An anecdote, but a weighty and frequently evocative one, Zero Bridge unassumingly takes the perspective of its 17-year-old protagonist Dilawar (Mohamad Imran Tapa), a lanky dropout who engages in petty theft between stints with his uncle’s construction crew and work on tourist houseboats in Srinagar, a lakefront city in India-controlled Kashmir. Writer-director Tariq Tapa’s debut feature establishes a sense of Dilawar’s unmoored late-adolescent anxiety from the first scene, handheld camera pacing with him on the titular bridge as he waits for his criminal mentor, anxiously answering an aggressive cop’s questions. In voiceover, the boy’s letters to his mother in Delhi lie about school attendance and omit his first trip to jail while transparently pleading, “I hope you will forgive me for what I am.”
Dilawar’s first run at pickpocketing successfully nets the bag of a woman in her late 20s, Bani (a low-key Taniya Khan), including the passport she’s used to study physics in America; he pockets and buries it, much as he puts aside thoughts of fleeing Kashmir after musing openly about them to Yankee fratboy tourists (along with deadpanning, “My name means ‘terrorist’”). He again encounters Bani, a shipping clerk, while on business for his hectoring, abusive uncle (Ali Mohammad Dar), and their blooming friendship/flirtation evolves to include her assistance with Dilawar’s “homework”—pages of math problems he’s solving for his cricket buddies for extra cash—as the boy, a compulsive list-maker, solicits male advice for a “How to Pick Up Older Women” primer.
Tapa, a U.S.-born filmmaker with a Kashmiri father, shoots impressively in low light, giving both the young man’s furtive dealings with fences and the aching attempt at connecting with Bani over chess the same surreptitious aura of unspoken desperation. The political environment of Kashmir is kept to a discreet but persistent subtext, with grenade killings and an official’s murder heard on the radio, and Dilawar translating newspaper headlines from Kashmiri to Urdu for his uncle. If Zero Bridge never fully gives Khan’s overqualified clerk, chafing under an imminent arranged marriage, enough dimension to make her a narrative-balancing presence to the uncertain youth, and its open-ended last scene feels more arbitrary than thematically earned, it supplies enough societal portraiture and emotional veracity to raise hopes that more of little-seen Kashmir, and Tapa’s perspective on it, might reach screens in years to come.