes an inspired choice picking non-professional actors who share their names with their characters. This deft touch brings a sense of autobiographical authenticity to proceedings. Particularly impressive is Ehsanullah Kharoti who relishes intimidation and cruelty as Ehsan. Anwar Hashimi commands the screen as the kindly orphanage supervisor. Hard angles on his face carve anxiety at the conflict to come.

At the centre of it all, Qodratollah Qadiri has the physicality of Kes' Dai Bradley. Whether cracking his knuckles, hoisting up shabby trousers or wooing the wonderfully lovely Sediqa via horseback, Qadiri dexterously steadies the bridge between the real and the fantastical. His finely-honed movements are as outlandish as the film itself - haunting, heartbreaking, yet utterly uplifting.

Did you know? In addition to The Orphanage, Sadat released a short film this year titled Qurut: Recipe of a Possible Extinct Food, which was shown at the Nowruz celebration in Paris and Brussels in March.

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