A SANDWICH MUST BE GREATER THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS...
...says the tattoo on Chris Zahner’s leg, and in the 2 hours for which I met and talked with Chris for this blog; with his larger than life personality, he totally convinced me that is exactly how a sandwich must be.
I knew Chris through his Instagram account and have been following his stream for a while now. So I knew that he’s American, likes to build motorcycles, has travelled a lot and is currently travelling through India, filming a documentary called “Chasing the Bullet”. However, the Chris Zahner that I met in person was much more than his Instagram stream. He was sharp, talkative, witty, obviously passionate, asked for CHAI while I interviewed him and somehow the conversation ended with him revealing a very unexpected and surprising side of himself, the philosopher who sees a direct link between the history of India and the future of Royal Enfield.
Chris says, "The legacy of Royal Enfield has been carried on by the hands of many. For generations it has woven itself into the cultural fabric of India." Chris has made it his mission to try and understand how this fabric has knit itself, and capture its essence in a video documentary aptly titled "Chasing the Bullet"
We met at my mechanic Anthony’s garage. He was there to capture on film, the legend of Anthony and what makes him tick, for his documentary. By the looks of it, this American knows more about the Indian phenomenon of Royal Enfield, than any Indian. He’s travelling through the length and breadth of India to discover, in his own words, “the two wheels that move the nation, the same two wheels that’ll carry it into the future”.
I wanted to understand what drives him to do this; to spend close to a year in India on a documentary, leaving behind his job, his world, his routine. So I asked him a few questions to understand why he's “Chasing the Bullet”, which he graciously answered.
Motonomous: Where are you put up in Mumbai?
Chris: I’m staying with Ashok George from Motoring World. We met at the MTM tent (Motorcycle Travelers’ Meet) at IBW (India Bike Week) and I went on a ride with them the Sunday after, like 11 of us including Jay Kannaiyan, Ashok George and Santosh Vijay. It was a brilliant ride. Ashok knew I was coming to Mumbai and offered to put me up, and so here I am.
Motonomous: Had you been to India before starting “Chasing the Bullet”?
Chris: No. I hadn’t. I always wanted to, but I ended up coming only in the September of 2014, for the first time. I came for a while to lay down some ground work, and i also rode to Pangi Valley. Before coming, I wasn’t worried about the culture shock, because I had done some extensive travelling before. Since I’ve arrived actually the film has developed a lot, in terms of the people involved or the stories that are making the final cut.
Motonomous: To begin with, can you tell us in short why you are Chasing the Bullet?
Chris: Well I don’t know about short, because I’m always long winded!
Motonomous: That’s not a problem at all!
Chris: Umm… There are three things that I do truly for my own fulfillment; travel, motorcycles and now film and video. I fancy myself a bit of a storyteller and the film is my medium.
I was not big on travel back in 2011. But I wanted to start. Start in Portugal and see how far east I could get. I left with 4,800 US dollars and it lasted me nearly nine months, and I ended up in Nepal. Before, I knew a little about Royal Enfield from other vintage motorcycle enthusiasts. It was the “English Motorcycle” that got stuck in India. I wanted to check it out and I found a mechanic by the name of Raju, the “go to” mechanic there in Pokhara. So I met him and just sat down in his workshop for about three hours. He told me all aboutthe “Long Romance of the Royal Enfield” in India and how he has counterparts, mechanics and guys that know these things inside and out, all over India.
So that was where the seed was planted. And I just knew that I had to get to India to ride a Royal Enfield.
Unfortunately, I was at the end of my trip and out of money and had a flight home and that was it. But, I knew that I had to get back to India at some point to do a proper ride on an Enfield. That was nearly four years ago. At the time, I used to take photos and videos of my travels. Then I started editing them into little travel videos stories and since then it’s really developed and I’ve taken a much more serious tone with it.
Today, with this project Chasing the Bullet, I see an opportunity to bring these things together, to tell a really cool story, one that I’m strangely passionate about, even from the other side of the world. There are several reasons, but I don’t really have a good answer to why I feel like doing what I’m doing.
It’s just something I feel compelled to do!
The only reward is the film afterwards. I’m making a major leap with this film. I’ve never made a full length documentary before, and from what I was doing, it might be jumping up a few leagues. But I think that the situation here in India is unique in a way that allows me to do that.
One, there is an incredibly connected and passionate biking fraternity here, the brotherhood. I’ve received help from total strangers, connecting me with good stories, other people and lending a helping hand and sharing a few laughs along the way. Its been brilliant. I don’t think I’d have been able to do something of this magnitude anywhere else.
Motonomous: How do you see the motorcycling culture in India with the one back home in America?
Chris: We have every niche of motorcycling in the States but the brotherhood and camaraderie is one and the same. You know its one, the love and passion for two wheels. Although I’d say it is pretty fragmented in the States. You have the dirt guys, the track guys and the tarmac guys. Some people do all of it, and they normally hang out with people who do all of it. Or you’d go on a ride with one bunch and to the tracks with another, but otherwise it’s quite fragmented. Usually we start motorcycling because our father or uncle did it, whereas here in India two wheels are a form of daily transportation.
And more often than not, you will eventually graduate to a Royal Enfield. The Royal Enfields are everywhere! You either hear or see or ride a friend’s Enfield and you’re like, this is the bike I need! And once they get it, it opens up a massive community and the difference is that this community is not fragmented. It’s one big community and they’re all friends, and brothers. I was at the Rider Mania in Chandigarh and clubs from all over the country were there, all acting and behaving as brothers. It was so clear, so palpable, I really enjoyed myself there.
Also, in the States, one major reason why people get introduced to motorcycling is to look bad ass and go fast. I borrowed my friends’ motorcycles while I was still building my first motorcycle, just to get familiar and have fun and properly learn, but the way I was introduced to motorcycling is the exception rather than the norm. In the States, there is no real introductory method.
Motorcycling is still seen as a bit of a taboo. Motorcycles are fast, they’re dangerous. Why ride a bike when you can have the safety of a car, because cars are very accessible in the States.
So I define motorcycling by what it was for me, and without a doubt, a lot of that was the enjoyment and fulfillment of building a bike and then riding it.
Motonomous: In India, do you see more people riding but not as many people building their own bikes?
Chris: Well in India you primarily use a motorcycle as a mode of transportation, and you can’t use your motorcycle for commuting daily when it’s in a bunch of pieces. So I guess that translates into more people getting out there and riding. And I know that there are rules where you’re technically not supposed to change anything, like you can’t switch motors. In the States, motorcycling is actually so little compared to everything else that a lot of these things slip through the cracks. On the bike that I ride regularly at home, the 1975 Yamaha DT 250, the frame has been modified, I don’t have turn signals in the front, I don’t have a silencer on it and it hasn’t even been inspected.
This is where the interesting part comes in. The inspection sticker goes up on the lower front fork, and it’s easily visible. But I’ve been pulled over several times and the cop doesn’t even ask for my license, they just want to know about the bike. If he pulled over a Honda CBR 1000 RR, for instance, he’d ask for his license, his registration, run all of his papers, and see whatever ticket he could give him. But when they see me with my clearly custom build, they just want to know if I built it. When I say yes, I’m instantly clear!
And yeah, there are a lot of builders in the States. America has a long tradition of manual labour, creativity and ingenuity and there are still people that do it but it’s a dying art. The ones doing it, are doing it for themselves, because they like to do it, and not because its respected by society. I think there are a lot of people here that’d like to build their own bikes, but don’t or cant or feel that they cant, but there are so many people that I see like Anthon, who is a magician with these motors. And then there are talented fabricators out there.
The craft exists in India. It’s just a matter of deciding that you want to take it up. I taught myself how to weld at 12 because I was building push go carts out of wood, but I wanted to use a motor. So I conned my father into buying me a welder and didn’t go to school the next day, I was in the shed welding. You have to take the leap, whatever you want to do and you’ll figure it out. It’s not going to be perfect the first time around, but you keep practicing and when it’s time to do the real thing, you execute. It’s just that.
And the same thing goes for this film. A year ago, would I have been prepared to do this? I’d say absolutely not! Am I the greatest documentary film maker in the world? Absolutely not! But there are unique forces at play to make this happen and I’m more than willing to make the leap. I’m here on my own dime because I want to be here. Am I getting paid for this? No. Do I, will I see any money from it? Who knows? Is there any guarantee? Definitely not! I might not even recoup my investment! I’m not exactly sure how that’s going to happen.
Motonomous: So what was Chris doing to earn his bread before he started Chasing the Bullet?
Chris: I’m a cocktail bartender. I work in a fancy restaurant back in New York. I wear a bow tie, set drinks on fire and make middle aged women swoon. And they tip well! So I can make a decent amount of money and I have a good relationship with the place where I work. I can walk in whenever I want and it allows me a lot of room and flexibility for my unique obsessions; motorcycles, travel, film, etc.
Motonomous: So where to from Mumbai?
Chris: I’m headed to Delhi for Delhi Biker’s Fest, and then off to Jaipur. I got some interesting stories to capture there. Then back to Delhi for a little bit to prepare for my next leg, which will be Chennai, Bangalore, possibly Hyderabad and then Kochi and then back to Delhi. Then I’ll have a lot of editing work, preparation work, general regrouping as I call it, and then I’ll be finishing the shooting of this film in Ladakh, and that’ll probably require a full month. Not just the time to do it straight, but it takes a little bit longer when you’re filming. So it’s going to be exciting!
Motonomous: Awesome! Will you be bringing in your own Royal Enfield from America for the trip to Ladakh?
Chris: I don’t own a Royal Enfield back home. The new engines, the new bikes are available, but I’ve never owned a new motorcycle. I’ve built every single one of my motorcycles. The first one was a fully custom frame. I built my own tank, seat and fender from scratch. The second one was for a friend that saw me building the first one and then I built two more. I’m dying to own a Royal Enfield but the only ones that are truly available are the new ones. I’m not going to lie, I’m kind of interested in the Continental GT. But make no mistake, it’ll see a scalpel very soon after I get it. But my normal method of bike ownership is to get something that needs a lot of love and build it and then ride it.
But truly, I have affinity for the old iron barrel. I think it’s one of the most beautiful engines ever built. Single cylinder upright, air cooled engine and it has that distinct British aesthetic. So I’d like one of those of course. You can find a few of them in the States but they don’t come in such great condition. You don’t know where they’ve been, and they’re expensive because they’re rare.
Motonomous: You might not have owned a Royal Enfield that you want, but you’re obviously a habitual motorcyclist…
Chris: I’m kind of a unique motorcyclist at home. I only ride solo. And a good friend of mine says that I’m a builder, and not a rider. Well I didn’t know that there really had to be a distinction. I do ride motorcycles. And I’m really into like building and aesthetics. I went to design school, and I’ve always been building some sort of vehicle. The story my mom likes to tell is when she went into labour with my brother who was born 5 days before my 6th birthday, she and father had to decide whether or not they were going to bring me into the hospital or if they were going to leave me at home with the baby sitter. Because the problem was that I was in the basement building a boat with power tools, at 6 years old! That’s how I’ve always been.
I actually got on my 1st proper motorcycle at 18, and it was a bug biting scenario. The first time I rode one, I decided that I just had to get myself a motorcycle. Naturally, I built it. I own 4 bikes, and I’ve built all of them. There’s one that I ride particularly, it’s a short range, fun-in-traffic-blaster-slash-commuter. And it’s one of the few two strokes that are road legal in the States, because it came with a street legal title in 1975.
When I started building it, the idea was that if somebody were to do this with the least amount of time, tools and money and requisite skill level, what could they achieve that would create a maximum splash. There’s actually a write up on the bike on thebikeshed.cc. I really like how they wrote up that bike for me, you should read it.
Motonomous: Has Royal Enfield shattered the time capsule that it got caught in, when it was bought over by an Indian company, half a century ago?
Chris: Royal Enfield was the crème-de-la-crème of its time when it first arrived here in 1955. In the late 40s early 50s, it was THE motorcycle. Triumph continued with the modern progress of technology and innovation, whereas Enfield was frozen in time here, in a time capsule and for me, personally speaking, I think that’s the coolest bit about it. As a vintage motorcycle lover its awesome that Royal Enfield is everywhere. In terms of the brand, did they kill the brand, from the definition of a modern day economy? No! I think they kept it completely alive and you see Royal Enfield now expanding. In 2014, the numbers just came out, they sold more units globally than Harley Davidson and they’re doing that purely because of the legacy of the brand. Some of these points are being explored in my film a little bit, it is still a flawed motor, but the story doesn’t end there.
I think Siddhartha Lal, MD & CEO, Eicher Motors, has done a fantastic job of turning the situation around. So they started it off with a brand new motor, then introduced the Classic which, from a stylistic point of view was exactly the right thing to do. Now they’re in full swing operation in their new factory and the word on the street is that they have 2 new models coming out with new engines, based on the existing UCE. And it might be heresy, but they might have a Twin coming out! Whether its going to be a V or a parallel, who knows!
But where does the story go from here? It could go anywhere, you know. Is motorcycling going to be around for another 50 years? I certainly hope so! But the industry is always going to be changing. Enfield is doing a little bit of catch up right now but I think that they have made major strides to get where they are today in just the past few years.
I find it hard to blame or fault people for what did or didn’t do in the past and I think in other parallel, totally unrelated conversations I’ve had with people they’ve told me that India didn’t really do itself many favors just after the British left. I understand their perspective on that, but if you look at how other nations have developed historically from having that vacuum of the British leaving, in a country as big and as diverse as this, in 65 years, I think you guys have come a long way. You’re the 3rd largest economy in the world, infrastructure is growing, Indians are all over the world, holding some of the best jobs in the world and I mean the sky is the limit for you guys. So I see a very strong parallel between that and Royal Enfield. To get yourselves on your feet after 1947 and to have come all this way was a difficult thing to do.
Motonomus: Isn’t it cool how a conversation on Chasing the Bullet leads to us discussing the Indian economy?
Chris: Well, I have my bachelors in history and minors in film studies and I’ve always seen a link between things like this. It’s not just a strong connection, it is THE connection. History is what happened yesterday to bring you where you are today. History has already set several things in motion to help shape the tomorrow so it’s all connected!
And with that, I’ll leave you. If this conversation with Chris has intrigued you, you can get to know him a little better on his various social media.
Stay tuned to my blog for further updates on Chasing the Bullet.
#Motonomous #AintMonotonous #prometheanliver
"Give me a motorcycle, a camera, a good book and I can rule the world", says Aditya.
Aditya is the lead strategist and conceptualiser at Motonomous and also heads the content, design, photo and video teams.
Aditya bought his first motorcycle in 2009, and has been travelling on two wheels ever since...