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Love and Environment in Kashmir

Film Review: Valley of Saints (fiction)

scene from filmWatch trailer.

This is a film set in Kashmir. But it is not, as you’d expect, about the tortured politics and violence that has haunted this contested Himalayan valley region along the Indo-Pakistan border for decades. Though the socio-political reality of the region serves as a grim backdrop to the central narrative, Valley of Saints is at its heart a gentle film that tackles two deftly interwoven themes — fragile human relationships and the gradual degradation of the iconic Dal Lake in the Kashmiri capital city of Srinagar.

Fed by snow from the Himalayas, the Dal Lake is a key source of livelihood for the local community that lives around it. Most of them are small-scale farmers, fishermen and boatmen who rely on income generated from a steady stream of summer tourists. But the Dal, sometimes referred to as the "Venice of Asia," is shrinking and its increasingly polluted water is a threat to both the locals' health and their way of life.

Written and directed by independent American filmmaker, Musa Syeed (who is of Kashmiri origin), the film, which was co-winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year, features several non-professional local actors and blurs the line between documentary and fiction. It was shot on location in Kashmir during Autumn 2010 military curfew in Srinagar.

The plot revolves around Gulzar (Gulzar Bhatt, who is a boatman in real life), a young man who lives in a crumbling, leaky ancestral house by the Dal with his old uncle and earns a meager living by ferrying tourists around the lake in his shikara — a small, decorated wooden boat akin in cultural significance to a Venetian gondola.

Like most young men stuck in small towns, Gulzar yearns for a life less ordinary. But his long-nurtured plans to escape to the cosmopolitan climes of New Delhi along with his childhood buddy, Afzal (Afzal Sofi), go awry when a military curfew is imposed in Srinagar. The clampdown is in response to a fresh round of stone-pelting by protestors which in 2010 had emerged as a powerful form of resistance among Kashmiri youth.

Unable to take a bus to New Delhi until the curfew is lifted or ply his boating trade Gulzar, along with Afzal, kills time lazing about, swimming in the lake, and making some cash on the side by stealing materials from unguarded construction sites for a local goon. In the midst of this, Gulzar’s neighbor, who manages a tourist houseboat on the lake and is stuck outside town because of the curfew, asks him to take care of his client who is stranded in his houseboat. (Dal is famous for its fleet of intricately carved houseboats, built during hte British Raj, that are rented out to tourists over the summer.)

Turns out the houseboat guest is actually a young Kashmiri-American scientist, Asifa (Neelofar Hamid), who’s studying the impact of urbanization on the water quality of Dal Lake. As the two young men ferry the Asifa around the lake collecting water samples for her research, a romantic triangle of sorts ensues. Eventually Asifa chooses Gulzar as her sole boatman.  

As Gulzar and Asifa glide around the lake in the shikara, it becomes clear how years of illegal filling in of the lake for construction and unregulated dumping of raw, untreated sewage and trash from houseboats and homes are choking the once-pristine lake.

The Valley of Saints isn’t a environmental film per se, but what’s notable about it — in addition to its obvious merits as a poignant and excellently crafted story — is how subtly and intricately Sayeed weaves in the ecological crisis facing Dal Lake. There’s no proselytizing, no condemnation, just a quiet observation worked into the larger body of the narrative. A drift of the camera over piles of junk floating along the edges of the lake, a brief shot of Gulzar hooking a plastic packet while fishing, a fading newscast in the background referring to the government’s proposed action against illegal constructions.

What Sayeed does for the environment with his debut feature film is make concern about it a part of mainstream cinema. He’s also careful to show that there are no easy solutions, especially in the context of a trouble-torn region. There’s a moment in the films when Asifa shows Gulzar how to make a compost toilet and Afzal, who’s looking on, loses it.

“What are you talking about?” he barks at her, grabbing at the paper with her hastily scribbled diagram. “Can’t you see we are suffering? Killings, strikes, curfew. People are struggling just to get by and you are taking about this?... You think Kashmiris need this?”

In an interview with The National Geographic, which partly funded the film, producer Nicholas Bruckman said: “At its core, the movie is a love story. It’s a love story between two friends, between a man and a young woman, and between a man and his homeland — which is of course, threatened.”

Yes, this is a love story of many hues, but Sayeed also does a masterful job of showing that there are other threats to Gulzar’s homeland than only political strife.

Earth Island Journal will be co-presenting Valley of Saints at the 3rd i San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival on September 23.

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Managing Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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