Monday, February 14, 2011

Kashmiri Indie: Zero Bridge

For now, Zero Bridge still stands in Srinagar, Kashmir. Such infrastructure if often targeted during times of war. If not exactly a battle zone, Indian-controlled Kashmir is hardly a peaceful region, but the constant din of terrorism is merely background noise for two young dissatisfied Kashmiris in American-born Tariq Tapa’s Zero Bridge (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at the Film Forum.

As a central landmark and the main artery out of town, Zero Bridge is a natural meeting point. It is also a security concern, which is why an undercover copper rousts the teenaged Dilawar as he waits there for his dodgy associate. Rather than terrorism, Dilawar tries apprenticing himself to a small time thief, but quickly gets pinched after their first job. Following a brief stretch behind bars, karma throws him another surprise when he comes face to face with his oblivious first victim.

Somewhat older but very attractive, Bani Sheikh works at the shipping office where Dilawar must pick-up his Uncle Ali’s construction contracts. Though he is far from charming, the American-educated Sheikh takes Dilawar under her wing, at least to an extent. He is a hard kid to love, but he seems to have his reasons. Essentially banished by his ostensive parents, Zero never fully explains the dynamics of his family, but implies enough to forgive much of Dilawar’s petulance. Perhaps Sheikh sees something of a kindred spirit in him. Unlike both their dysfunctional families, neither wishes to settle for things as they are. Of course, as a Muslim society, Kashmir does not offer her much say in the matter.

Zero is a film that intentionally de-emphasizes the violent climate of Kashmir, yet it remains inescapable nonetheless, directly contributing to the paucity of opportunities for younger generations. Reportedly the first feature film in forty years to be shot entirely in Kashmir, Zero evokes a sense of place, but it is far from flattering. Dingy, depressed, and even a little kitschy, it hardly looks like it is worth fighting for.

While Tapa’s story is small in scope and his cast consists entirely of nonprofessional actors, it should not be dismissed as Kashmiri mumblecore. Things really do happen in the film, with Tapa very deliberately leading viewers to a certain point. Yet, the modest nature of the film becomes almost frustrating, as Tapa takes viewers all the way to one of the touchiest flashpoints in the world, just to show them an uncle and nephew arguing.

Mohamad Emran Tapa expresses teen-aged angst nearly as well as anyone on film since Katie Jarvis blew the doors off Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. Yet, it is Taniya Khan, smart and vulnerable as Sheikh, who shows real star power in Zero. If not precisely charismatic, Ali Muhammed Dar (a mason by trade, just like his character) looks like the real salt of Kashmir’s earth, coming across completely natural and unaffected as he struggles with his difficult nephew.

Although Zero’s up-close intimate focus might tire some viewers, it is ultimately quite an accomplished debut from Tapa and his principle cast. Indeed, one can only be intrigued at the prospect of future projects from Tapa addressing Kashmir’s culture and politics more directly. Small but worthy of notice, Zero opens this Wednesday (2/16) at Film Forum, with Tapa appearing in person for select evening screenings through Saturday (2/19).