“First You Must Say Hello”


The film “Zero Bridge” is a film set in Kashmir and, therefore, the word “terrorist” is used in the film. But only once. This happens when a couple of young white men, tourists, lounging on a shikara on the Dal Lake have the following exchange with the film’s central character, Dilawar:

  • Western tourist 1: What does “Dilawar” mean? Your name?
  • Dilawar (with a smile): It means a terrorist.
  • Western tourist 1 (laughing): I knew it!
  • Western tourist 2 (also laughing): Yeah, you look like a bad guy.

The youth Dilawar is in trouble in the troubled land. Which is not to say that he has been picked up from the street and tortured in a notorious prison, but simply that he isn’t on the straight and narrow. In fact, he is a pickpocket and, for a variety of reasons, you want him to get away with it. You also want him to learn to say hello to a woman, but I’ll come to that in a minute.

“Zero Bridge,” which had its theatrical premiere earlier this year at New York’s Film Forum, was written and directed by Tariq Tapa. Tapa is described in the press materials as “a US-born filmmaker of Kashmiri/Jewish-American descent.” (In response to an interviewer’s question about his bring Jewish as well as Muslim, Tapa replied: “Yeah. I used to like to tell the joke that when I go into a building, I don’t know whether to buy it or to blow it up.”)

Tapa’s father is Kashmiri and when Tapa was a child, he would visit Kashmir during the summers. In 2006, and then again in 2007, Tapa went back to Kashmir with a backpack full of equipment. The idea for “Zero Bridge” emerged after he had stayed in Srinagar for three months. While shooting the film, Tapa was his sole crew, shooting, directing, recording sound; his actors are all non-professionals, appearing in a film for the first time. Tapa has said that he was committed to showing ordinary daily life in Kashmir. A shoestring budget only partly explains these choices, and says quite a bit about Kashmir and its place in a war of representations.

Tariq Tapa is exasperated that Kashmir has served only as an exotic backdrop for Bollywood songs; he is also not too satisfied with the ways in which Western documentaries have equated Kashmir with terror. Not for him, then, the “blunt dialectics of tourism and terror.”

A direct result of this orientation is that we see a Srinagar we haven’t seen on the screen before. Instead of the landscape, the camera hovers in close-up near the faces of the actors; often, we see the dull, dimly-lit, stained interiors of rooms in which the characters work or wait. I read somewhere that the director would ask his colorist to drain the images of their rich colors. In a near-literal way, then, Tapa is interested in dirty realism.

His desire to not employ any actors from Delhi or Mumbai meant that for his central character he auditioned about 70 boys who had shown up in response to the posters he had put up on the walls of Srinagar. When I read this, I thought about Truffaut’s “400 Blows.” Truffaut had placed an ad in the papers and that is how he found the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud; the boy had run away from boarding school to audition for the film. There is a great deal of freshness and charm in “400 Blows”; there is also a great deal of visual poetry in the way in which Truffaut’s camera looks at his beloved city. Even when portraying poverty, or cruelty, there is a sensitive attention to form and sensual detail. Such attention is missing in Tapa, and it’s possible he is simply not interested in a familiar form of aestheticism.

According to the press materials, when looking for his female lead, Tapa posted notices at several girls’ technical colleges but not at drama schools. There is a well thought-out but also rather severe, and in my judgment, limiting, logic of artistic creation at work here. Like the refusal to treat Kashmir as a location of exotic beauty, this determination to use actors who have no previous experience is a part of the same resolve to eschew–what exactly? Clichés? Yes, but Kashmir is the place where, as Tapa knows well, cinema-halls were gutted by militants or turned into garrisons by the security forces. There is no widespread culture of cinema in the valley. In the absence of any shared convention of movie-making as well as movie-watching, the actors often appear a little lost. Or maybe it isn’t the actors but only the viewer. The conventional viewer like me who doesn’t know if the character I saw stumble or hesitate on the screen was doing so because he faced a moral quandary or because he just didn’t know how to act in front of the camera.

The truth is that Tapa’s characters don’t always know how to act – they are trapped in their situation in life, and in Kashmir. They are played by people who are not trained as actors – they translate the lives of others with different degrees of ease or unease. There is a connection between those two things.

Let’s consider the scene where Dilawar makes a list of steps that are necessary in romance. Perhaps he should first say hello? He then writes down the second step: “So what’s after hello? Marry me?” He decides this is wrong. Another friend says he should say “hello” a thousand times–except, in a rush, he can just say “good evening” fifty times. While watching the sequence, I thought, “This is the independence that the Kashmiri want.” Which is not to say that the only demand the Kashmiris have from the world is the desire to be set free to love. Instead, it is to recognize that a character’s search for identity or for the right kind of knowledge can be seen also as the desire for a people to define their independence. I like this very much. All good works of art must ask this question: you want to breathe free, yes, but do you know how to kiss?

17 thoughts on ““First You Must Say Hello”

  1. I don’t know how anyone can have sympathy for kashmiri muslims. They are hateful ethnic cleansers. I will cheer when the same is visited upon them.

  2. interesting that amitava conflates kashmiri with kashmiri muslim

    i guess this is the traditional “useful idiot” collaboration between uber-liberals and extremism

    kashmir valley had a significant hindu and sikh minority, which has now been ethnically cleansed (8% in 1941, 5% in 1980)

    my extended family was driven out from the kashmir valley during 1988-1995.

    One cousin escaped only with a suitcase; when he went back to his home, the house had been burnt and neighbors made it clear that he was no longer welcome.

    There have been no movies made about these people, they have not indulged in terrorism, their culture is gentle and accepting. They kept quiet and moved on, found small jobs here and there. The combination of uber-liberals and extremism has violently erased this ancient culture from history.

    Just like the german jews, who were even more german in culture than any german christian, these people were deeply connected to the ancient culture of that land. But it was no protection against the need for “azadi” – which seems always to involve ethnic cleansing….

  3. Stay strong, al beruni–your people’s cause is not forgotten. It is a sad world though where your cause is relatively obscure but the bloodthirsty people get more sympathy.

  4. Kashmir’s story must be told. Acting might be amateurish, but this movie shines a spotlight on a region largely neglected by mainstream media & Bollywood. If India wants to grow as a better nation, it must acknowledge the mistreatment & human right violations against Kashmiri Muslims. Although minorities have also suffered, it compares nothing to thousands of Muslim youth killed, jailed or disappeared in fake encounters. Arguably, one of most beautiful parts of Indian has bled over 18 years, yet you hardly hear outpour of sympathy or rage from average Indians.

    Recommended read about Kashmir: Curfewed Nights by Basharat Peer

  5. movie shines a spotlight on a region largely neglected by mainstream media & Bollywood

    LOL!!! Before Jihadi muslim extremists drove native Hindu population out of Kashmir, all Bollywood movies pretty much were shot in Kashmir. Jihadi propaganda still continues. It is kind of astonishing.

  6. I can see that discussion here is moving along predictable lines – the hyper-liberal position that kasmiri muslims are the neglected and traumatized victims of the indian state. Their psyche must be massaged and apologies offered and so on. In fact, as one commentator points out, in the 60s and 70s Kashmir and its culture were held in high respect and Bollywood had many movies filmed there.

    I am sorry for the sufferings of all kashmiri peoples, not just my relatives. I have been to Srinagar after this mess began and it is a city dominated by security forces (mostly J&K Police).I saw the terror in the eyes of the working people, their resentment at being stopped and searched and so on.

    But just as we cannot discuss Gujarat and its modern culture without discussion of Narendra Modi and the muslim killings of 2002, so too we cannot discuss Kashmir without discussion of the ethnic cleansing of hindus. The local population and the local state govt conspired to participate in ethnic cleansing. When will this be acknowledged and rectified?

    The typical liberal response that I have seen so far, is a form of denial and evasion; I anticipate we will continue to see that on this discussion. Perhaps Amitava will use my comments as the basis of a clever paper to show how blood-thirsty and compassion-free the “hindu extremists” are. They cant even discuss a movie made by wonderful peaceloving american without draggng in their ludicrous obsessions ! BTW, the movie web site is full of mis-statements and silly errors about Jammu and Kashmir.

    Thats fine. I have a responsibility to history and to truth. If that makes me a fanatic, so be it.

  7. Amitava is another Walter Duranty who defined “useful idiot” in ways Lenin never imagined possible.

  8. Oh, no, al-beruni, you are not a fanatic. Your story needs to be told as well. So what if your numbers are smaller than the Muslim numbers. It too is a human story.

    The relationships are something like this:

         Kashmiri Hindu : small-sized underdog, struggling against the jackboots of the Kashmir Muslim
         Kashmiri Muslim : a medium-sized underdog struggling against the jackboots of the Indian state, but  an aggressor to the Kashmiri Muslim
         Hindu from other parts of India: Apex predator, but with the fear that this apex predator position may not last

    The Kashmiri Muslim is an underdog in one relationship, but an overdog in another. So we need all the stories, both Tariq’s and yours. In fact, we even need the Hindu hardliner’s story.

  9. Blue: Arguably, one of most beautiful parts of Indian has bled over 18 years, yet you hardly hear outpour of sympathy or rage from average Indians.

    True blue. Just one nitpick, its not 18 years, more like 800-1000 years. That’s how long ethnic cleansing in Kashmir has been going on for yet youn hardly hear outpour of sympathy and rage from average Indians.

  10. I just want to shine a spotlight on the fact that Indian government have miserably failed to protect minorities over the last decade & continue to do so. It has turned a blind eye to human right violations against minorities, including Sikhs, Muslims, Naxelites & others. Regular people just don’t wake up one day & become extremist. Most suffer neglect & abuse in the hands of majority rulers; which in this case are Hindus. Most Hindus get real uncomfortable talking about this, just as majority Chinese get uneasy about human right abuses in Tibet. If India is going to move forward as a democratic and secular nation, it must acknowledge wrong doings and learn from past mistakes. Otherwise there’s no difference between secular values of India vs China, as an example.

    Independent filmmakers should make more movies/documentaries about Kashmir, highlighting sufferings on both sides. All Kashmiris have been a pawn between Indian & Pakistani politics.

    To al-beruni: no one denies the suffering of Kashmiri pundits & others Hindus that have been misplaced & become refuges in their own country. Their story must also be told.

    “The local population and the local state govt conspired to participate in ethnic cleansing”

    Please also understand that average Kashmiri Muslims did not conspire or participated in ethnic cleansing. It was a job of misguided Muslin youth, ISI & other religious nuts.

  11. “Please also understand that average Kashmiri Muslims did not conspire or participated in ethnic cleansing. It was a job of misguided Muslin youth, ISI & other religious nuts.”

    Sure. Average Kashmiris are simply enjoying the fruits of the hardwork done by ” misguided Muslin youth, ISI & other religious nuts.””

  12. Al Bruni: Hindus have been ethnically cleansed from J&K and no one should dispute that. You can make this point without referring to misleading stats from 1941. How about this stat: Muslims were over 25% in areas to the East of Amritsar in Punjab. What is their number now in Indian Punjab. You get my point?

    Anyway, the ethnic cleansing of Hindus from the Valley is, of course, a human tragedy. The Kashmiri Muslims have to accept responsibility of this ethnic cleansing. Here is what some Kashmiri Muslims say: (1) The people driving out the Hindus were all Pakistani extremists. (2) The Indian Army did the ethnic cleaning in part to defame to azadi movement. (3) A lot of people left on their own because of the security situation and their Kashmiri Muslim neighbors did not want them to leave etc. (1) – (3) are all bull shit and the average Kashmiri Muslim needs to accept this fact.

    RC: Nice to see you are still hanging out here at SM.

  13. Blue

    Your message perfectly illustrates the double standards of so-called liberals, full of evasion and denial, unwilling to accept that a hindu group can be attacked in india. You also believe that the govt of Jammu and Kashmir is “hindu” whereas in fact it is heavily populated by local people, including muslims.

    Not surprisingly, your so-called message of “freedom for indian minorities” ends with a denial of the fact that kashmiri muslims participated in the ethnic cleansing of hindus. This I know from my family members and there are many other eyewitness accounts. But I expected nothing else from a “friend of indian minorities”. Perhaps in your next message you could reference “brahamanical fascism” or “chanakyan mindset” (both ethnic slurs) while pretending to lecture us on freedom.

    PAID My point was that from 5% minority in 1980 we now have 0% minority. You are right that the older figures are confusing, but its worth keeping in mind that punjab was explicitly divided between india and pakistan whereas Kashmir was not.

  14. My message to SM readers is simple; learn more about Kashmir & shed a light on this beautiful region, eclipsed by years of ethnic violence.

    Other point is that India is far from a perfect democracy it inspires to be. Majority Hindus rulers have blood on their hands, just like White Americans have of Native Indians & Blacks. Unless, majority of educated & progressive Hindus recognize that, real changes will not come. Religious extremism breeds hatred to start with, add caste & tribal system…..and you see ugly part of India. People like Modi (Muslim Riots), Tytler (Sikh Riots) should be in jails, not in power. I am glad to see extremism on decline in many parts of India, including BJP, Shiv Sena’s popularity. After all, it took a Sikh to guide India out of darkness.

    Al-beruni: Sorry, common sense & history do not support the fact that average working people woke up one day & start killing, especially against majority rulers. It’s like claiming blacks got together & start killing white folks in Philadelphia. Please post some credible links to support your claims. I am sure international organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Right watch must have documented these atrocities.

  15. Thanks, Blue, your response is just perfect, almost exactly along the lines that I had predicted.

    I have nothing more to say, the readers of this blog will now have a better insight of the mentality that you represent.

  16. PAfD, Its only the old timers who would know what’s the full form of your screen name acronym 🙂 Hope you are doing well !!!!

  17. “Tariq Tapa is exasperated that Kashmir has served only as an exotic backdrop for Bollywood songs”

    Then that mulla faggot should’ve killed himself.

    Oh and this is old Kashmir you’re talking about, the one before the pakistani invasion also those movies are decades OLD.

    Stupid ABCDs with zero knowledge of India have no right to:

    1. Touch them
    2. Even Talk about them (the movies, that is)

    OK, Brainwashed L-E-T beta?