“Zero was disturbing, it refused to make any number greater or any number lesser” — Documentary film Zero
The world screening of documentary Zero at the Indian Habitat Centre on 9 October is the result of a cultural collaboration between Tunisia and India. The film, whose idea came from Tunisian director Nidhal Chatta’s reading of Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife, was abysmally silent on the Indian scientist Aryabhatt, who is synonymous with zero in the Indian mind. This was a major blip in the narrative that harped on India’s contribution to the evolution of zero.
The narrative takes viewers on the trail of discovery through the medium of a mathematician father and his teenage son. As the son’s questions about the number are answered, the film leads us through the various ideas that gave birth to what came to be a revolutionary innovation.
With emphasis on the embrace of the concept of the shunya by the eastern world, the film harped on its rejection by the West while failing to offer any explanation for this. While the viewer is still hoping this mystery will be solved, the documentary stops abruptly, leaving one puzzled. With the background scores of conquest and war, the documentary presents zero as a ‘conqueror’ who after finding acceptance in the East, braces itself for the ultimate battle with the West.
Tracing the zero, we learn how the number was first conceptualised by the Bablyonians, brought to life by the Indians and given wings by the ‘Islamic miracle’ only to face the litmus test of the West. “It is very hard to cover a subject like ‘zero’ in 80 minutes,” says the director, offering a defence in subsequent interactions.
Shot in India and Tunisia, the documentary disappoints in its visual treatment as a majority of shots focus on the father-son duo exploring the bylanes and monuments of India — shots which seem irrelevant to the theme at hand. Though it is a earnest attempt, Zero fails to grip the viewer’s attention. With a rather predictable storyline, irregular mix of animation and still shots and abrupt end, it is a number story that almost comes to nought.