Opening yesterday at the Film Forum in New York, “Zero Bridge” is a neorealist film about two young people in Srinagar, Kashmir struggling for independence and self-realization. Filmed on location, there are obvious references to this capital city of the Indian-controlled section of the country as being in a war zone, but this is not a political film in the obvious sense. It is instead a deeply personal story about what it means to be trapped in a society where the weight of tradition bears down heavily on the shoulders of the young. In that sense it is universal.
Dilawar is a 17 year old Muslim boy who we meet in the opening scene of “Zero Bridge” on the very bridge in Srinagar from whence the movie derives its title. It is a kind of exit ramp for people trying to escape economic privation and civil war. Dilawar is there to meet a low-level criminal who will take him on as an apprentice pickpocket. While standing on the bridge, an Indian soldier demands to see his identity papers and to warn him that no loitering is allowed. The soldier explains that terrorists consider the bridge a tempting target and he risks being shot if he ignores warnings that are posted on the bridge.
Eventually his acquaintance shows up on a motor scooter and the two drive off looking for people to rip off. Their first victim is Bani, a young Hindu woman whose pocketbook Dilawar deftly lifts while she is not looking. Later when Dilawar and his partner bicker over how to divide up the loot, an Indian soldier overhears them and takes them off to jail.
Lacking a record, Dilawar is released to his uncle who brings him home. In essence, Dilawar is exchanging one jail for another since the uncle sees the youth as a domestic servant. He has also put him to work as his apprentice in his small-scale masonry business, but senses that the uncommonly bright young man is not cut out for construction work.
His intelligence has no outlet unfortunately in a place like Srinagar. About the best thing he can do with it is prepare his friends’ math homework for money, just one step up from pick-pocketing.
Director Tariq Tapa, the 29 year old son of a Kashmiri Muslim father and a Jewish-American mother, states that Charles Dickens is one of his major influences artistically. Surely, the plot coincidences so key to Dickens’ fiction must have persuaded to introduce Dilawar to Bani through sheer happenstance. When Dilawar brings his clients’ homework to her shipping office (a kind of uniquely Kashmiri blend of UPS and the post office) to be mailed to their school, they develop a bond before long. She is struck by his combination of native intelligence and a brusqueness that she perceives as a defense mechanism. We can interpret this as a consequence of their religious differences, even though this does not come out in the dialog. The film is filled with such implicit and nuanced character interaction, a sign of a mature film-maker despite this being Tapa’s very first film.
Both Dilawar and Bani struggle with the narrow outlooks of their family. In Dilawar’s case, his uncle Ali (played by Ali Muhammed Dar, a full-time carpenter and mason from Srinigar) sees him almost exclusively as an economic unit that can be exploited in his business. If Dilawar leaves his uncle’s home, that is a loss of revenue and little else. Once again, if we think in terms of Charles Dickens, the ties to Oliver Twist cannot be missed. Bani (Taniya Khan, a computer science student from Srinagar who has never acted before, like everyone else in the cast) appears to be more independent than Dilawar since she has a steady job but her family would never allow her to marry someone like Dilawar for all the obvious reasons.
Dilawar is played by Mohammad Emran Tapa, the director’s cousin. The press notes give you a flavor of the DIY approach of the director that eventually convinced him that his cousin was right for the role:
That night, my cousin Imran and I were playing chess when I suddenly knew that he was Dilawar. I didn’t want to just come right out and ask him to do it, so I began to test him in little ways. I began inviting him into the acting workshops I was holding and examined how he did with the other (first-time) actors. He did very well, really bringing his own personal history to the role and enhancing what I had written. So I offered him the lead part. I handed him a blank 500-page notebook and told him to fill it with Dilawar’s thoughts, as if they were his own. That helped him get into character, and it kept him occupied while I continued pre-production.
I also showed him “The 400 Blows” and “Il Posto”. He got very excited about being in a film like this. All he had ever seen before were Bollywood romances and Hollywood action movies; never movies about someone just like himself, movies with people who had never performed before. That’s when he began to see my point: that anyone can act, as long as the person is correctly cast, made to feel like a collaborator, and is given simple, specific directions to keep his performance as un-self-conscious and as physical as possible.
Tariq Tapa’s ability to recruit and direct a cast of non-professional actors is impressive, but even more so was his virtual one-man band filming on location. Armed with nothing but a digital camera, Tariq Tapa worked totally on his own. He filmed Dilawar with a hand-held camera since the herky-jerky effect conveyed his insecurities as a character. Scenes with Bani or the two together were done with the camera mounted on a tripod. Considering the difficulties of filming in a war zone and where crime is rampant (Dilawar’s pick-pocketing was consistent with a ruined economy offering few jobs for the young), it is a miracle not only that he could carry it off but make something so accomplished.
The press notes include two articles that serve to put Srinagar in context. One is an op-ed piece written by Arundhati Roy that appeared in the November 8, 2010 New York Times (Kashmir’s Fruits of Discord). Roy writes:
The atmosphere on the highway between Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar, and my destination, the little apple town of Shopian in the south, was tense. Groups of soldiers were deployed along the highway, in the orchards, in the fields, on the rooftops and outside shops in the little market squares. Despite months of curfew, the “stone pelters” calling for “azadi” (freedom), inspired by the Palestinian intifada, were out again. Some stretches of the highway were covered with so many of these stones that you needed an S.U.V. to drive over them.
The other was written by Isabel Hilton for the New Yorker Magazine in March 11, 2002 (Between the Mountains) and fortunately is not behind a subscriber’s firewall. Hilton provides some necessary historical background:
When the French doctor François Bernier entered the Kashmir Valley for the first time, in 1665, he was astounded by what he found. “In truth,” he wrote, it “surpasses in beauty all that my warm imagination had anticipated. It is not indeed without reason that the Moghuls call Kachemire the terrestrial paradise of the Indies.” The valley, which is some ninety miles long and twenty miles across, is sumptuously fertile. Along its floor, there are walnut and almond trees, orchards of apricots and apples, vineyards, rice paddies, hemp and saffron fields. There are woods on the lower slopes of the surrounding mountains—sycamore, oak, pine, and cedar. The southern side is bounded by the Pir Panjal, not the highest mountain range in Asia but one of the most striking, rising abruptly from the valley floor. The northern boundary is formed by the Great Himalayas. At the heart of the valley lie Dal Lake and the graceful capital, Srinagar.
For Europeans, Kashmir became a locus of romantic dreams, inspiring writers like the Irish poet Thomas Moore, who didn’t even need to visit it to understand its charms. “Who has not heard of the Vale of Cashmere,” he wrote in 1817, “with its roses the brightest that earth ever gave.” So seductive was this landlocked valley that, like a beautiful woman surrounded by jealous lovers, Kashmir attracted a succession of invaders, each eager to possess her.
The Moghuls established their control in the sixteenth century. Kashmir became the northern limit of their Indian empire as well as their pleasure ground, a place to wait out the summer heat of the plains. They built gardens in Srinagar, along the shores of Dal Lake, with cool and elegantly proportioned terraces—with fountains and roses and jasmine and rows of chinar trees. The Moghul rulers were followed by the Afghans and, later, by the Sikhs from the Punjab, who were driven out in the nineteenth century by the British, who then sold the valley, to the abiding shame of its residents, for seven and a half million rupees to the maharaja, Gulab Singh. Singh was the notoriously brutal Hindu ruler of Jammu, the region that lay to the south, beyond the Pir Panjal, on the edge of the plains of the Punjab.
Under Singh, the Kashmir Valley was conjoined in the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. According to one calculation of the purchase, the ruler of the newly formed state had bought the people of Kashmir for approximately three rupees each, a sum he was to recover many times over through taxation. For the maharaja and his descendants and their visitors, the valley was a luxurious paradise; they enjoyed fishing and duck shooting, boating excursions on Dal Lake, picnics in the hills and the saffron fields, moonlit parties in the magnificent gardens. In the penetrating cold of the winters, the visitors, and the maharaja, left the valley to itself and returned to Jammu.
Despite the emphasis of “Zero Bridge” on the hard-scrabble side of Srinagar, director-screenwriter-cameraman-editor (!) Tariq Tapa captures the beauty that surrounds this gateway to the historical Silk Route. Putting in a pitch for my own brand of unrepentant Marxism, I can only state that one of the tasks of socialism is to recapture the original beauty of places like Afghanistan, Nepal, Kashmir and make them accessible to the non-colonizing tourist and economically secure for the indigenous populations.
“Zero Bridge”: highly recommended.