Film Review: Valley Of Saints
March 22, 2013
The subject of Kashmir is an extremely sensitive one these days, and for a screenwriter it must be a laborious task to concentrate on. Situations in the Muslim majority state have escalated at an intense rate over the past few years, garnering much international attention. The latest film to centre on Kashmir is Valley of Saints, by the American director and screenwriter Musa Syeed.
Screened in Britain for the first time at the 15th London Asian Film Festival a few weeks ago, Valley of Saints is a story primarily of love and friendship, but also heartache and tension. The protagonist Gulzar (played by Gulzar Ahmed) is a shikarawala, who lives next to the majestic Dal Lake, he is fresh faced and eager to seek a better life far away from Kashmir. Gulzar’s lifelong friend is Afzal (played by Mohammed Afzal) who also plans to take flight from the continuing upset which surrounds him.
The friendship between Gulzar and Afzal is one of the most heart warming elements of this film, through all the upheaval and threats of oblivion, the two young men have managed to create a brotherly bond which seems unbreakable. Syeed was very clever in his casting, as Afzal and Ahmed are local men, familiar with the land of Kashmir, and more unique is the fact they are not trained actors. Their ease with the surroundings shines through on camera, which makes it a lot more believable for the audience.
One day Gulzar and Afzal meet a scientist Asifa (played by Neelofar Hamid) who is staying in a houseboat on Dal Lake. She is researching the effects of pollution in the lake, and on the wider environment. Almost immediately, Gulzar becomes interested in the pretty Asifa, although he is a complete innocent when it comes to the opposite sex, almost childlike, so at first his interest is more fascination than anything else, although after a while the pair become more intimate.
As a character, I found Asifa to be rather dull, coming across as emotionally cold and lacking the sensitivity that the two male leads possess. She and Gulzar have a few tender moments, although these are often spoilt by Asifa’s portentous views about the environment, of which she is most passionate about.
Gulzar’s budding romance with Asifa creates tension between him and Afzal, who not only has romantic thoughts for Asifa, but feels his friendship with Gulzar is gradually slipping away. Their plans to escape Kashmir are further put in to crises when a curfew is placed on the town and surrounding area by the military, what follows are some intense questions on friendship and the decline of a way of life due to pollution.
As the film draws to a close, the story reaches a surprising conclusion, with a friendship that sadly disappears and uncertainty about the future being more prominent than ever before. Syeed has given his audience some deeply philosophical questions to ponder, and he has shown a tremendous level of humanity when dealing with Kashmir’s tear drenched narrative as a whole.
Syeed’s direction too is something very special, as the audience is able to absorb the people and surroundings of Kashmir; this coupled with Yoni Brook’s broad cinematography gives Valley of Saints an aesthetic quality that borders a documentary style.
The plot kept my interest with its delicate and intelligent dialogue, however some scenes felt rather laboured, particularly those with Asifa, who paled in comparison to the rest of the cast. Overall Valley of Saints is an exceptional film which gives a better portrayal of the Kashmiri people than any other film has done before.
Valley of Saints screened as part of the official programme of the Tongues on Fire Festival, London.