Kashmir is a land of stark contrast, where breathtaking natural beauty is met with mind-numbing conflict. Survival is as much a way of life as eating or breathing. This very essence of India’s northernmost region is aptly captured by Musa Syeed’s debut feature narrative that not only impressed a large audience at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival but also captivated the hearts of the film industry’s greatest connoisseurs at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Valley of Saints, an 82-minute film starring a pair of actors – Gulzar Bhat and Afzal Sofi – who have never once laid their respective eyes on a large silver screen, is a stunningly well-crafted film intricately interweaving personal and social themes so seamlessly one never realizes at what point they have become so keenly invested in the personable characters or the grounded story that vividly paints a tense picture of struggle and survival.
Claiming the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at Sundance a few months back, Valley of Saints is far from being a boastful or preachy film. Its overarching themes are subtle, the personal interactions real. Simultaneously captivating and troubling are the film’s many locations as Valley of Saints depicts a bifurcated Kashmir that has been historically torn by a multi-generational border battle pitting India against Pakistan against China and fueling an equally tense conflict between Hindus and Muslims.
Intriguingly, Valley of Saints does not take a side. Even more, Mr. Syeed manages to stay out of the sociopolitical and theological conflicts. Instead, the talented filmmaker softly integrates friendship, romance, and the environment into a substantive narrative that allows even the least knowledgeable person of Kashmir’s unfortunate circumstances to have at least a basic awareness of the region’s current lot. All the while, Valley of Saints also offers perspective on personal relationships and self-introspection without preaching to the audience what to think or how to react to anything and everything presented within the film. Put simply, Valley of Saints tells a substantive story while also respecting the audience’s intelligence.
The open-minded film centers around two close twentysomething friends – Gulzar and Afzal – living in conflict-ridden city of Srinagar (Kashmir’s summer capital city). Most of their lives revolve around Dal Lake, the second largest lake within the state and nicknamed “The Jewel in the Crown of Kashmir.” A popular tourist destination, Gulzar tries to capitalize on foreigners who come there by taking them on boat rides highlighting the lake’s gardens, houseboats, and scenic views. Afzal, meanwhile, ducks in and out of the civil strife that has engrossed both Srinagar and Kashmir for decades.
Both yearn to escape Srinagar for greener pastures in Delhi and beyond, each believing there is no longer any reason to fight for a place they call home. As Gulzar explains during a pair of key moments in the film, Kashmir was once home to a “Valley of Saints” who protected the land’s people before eventually leaving town and leaving those currently living there to fight for themselves. Kashmir was no longer a place worthy of faith. It was a land neither Gulzar nor Afzal could believe in.
When a pre-Ramadan clash between civilians and the military give rise to a weeklong curfew, Gulzar and Afzal meander across Dal Lake and lay low until they are allowed to resume normal life. Neither truly cares about the actual battle. They just want to survive. It is this very portrayal that gives Valley of Saints a strong sense of being grounded, as the film does not preach which side is wrong or right. Instead, Gulzar and Afzal represent a very real and large contingency of Kashmiris who, like them, only care for survival and are indifferent toward the political workings of the civil strife.
Both the plot and the relationship between Gulzar and Afzal are thrown for a loop when they meet Asifa (Neelofer Hamid). Amidst the curfew, a love triangle is established as the two men jockey for an edge in the courtship of the beautiful – and educated – Asifa. A scientist who is studying how the people living in and around Dal Lake negatively affect the water, the love triangle reveals both the inner workings of each of our protagonists while also offering a glance into the very real environmental issues Kashmiris have to deal with in addition to curfews and guns.
A romantic chemistry between Gulzar and Asifa develops, much to the chagrin of Afzal. As the film – and the relationships – progress, each person’s hand is exposed and, for better or worse, decisions are made of the path they must respectively travel to find their inner peace. In each character’s respective discovery, the audience coincidentally makes its own discoveries of how they view the film’s diverse themes. Beyond the film, equally as impressive is the score, which intertwines British classical music with the rich melodies of Kashmir’s classical music genre. The fused tunes perfectly complement the story, the melodies subtly entering and exiting the film at the most opportune of moments.
Sundance’s Alfred P. Sloan jury describes Valley of Saints as “brave, poetic and visually arresting.” Mr. Syeed’s film is indeed all that, yet it is also thought provoking, romantic, and eye opening. Currently traveling the film festival circuit, Valley of Saints is a beautiful film and worthy of watching. Kudos is in order for Sundance and the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festivals for introducing this film to the West.
Reasons to like: Cinematography, Music, Acting, Subtle Themes
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