VENICE A new film set in Indian Kashmir seeks to go beyond stereotypes of the troubled region as either the idyllic backdrop to Bollywood movies or the subject of news reports and documentaries into the violence.
"Zero Bridge", by U.S.-born Tariq Tapa in his directorial debut, is a low-key, partly-improvised drama about a rebellious Kashmiri teenager who turns to petty crime in Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian part of the divided region.
Dilawar, who lives with an illiterate uncle after his mother abandoned him, meets an attractive older woman Bani, and is faced with a dilemma when he realizes that in stealing her passport he has jeopardized her freedom and future happiness.
The film maker, whose father is a Kashmiri Muslim, believes that in portraying the day-to-day challenges and frustrations of people living in Srinagar, his film could prove more political than any documentary or news bulletin.
"If you could come to care about them by the end of the film then I think that that was in a way a more political act than (what) a well-meaning documentary could achieve," Tapa told reporters on Saturday in Venice, where "Zero Bridge" screened outside the main film festival competition.
"You are just humanizing people who for so long have been marginalized to an issue or to an exotic location."
Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir in full but rule in parts, and two of three wars between them were sparked by the dispute. Tens of thousands have also been killed there since armed revolt against New Delhi's rule broke out in 1989.
India accuses Pakistan of sponsoring militant groups based in Pakistan fighting for Muslim-majority Kashmir's independence or merger with Pakistan. Pakistan denies the charge, but says it provides moral support for groups it sees as "freedom fighters".
OFFICES ATTACKED, DIRECTOR THREATENED
This month has seen some of the largest pro-independence demonstrations in Kashmir in almost 20 years, and although "Zero Bridge" does not directly portray any unrest, it shows how years of violence and poverty can affect the local population.
Security is intrusive, the wheels of justice turn painfully slowly and many young people dream of leaving Kashmir for a better life. The film also addresses the issue of how many unmarried women are denied basic rights by their families.
"The violence is what makes the headlines, but most people's daily lives have to do with being frustrated and terribly inconvenienced to the point that it just wears on them," Tapa said. "They come to expect as a matter of routine that they are going to be detained."
His own experiences shooting "Zero Bridge" in 2006 and 2007 reflect the level of suspicion in Kashmir.
One of the offices he set up in Srinagar during the making of the film was attacked by an angry mob, incensed when they heard rumors that a foreigner was making a pornographic movie.
He fled one attack on the back of a stranger's motorcycle, and was later detained by police investigating the claims about his project. Tapa spent weeks trying to iron out the misunderstandings.
The director, who first visited Kashmir as a boy when his father took him to see relatives there before the visits stopped in 1989, cast his cousin in the main role of Dilawar and based Bani's tragic tale on another relative's real experiences.
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(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)