Valley of Saints: Written and directed by Musa Syeed. Starring: Mohammed Afzal, Gulzar Ahmed Bhat, Neelofar Hamid. Running Time: 82 minutes.
Oftentimes, the best films are the ones that eschew grander, more theatrical gestures. The ones that rely on their own subtle self-confidence to draw us into their world. The ones that stir us in the quiet moments. Valley of Saints, the debut film by Musa Syeed, is a masterclass in this sort of film, a series of meditations and small moments framed by grand mountains and a quiet lake. It lays a sturdy foundation of stones that, collectively, build a profoundly moving cinematic experience, centered on a love story as real as anything.
The story is set in the valley of Dal Lake in Indian-controlled Kashmir, a place incessantly plagued by armed civil strife. Gulzar, a boatman, has spent his whole life here, born, as he puts it, “with a paddle in his hands.” He and his best friend, Afzal, are technically grown men, but around each other they are little boys, laughing, piggybacking, singing, never needing to take each other too seriously. Theirs is a profoundly deep love of the sort that transcends the usual notions of family and friendship.
They know there’s no future for them in Srinagar other than hawking wares and boat trips to foreigners, so for a long time they’ve been putting together money for bus tickets to Delhi and, so they imagine, a better future. The day they try to leave, though, hostilities break out again, forcing them to stay put until another ceasefire is reached. Stuck for the time being, they agree to help out another boatsman by agreeing to take care of the lone remaining guest on his hotel boat, a young woman named Asifa, who’s there to conduct ecological research.
Originally from the area herself, she’s returned to study the slow degradation of the river through lax environmental laws and oversight, and there is a bitter sadness in her voice when she notes just how devoid of life so many parts of the lake have become in recent years. This is a film that is able to comment on our connection to nature and our dependence on it in ways that many films try and fail to. The plaintive earnestness of the characters and cinematography doesn’t allow any room for cynicism or pandering in this regard. There are more important things to think about than that.
As they take her around the lake, and learn more about each other’s lives, the romance that slowly blossoms between Gulzar and Asifa is quiet, underplayed, and effortless. It’s one of the most compelling love stories I’ve ever seen in a movie. Of course, this does lead to some jealous bickering between Gulzar and Afzal, and their anger with each other is real, but of course that could never be enough to seriously threaten their friendship- they know each other far too well for that.
In the end, of course, choices must be made by each of these characters, but as the movie itself intuitively grasps, having to face such choices in our lives is unavoidable. As such, they don’t need to be viewed as solely good or bad things. We will take one path forward over another, and there is always a way to live with that, as long as we don’t forget where we come from and what has, in some way, moved us. This is a remarkable movie, filled with a grace and sense of self that most movies with bigger names and larger budgets lack.