Directed by Tariq Tapa
Zero Bridge, the promising Kashmir-set debut from American-born writer-director Tariq Tapa, begins and ends with its protagonist, a 17-year-old amateur hustler named Dilawar (hook-nosed non-pro Mohamed Emran Tapa), stranded on the title span. He desperately wants out of Srinagar city, but his efforts to escape keep coming to naught. The camera surveys his limited prospects from close range: running barely lucrative scams (snatching purses, copying out other people's homework), taking Lonely Planet wastrels on boat tours, and apprenticing to his stonemason uncle, Ali (Ali Muhammed Dar), the young man's abusive guardian. Dilawar may be better-educated than his uncle, to whom he regularly reads the front-page newspaper headlines, but he's woefully unprepared for life on his own. At one point, Ali wrests Dilawar's packed bag from him and, heartbreakingly, its meager contents spill onto the ground: a rubber band, a Bic pen, what appear to be poker chips. And harsh realities have failed to sink in on other fronts: Throughout the film Dilawar hopefully addresses his adoptive mother, who abandoned him years ago, in diaristic voiceovers, which provide respite from the otherwise unfiltered street noise.
Zero Bridge evolves into a love story of sorts. Picking up employment forms for his uncle, Dilawar finds himself face-to-face with Bani (Taniya Khan), a 28-year-old whose passport he lifts in an early scene. Recently returned from studying physics in the U.S., she works in a shipping office, where she freely arranges for parcels to be sent abroad to Bhopal and Hyderabad, a cruel irony given the holding pattern she suddenly finds herself in. Unaware of his misdeed, Bani takes to Dilawar. The two pass quiet hours together: She teaches him how to play chess, and, unwittingly, helps him with other students' math homework. Its who-knows-what logistics occasionally confound, but Zero Bridge is overall an exemplary work of retro-neorealism, telling a devastating small-scale story against the stark backdrop of an embattled no-man's-land, in strokes that feel simultaneously fable-broad and finely detailed.
Opens February 16