"Zero Bridge": The Escape from a Dreary Existence in Kashmir By Gautaman Bhaskaran

in 65th Venice International Film Festival

by Gautaman Bhaskaran

Once Venice loved Indian cinema. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Buddhadeb Dasgupta and Mira Nair among many others were welcome. Somewhere, the love soured, and for years, the Festival, the oldest in the world, ignored Indian movies till Tariq Tapa and his debut feature, Zero Bridge, broke this dry spell this year. The work screened in the Horizons Section.

Tapa is Indian, a term one may give him with some misgivings, though. Made with American money by a non-resident Indian Kashmiri, Zero Bridge has been written, directed, shot and even co-edited by Tapa himself. The film fulfils one of his great desires. He said in a recent interview: “I eventually decided to make a movie in Kashmir because I found that none of the outside voices describing it accurately captured the daily lives of the average Kashmiri people. I thought that a film introducing the lives of a few Kashmiri citizens and their daily hopes and fears would show their humanity more intimately than the usual Western documentaries on the Kashmir situation or the Bollywood products that treat the region purely as an exotic backdrop”.

Tapa grew up in the United States, but his parents brought him every summer to Kashmir, where he fondly remembers playing by the river Jhelum under the Zero Bridge. After 1989, when the State became a haven for terrorists, Tapa’s visits stopped, but the memories of the riverside fun refused to go away. And when he got a Fulbright Scholarship in 2005, he wrote a thesis on Kashmir and made his debut celluloid work out of it.

Some of the momentous scenes in the movie are set on the bridge, the flowing river below witnessing the trials and tribulations of 17-year-old Dilawar (played by Mohamad Emran Tapa) as he swims and sinks with the rising and falling tide. A school dropout, an orphan abandoned by even his adoptive mother, but cared for by a distant uncle, and a pickpocket, Dilawar dreams of a day when he can escape his dreary existence in Kashmir. Somewhere along the real and the unreal world, between the uncle’s efforts at reforming Dilawar and his wayward prankish living, the boy falls in love with older Bani Sheikh (Taniya Khan). A strange relationship forms between a woman with an American university degree and a raw teenager, between sophistry and virtual illiteracy.

Tapa faced terrible odds when he made the movie, and these included police harassment and even a short incarceration. “Kashmir is like a war zone”, Tapa says. “This situation causes logistical nightmares simply because one has no control over one’s own destiny in a place where personal safety, civil rights, a fixed price economy, communications, and infrastructure are all deeply, maddeningly uncertain most of the time. A lot of time was spent waiting, planning, anticipating, and dealing with endless setbacks – such as strikes, violence, protests and curfews… There were also natural setbacks, such as snowstorms and avalanches, which, because of the poor infrastructure in the region, could bring the whole city to a halt for days on end. This happened regularly. So, there would often be little to eat because the main supplies road had been cut off, and there were no gas canisters to cook with or to keep warm in winter. A lot of shooting time was taken just driving around on a motorcycle, going from one black market to another, looking for gas to buy.”

But Tapa’s passion did not wane, and he found himself in a festival that is one of three best in the world, along with Cannes and Berlin.