Only 17 years-old, “Dilawar” is growing up way too fast. Living in India-occupied Kashmir, he’s on the verge of becoming a bad boy until he gets thrown into jail for doing something stupid. Realizing that he’s on the road to self-destruction, he tries to straighten up — but righteousness seems to elude him.
Abandoned by his mother, Dilawar (Mohamad Emran Tapa) lives with a stern uncle who lets him know with no uncertainty that he’s doing him a favor because of his usefulness to the man’s construction business. The two live a gritty, working-class lifestyle; their home an upgraded brick shack with meager meals cooked over an open fire.
Whether he’s playing cricket with the fellas or doing their homework for payment, Dilawar in many ways appears to be just an ordinary teen, but he’s not. Besides keeping a diary in which he constantly pens notes to his invisible mother, he listens to traditional Kashmir music and yearns to free himself from his birth circumstances. He’s a dreamer, a dangerous character to be in a universe that’s already sealed his fate as an impoverished, struggling underclass man-child.
Although the use of bridges in films as metaphors — acting as links between two worlds — is not unique, American-born director Tariq Tapa cleverly begins and ends his movie on one. Zero Bridge, in the city of Srinagar, was built in error by British colonialists after seven others had already been constructed. Instead of calling it “Eight Bridge”, they tagged it “Zero”. Thus, indicating they were starting all over. This story both begins and ends on Zero Bridge — a gateway between old and new, between freedom and imprisonment, and always starting all over.
Bordered by Pakistan, India and China, Kashmir has been subjugated by a parade of rulers over the past 2,000 years, from the Mughals, Afghans, Sikhs, British and Indians. And, Zero Bridge is where Indian soldiers patrol to keep Kashmir citizenry in check.
For Dilawar, Zero Bridge, at first, is a connection to an act of crime and, later, to a potential passage to a new life with someone he cares about.
Besides helping his uncle build houses, Dilawar also cleans up for the owner of a houseboat business and takes tourists for boat rides on peaceful Dal Lake. One of the best dialogues in the film has ignorant American vacationers asking Dilawar what his name means.
“Terrorist,” he laughs.
Yet it’s a reminder of Dilawar’s perilous surroundings living in disputed territory between Northern India and Pakistan. Whether reading news of unrest to his illiterate uncle, or listening to radio recitals of recent murders of politicians, Dilawar is numb to the background violence — a cacophony as loud as the incessant honking of vehicle horns in the streets. But there are no bombs or explosions in this film. Instead, the most brutal scene shows a live chicken having its feathers removed while still breathing.
Picking pockets and stealing purses, Dilawar continues on his path of crime until he discovers that something he’s taken has a devastating effect on someone he’s attracted to. At long last, he understands causality.
While delivering his uncle’s contracts to an educated woman who once lived in America, Dilawar tricks her into helping him do his classmates’ homework. Yet he later bonds with Bani (Taniya Khan) when she learns that he’s as brainy as she is. Reminiscing often about her former physics professor, Bani teaches Dilawar to play chess. But when she tries to teach the women in her household, their eyes wander restlessly towards the TV while one orders her to the kitchen to cook dinner.
Filmmaker Tapa shows intuitive sensitivity for his main character and the result is a film that feels more like an autobiographical documentary than a narrative. Utilizing a single handheld camera and local dialect mixed with some American Ebonics (like “b**** slap”), brings an authenticity to the story. Only actors who had never before performed were hired, adding freshness to this engrossing and believable tale.
Finally, Zero Bridge, which is a story about a coming-of-age boy, turns out to be one of the most pro-feminist films in recent history.
“Zero Bridge” is featured from April 22-28 at the Northwest Film Forum. For more information, visit www.zerobridgefilm.com.