Zero Bridge is directed by Tariq Tapa, a New Yorker whose family on his father's side hails from Kashmir, India. During a discussion at the Tribeca Screening Room in NYC where Zero Bridge is up for a special Spirit Award for the best picture made for under a $500K budget, Tapa explained that he decided to make a film about the Kashmiri people because there has never been a feature film filmed in Kashmir. Up until recently, Kashmir didn't even have one movie theater (due to the fact that people there are generally afraid to congregate in large groups for fear of being killed by a terrorist bomb blast).
Kashmir of course is primarily a Muslim country currently ruled by India. So to get a glimpse of how ordinary people lead their lives, is quite educational and a rare opportunity. Tapa courageously went to Kashmir and using only a mini-DV camera (and three external hard drives) created a very well put-together project for a first-time director. He went through about 80 non-professional actors before settling on his cousin who did a fine job in the lead role of Dilawar, the alienated 17 year old, abandoned by his mother at an early age and then raised by his strict disciplinarian of an uncle.
When we first meet Dilawar, he's waiting for an acquaintance, a professional pick-pocket, at Zero Bridge which overlooks the Jhelum River in Srinagar, Kashmir. Right away, Dilawar is approached by a policeman who warns him that he could be shot if he remains on the bridge any longer (the Indian police and soldiers, always on alert for the possibility of a terrorist attack, are depicted as particularly harsh; in addition, throughout the film, we hear radio announcers report the harsh political reality of Kashmir, which is subject to bombings and assassinations on almost a daily basis). Soon enough, Dilawar almost gets into a fistfight with the criminal he's been hanging out with over money and they're both placed in a dirty jail with rats. Finally, the uncle convinces the jail warden to release Dilawar who returns to live at his uncle's dirt poor dwelling.
Dilawar's primary job is working for his uncle who is a mason. He earns extra cash by finishing homework assignments for local high school students. Dilawar also works for a young entrepreneur who takes tourists out on houseboats (according to Tapa, he inserted the scene about the tourists since tourism is an integral part of Kashmiri life).
After Dilawar's Uncle sends him on a job to mail labor contracts through a local shipping office, he meets the lovely Bina who spent some time in the U.S. where she learned a lot from her physics professor. Bina loves listening to classical music and plays chess but her family plans to marry her off to a man she has never met. Dilawar uses Bina who helps him complete the high school students' homework assignments. When she finds out about his deception, she orders him to leave with the proviso that he not see her again.
There's nothing very original about the film's denouement--Dilawar manages to reconcile with Bina and decides to go with her after she decides to leave her family and head to Delhi where her ex-professor's family is staying. In an awkward (and not very convincing) scene, Bina is not very adept at sneaking out of the family home and wakes up her relatives who prevent her from escaping. After Diliawar declares his independence to his Uncle, he runs off to meet Bina at Zero Bridge, only to find that she's not there. Dilawar and Bina's frustration becomes a symbol for Kashmir itself, mired in provincialism and the inability to change and move forward.
The strength of Zero Bridge is not in its melodramatic plot but in the fine direction of a non-professional cast coupled with the insider look at how ordinary people in Kashmir cope with poverty, the harsh nature of Indian rule and the constant threat of terrorism. The 28 year old director put this film almost entirely together himself, including the casting, direction, cinematography and co-editing. My prediction is that he will soon go on to become a top-notch director in the American film industry.