Valley of Saints, set on and about gorgeous Dal Lake in the Indian state of Kashmir, is one of those movies where I never felt overly concerned about the plot. I just wanted to spend time in that place with those people.
Director/writer/editor Musa Syeed, whose parents come from Kashmir, showcases the beauty of the area and its people without omitting the hard realities of life there. The opening of his film cuts from a postcard-worthy shot of early morning fog drifting through the hills to an interior shot of steam rising as the morning meal is prepared. Simple and fluid editing, which reflects Syee's style and handling of the film as a whole.
I love the bustling boat culture of Dal Lake. Floating restaurants and shops. Private boats docked as close to each other as cars in a parking lot, most of the vehicles wide open, a seeming invitation to thieves. So many colors and textures, so much temptation.
Twenty-somethings Gulzar (Gulzar Bhat) and Afzal (Afzal Sofi) are best friends who are part of the boat culture. They get rowdy and rude, like most guys, but they sing songs together and show their affection for each other without the self-consciousness and reservations displayed by the majority of young men in our country.
Gulzar and Afzal live in what's called the Valley of Saints. It looks like paradise, but they've had enough of its picturesque predictability. They intend to leave for new lives in the big city tomorrow before Gulzar's domineering uncle returns to the Valley. But protests in town have turned violent and a curfew has been put in place. The restrictions will likely be lifted in a week for the start of Ramadan. In the meantime, Uncle can't return home, which is a plus, but the men have nowhere special to spend their newfound free time.
At least the lake is still open. Turns out there's a tourist stuck on a houseboat owned by one of Gulzar's neighbors. Asifa (Neelofar Hamid) is a sophisticated young Kashmiri woman lately based out of America who is conducting a water-quality study on the polluted Dal Lake (Fun fact: Gulzar Bhat and Afzal Sofi are new to acting, while Neelofar Hamid is a professional Kashmiri thespian. They work together perfectly).The men agree to provide food for Asifa and quickly become enamored with the lovely scientist. Asifa prefers the company of the more mature Gulzar over the eager to please Afzal, and a bond begins to build between the two.
The Gulzar/Asifa relationship follows a path familiar to American romance fans, but in a far less demonstrative, more tentative fashion. Understandable. They're only together for a few days, after all, and their upbringings dictate a conservative approach to interactions between men and women. As the kinda-sorta romantic triangle plays out, the oppression and civil unrest continues not very far away. The conflict grounds the film and makes the small story of the three young people seem all the more precious.