Every summer when I was a child my father brought my mother and I to Kashmir to visit his family. When war broke in 1988, the visits stopped. Years passed before I went back. Although I didn’t grow up in Kashmir, my interest in it grew over the years after those visits, primarily for the rich material that such a world provided for stories. For years I was afraid to make a movie there, so I wrote short stories and collected research. When I turned twenty-four I began work in earnest on what became “Zero Bridge.”
In all my work I’ve been obsessed with a certain theme: the weight of the past on present behavior. To me that theme is the secret subject of every story, and of everyone’s life, including mine. It can credibly accommodate a variety of different forms. Kashmir appealed to me as a place in which I could set that theme. It’s the perfect setting for it because the stakes of life in Kashmir are already high, which means that a film there would resonate on multiple and simultaneous levels of meaning. But most people don’t know a lot about Kashmir, so where to start? I wanted to give the viewer at least given an even chance to discover (or for some, re-discover) it. So I created a main character who, because of his youth, became the perfect way to explore it – because he himself would still be navigating this particular world, trying to learn its name. And, like the region itself, torn between its two warring parent-nations, he too would be an orphan. By opening the story on a microscopic note, I thought it might have a chance of ending on a macroscopic one.
The question of independence – whether it is possible, or warranted – is of course the flash-point in the discussion about Kashmir. (It is also, as any parent knows, the central preoccupation of every young person). So, I decided this young orphan should also, quite naturally, be seeking his own autonomy. That formulation became compounded and complicated by the fact that independence is, among other things, always a moral issue, fraught with ambiguities. So, “Zero Bridge” had to be told from the point of view of a morally ambiguous main character; someone who, as another writer said, could exist only within his obstinate finality. Once I made this decision for the main character, I had to give every character a moral ambiguity and a past to privately contend with so that each individual was rendered “in the round.”
This approach to character then dictated my approach to action. I had to rigorously restrict the story’s events to each of my characters’ daily experiences and preoccupations; to come to each individual on his own terms and to allow the viewer to do the same. We would see and hear only what these characters do as they live their lives, most of which are tooth-and-claw struggles for survival. If any of these individuals suddenly developed a political consciousness, the story would ring false. Realism is not reality. It’s just one of the tools of storytelling, and like any tool it has to be used thoughtfully or else it doesn’t work.
But realism was not all I was after. My goal is to disappear fully from my work. My highest aspiration is in achieving the anonymity of someone making folk art. But I’d hurry to add that I was not interested in creating an allegory, because allegory creates abstractions out of the flesh-and-blood of life and I was interested in exactly the reverse of that. However, I did want the real-life dilemmas in “Zero Bridge” to feel as spare and as direct as a folk tale in terms of their emotional stakes, so that anyone anywhere could understand it and be moved. The longest-enduring art in the world has always been folk art, despite the trend in the Industry and in Academia to subscribe to the cult of personality.
Cinema no longer exists in Kashmir. Its theaters were converted to military structures two generations ago. It has no labs or studios. Today people watch soaps and blockbusters on satellite TV. History has robbed this generation of cinema’s poetry and community. So without realizing it, my private formal concerns became a compass-bearing for my collaborators as we began working in uncharted terrain. Only after they could see I wasn’t asking them to reveal their politics – just their hearts – did they agree to participate, albeit with trepidation about the task itself. But once they saw that film directing, for all of its complexities, is finally about the tension between two things – preparation, and attention to detail – did they realize it had much in common with the applied crafts by which their families survived. That deglamorized and de-mythologized cinema for them, by stripping it down to its essential components. It freed us up to begin our work together.
As we worked, I became more convinced than ever that a simple story introducing the lives of a few Kashmiri citizens and their common hopes and fears would reveal their humanity more fully than the usual Western documentaries on the Kashmir Situation; or for that matter, the Bollywood products which treat Kashmir purely as an exotic backdrop. None of the outside voices describing Kashmir fully captured people’s daily experiences. Needless to say, life there is more complex – more precarious, more gossamer – than the blunt dialectics of terrorism and tourism ever allow. Yet the details of Kashmiri daily life remain little known to the rest of the world.
But like everywhere else, the reality of daily life there leaves much that is unspoken. And I wanted to photograph an unspoken story, because unspoken stories are what the cinema does best. Ultimately I was trying to present an intimate, tactile sense of life there by dramatizing how these particular characters’ connections and individual dreams are set amongst the forces which govern daily life – family, religion, politics, law, economics, and fate. I believe that by studying in close-up the ways people do business; worry about their children; flirt; give advice; play sports; eat dinner; worship; tell jokes; lie to each other; and dream – in short, the way they live – that the viewer would, by association, then grasp the larger forces at work. Only by being rigorously specific could “Zero Bridge” speak of what is universal. The result, I hope, is a portrait of a particular society, seen through the eyes of some of its youngest and most vulnerable members.
A great writer said he’d never heard of a crime that he couldn’t also commit. With “Zero Bridge,” I wanted to begin the story with the commission of a petty crime, and then follow its rippling effects outward; so that the viewer would gradually be lead towards the story’s deeper implications not by political rhetoric, but by the rhythms of his own beating heart.