Scenes from this film and the emotions they elicited continued to resonate in my mind for hours after I saw it. Zero Bridge is an understated yet profound film that shows us a slice of life in Kashmir, a place most of us know little about.
The story follows Dilawar, a seventeen-year-old Kashmiri boy that lives with his uncle and is struggling to find his way. He is driven by a desire to leave Kashmir and hopefully join his adoptive mother in Delhi. In order to secure the means necessary to escape, he is led to take money for doing other people’s homework and become a pickpocket. During an errand at a shipping company, he meets Bani, a woman who happens to be one of his pickpocket victims. Their connection turns out to be deeper than a coincidental meeting. First time director and writer Tariq Tapa, an American of Kashmiri and Jewish descent grew up spending summers in Indian-administered Kashmir. Through his personal observations and commitment to telling a story about the region that doesn't fall into Bollywood or Hollywood stereotypes, he created Zero Bridge.
The film was shot entirely on location in Kashmir, India’s northern most state, which borders Tibet and Pakistan. In 1947, India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain and soon after the two nations went to war over Kashmir. Although a border called “line of control” has been established between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir, conflict remains an issue in the region. Most recently, unarmed civilians have led uprisings against the Indian army every year since 2006.
Filming in this setting makes for a harsh working environment that blends together with the splendor of Kashmir’s landscape to create an intriguing contrast. One of the strongest moments of displaying this contradiction came after a demoralizing scene between Dilawar and his uncle where the audience doesn’t actually see the characters, but they feel the intensity of an abusive relationship. This scene was followed directly by a moment of a serene sunset over the mountains, effectively helping to ease the tension. The politics of Kashmir never take center stage in the film but seem to linger as a supporting cast member. News stories from newspapers and on the radio permeate the background in many scenes. Although the film is not overtly political, it does give a voice for the region and, I believe, will motivate the audience to learn more about the contested territory.
I came to care about the main characters without consciously realizing it was happening. The subtle nature of the film is felt in the relationship that grows between Dilawar and Bani. My favorite scene in the whole movie features this pair engaging in a game of chess. Not very many words are spoken, but you can feel a strong yet innocent flirtation that many of us aspire to have in our lives from time to time. Their relationship feels like a breath of fresh air amid the challenges that both the characters and the setting are enduring.
A feeling I continued to have throughout the film was one of being trapped, whether by culture, family, or actual borders. There is a powerful juxtaposition in the characters’ desire to literally break away from Kashmir and metaphorically break away from family expectations. Although we don’t all face such restrictive cultural obstacles like arranged marriages, many of us face growing pains while becoming independent adults.