MUSA SYEED, the 28-year-old independent filmmaker who wrote and directed Valley of Saints has been globe trotting. After screenings in Canada, Bulgaria, Dubai, Italy, even at the recently concluded Mumbai Film Festival, the carousel continues to whirl. His film, which won the 2012 Audience Award is now one of eight selections for Sundance Film Forward, an international touring programme designed to promote cultural understanding. One senses the pride Syeed takes in the global accolades: “It was an honour to make it, and I’m happy that the film has done well and introduced Kashmir to many people. But I will only be fully satisfied when the film is shown in the Valley.” In spite of the distribution difficulties encountered by independent filmmakers, he is co nfident about its release in India in a couple of months.
Set in the heavenly landscape of Srinagar’s Dal Lake,Valley of Saints wrestles with the contemporary hydra plaguing Kashmir: the conflict and the environmental crisis on Dal Lake. It is a far cry from the lame portrayals in mainstream Bollywood, with its Mission Kashmir and Jab Tak Hai Jaan offerings. Syeed stresses the importance of keeping in mind all the struggles of Kashmiri society, despite the hardships related to the 20-year-long violence. “The conflict is tragic and solutions to environmental problems are inter-connected,” he says, “but as one of my friends says, ‘you should be able to see with both eyes’, to not be completely overwhelmed by the political situation.”
Set and shot during the ‘Azadi summer of 2010’, Valley of Saints, in the vein of vernacular Kashmiri tales, tells the story of Gulzar, a disenchanted shikarawalla(boatman) eager to leave the Valley along with his friend Afzal. When a curfew is imposed, Gulzar is trapped and thus meets Asifa, an environmental scientist researching the lake’s pollution. As their relationship blossoms, Gulzar finds himself questioning his way of life and aspirations.
Despite the apparent simplicity of this Kashmiri apologue, the story of Musa Syeed and of the making of the film is fascinating. After being a political prisoner in Kashmir, his father emigrated to the United States in the 1970s, where Syeed grew up experiencing Kashmir through the memories of his father’s past. Feeling “a natural longing for home, for (his) roots, for (his) place in the world”, he travelled to Kashmir in 2009. “I imagined a grand homecoming, a retreat to paradise,” he says, “but reality soon caught up with the myth. I was an outsider in my own homeland.” Seeing Dal Lake as an “allegory for Kashmir, great beauty surviving in the face of death and decay”, Musa Syeed spent a full year gathering information and staying with lake-dwellers. He met Gulzar Bhat, a boatman, and cast him to play a shade of himself, effectively blurring the lines between reality and fiction. Joined by Afzal Sofi (Afzal) and Neelofar Hamid (Asifa) to complete the cast, Syeed’s crew was nested in the lake’s relative calm when they shot the film. “We had to accommodate many changes in operations and in the script because of the tensions,” says Syeed, “but we had the support of the people on Dal Lake.” Shooting in the city, the crew was followed by the police, and was forced to bribe some officers to work in peace.
As we are cradled in a lyrical atmosphere of Kashmiri songs, we also confront the harsh reality of life on the lake
However complicated the making of this film was, it’s no surprise that it has been nominated for next year’s Independent Spirit Awards. Valley of Saints is a work of sheer beauty. As we are cradled in a lyrical atmosphere of Kashmiri songs and awe-inspiring photography of the landscape, we are also made to confront the harsh reality of life on the lake and in Kashmir, through the camera’s naturalistic eye. Valley of Saintsachieves the feat of evoking the cinema of Terrence Malick and of the Dardenne brothers. The dialogues are not only realistic — courtesy the elegant acting by the three protagonists — but also highlight the phonic, poetic beauty of the Kashmiri language. “The lake has changed,” says Asifa, as the camera follows the flowing water, “there’s less life in it. We can’t get back everything we lost, but if we work with what we have, we can at least keep it alive.” This directly echoes Syeed, who wanted to focus more on “what Kashmi ris had managed to hold on to, rather than on what they had lost.” When Afzal lambasts Asifa for showing Gulzar how to build an ecological compost toilet — “You think Kashmir needs this? We have killings and curfews!” — it is yet another display of how much the violence has desensitised people to other problems.
Musa Syeed wanted to “immerse (himself ) in that world and understand it”, yet his perspective as an outsider allows him to carry an almost virginal gaze, which a person having grown up in the Kashmiri quagmire might not have grasped. Nevertheless, he portrays in a very Kashmiri way the existence of these souls trapped in a beautiful limbo. The Valley’s identity is populated by elements of guilt and hope, love and longing, which appear prominently in the film.
Valley of Saints is an occasion to discover the work of a promising filmmaker, who, along with his cinematographer Yoni Brook, is able to convey ideas of beauty, elegance and love, and articulate the sacred and the profane in a compelling way. The tale of Gulzar, Asifa and Afzal is a parable on empowerment and ecology, an eulogy to Kashmir’s syncretic culture where Sufi saints meet Hindu gods. “Do you think there is still a demon in Kashmir?” asks Asifa. “No, but there are no more saints,” replies Gulzar. “It’s like this lake, it only reflects what’s on it,” he adds. The saints have left the Valley, the Kashmiris are still there.