The long-disputed region of Kashmir is claimed by India, Pakistan and China. Its present is depressing and its future is uncertain. The same can be said about Dilawar, the young Kashmiri pickpocket in Zero Bridge, the feature debut of director Tariq Tapa. Unlike most modern films about clever, troubled teenagers, Tapa's take is pure neorealism, light years removed from the pageantry and romanticism of the Bollywood cinema popular in those parts. Tapa's cousin Mohamad Imran Tapa plays Dilawar with a shyness and authenticity that only an amateur can provide. Shooting in and around the Indian-controlled city of Srinagar, Tapa opts for gritty, quotidian detail over the great emotional wallop. In this regard he shows impressive skill considering he wrote, directed, ran camera, recorded sound and edited. Its budget was so meager (the Independent Spirit Awards gave it a nod for best feature costing less than $500,000) that careful tending of this delicate project could result in profits. The film deserves it.
Tapa was born in New York City and he studied at CalArts. His father is Kashmiri Muslim and his mother is American. So he didn't exactly emerge from a rubble-strewn third world slum with amazing stories to tell. That should not detract, however, from the intimacy he generates from the very beginning as Dilawar waits on the Zero Bridge for the "cousin" who will teach him the pickpocket trade. A natural at larceny, Dilawar's haul includes a passport owned by Bani (Taniya Khan), an area native longing to return to America where she studied physics. Days later, after a stint in a rat infested jail, Dilawar happens upon Bani at the local shipping office. The two strike up an unlikely friendship based on their mutual interest in escaping Kashmir.
Anxious and dreaming, Dilawar's ache for independence makes him emblematic of Kashmir itself. Tapa keeps the politics to a minimum, mainly overheard news reports and shots of Dilawar translating newspaper articles for his uncle Ali (Ali Mohammad Dar). It's a view of Kashmiri life that's rarely seen and it creates an environment where Dilawar's less than honorable actions become justifiable. His main goal is to leave for Delhi, where he'll be reunited with the mother who abandoned him years earlier. He scrapes together extra cash by charging friends to do their homework. He even drags Bani into doing some of the work, without telling her he's actually being paid for it. Despite the deception, their tentative relationship grows giving Zero Bridge its heart. Had Bani been more distinctively drawn, the movie would have been more impactful. A guess is that Tapa felt a stronger connection to Dilawar (played by a family member, no less) than Bani, the more obvious character construct. Towards the end, her desire to leave the city becomes critically acute when a marriage is arranged by an extended family that would rather she cook rice than play chess. Dilawar's extended family is no better. His uncle Ali has long been resentful about having to care for the boy after his mother left.
Tapa understands that showing less can oftentimes evoke more. He avoids showcasing the beauty of the city, opting instead for shots at eye level that emphasize the people and the decay around them. Some of the obstacles Dilawar and Bani face are universal while others predate the pair and will outlive them. When they eventually decide to escape together, it's not played for melodrama or clock-ticking excitement. Their shared sense of desperation actually drives a sweet and tentative flirtatiousness. A game of chess is gently sensual without the Hollywood flourishes that would laughingly recall the pottery wheel scene from Ghost. Some of this visual austerity, of course, is by necessity. Tapa shot the film in 2006 reportedly using whatever could fit in his backpack. His knowledge of the area and its people are keys to the movie's success. Having spent multiple summers in Kashmir as a child, he knows what the average Kashmiri wants and the difficulties they encounter trying to get it. It's what makes Zero Bridge a winning example of modesty in front of the camera and intelligence behind it.
Distributor: The Film Desk
Cast: Mohamad Imran Tapa, Taniya Khan, Ali Mohammad Dar and Owaise Qayoom Bhat
Director/Screenwriter: Tariq Tapa
Producer: Hilal Ahmed Langoo and Josée Lajoie
Genre: Drama; Urdu-language, subtitled
Running Time: 96 min
Release Date: February 16 NY