With his shoestring debut feature, Zero Bridge, writer-director Tariq Tapa, a U.S.-born filmmaker of Kashmiri/Jewish-American descent, enters the growing ranks of indie filmmakers with an interest in unvarnished, street-level dramas of the neo-realist school. What gives Zero Bridge distinction—unfortunately one of the only things that gives it distinction—is that it was shot in India-controlled Kashmir, the contested border region between India and Pakistan. By Tapa’s account, cinema doesn’t come in or out of Kashmir, and Zero Bridge represents the tiniest of steps toward revealing the struggle and hardships of life in Srinagar city. In a narrow sense, it’s a real achievement, especially when it focuses simply on the ragged uncertainty of its hero’s day-to-day existence. But the wisp of a story that drives the film follows the neo-realist template a little too closely.
Zero Bridge stars Mohamad Emran Tapa as a 17-year-old dropout who’s talked into pickpocketing a young woman and proves a natural at it, lifting her cash, fencing her jewelry, and tossing all her personal effects except her precious passport. The crime eventually lands him and his partner in jail, where his unsparing uncle (Ali Muhammed Dar) bails him out and sets him to work in Dar’s masonry business. By chance, Tapa encounters the victim of his crime (Taniya Khan), a shipping-office functionary who has returned to Srinagar after studying physics in America. (She wants to go back, but obviously has problems with her documentation.) To Tapa’s relief, Khan doesn’t recognize him, and the two enter into a friendship built on a mutual yearning to leave Kashmir for a better life.
Shooting on-the-fly using non-professional actors, the director gains in intimacy what he loses in the performances, which are wooden and amateurish; in the film’s most emotional scene, his leads each look as if they’re talking to someone off to one side. Zero Bridge also plays coy on the stolen passport for too long, stalling to establish Tapa and Khan’s relationship, then letting the issue be the subtext of all their exchanges. Zero Bridge is a rigorous piece of filmmaking, but it’s played at too minor a key, honoring the neo-realist tradition so slavishly that it lacks an identity of its own.