In a movie full of beautiful camera shots, perhaps the most memorable in Musa Syeed’s 2012 film Valley of Saints is the massive lake house where Gulzar, the protagonist played by Gulzar Ahmen Bhat, first meets the beautiful and secretive Asifa, played by Neelofar Hamid. The house is adorned inside and out with intricate, lace-like wooden railings, pillars and paneling. The entire house appears to be made of rose-colored wood: During the day, sunlight filters through heavy curtains and the house is lit at night as it rests in Dal Lake, another character in its own right. The effect is the appearance of a truly lovely and almost mystical rosy glow that surrounds the house at all times.
Though the house possesses an otherworldly serenity and beauty, Syeed’s greatest achievement is in capturing that beauty on film without ever making it kitschy or cliché. In fact, we are constantly reminded that the beauty is not only very real, but also on the verge of being lost forever. The house is jarringly contrasted with the filth and decay of the very lake on which it rests.
Dal Lake, the “crown jewel of Kashmir” is where Gulzar and Afzal, his best friend played by Mohammed Afzal, live, and earn their living ferrying tourists on gondola-like shikaras. Located in the city of Srinagar in the Indian state of Kashmir, the lake’s inhabitants, including temporary resident Asifa, are placed under a curfew due to militant political turmoil, severely restricting traffic to and from the lake. Much like the Louisiana inhabitants of the Bathtub in Behn Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a second Sundance gem that debuted in 2012, Gulzar and Afzal live in a community that is in decay yet harbors surprising vitality, a community that is both indebted to the water that surrounds them as well as at its mercy.
Asifa is a student from America who conducts research on the environmental condition of the lake, into which sewers run and the lake’s inhabitants pollute freely and without much thought. Gulzar slowly falls in love with Asifa as he assists her in collecting samples from various points around the lake; however, their budding romance interferes with his own close friendship to Afzal, who scorns Asifa’s ardent concern for the condition of the lake even as political strife surrounds them. It is a truly tragic predicament that cannot be solved with any single answer: The condition of the lake is indeed a problem that adversely affects everyone dependent on it. However, in the face of armed militia and the daily struggle to make a living, it is difficult to prioritize restoration and preservation of the lake. This conflict is made all the more difficult to swallow during a poignant scene in which Gulzar steers Asifa past a small stone pool – a spring he would once bathe in as a child that was now nearly black with filth – and tells her the story of how the community of Dal Lake was created as passed down in folklore for generations.
Gulzar and Afzal’s brotherly relationship forms the strongest emotional crux of the film because their friendship unfolds naturally on screen and the two men play off each other’s energy. They struggle over not only Asifa’s entry into the picture, but Afzal’s ambition to leave the futureless Dal Lake and Gulzar’s second thoughts about abandoning his home.
Syeed, who was present at Images where the film screened on Saturday afternoon, spent a year living at Dal Lake before filming. Born in the U.S. to a father who emigrated from Kashmir as a result of political turmoil, Syeed set out to make a film that celebrated the beauty of the region as well as highlighted the issues facing its inhabitants outside the region’s well-known political turmoil.
Though a fictional story, Syeed hired local boatmen to play the leads, and the entire film was filmed in Kashmir. Answering questions from the audience after the film, Syeed chronicled the evolution of his initial romance story into one that incorporated more serious environmental and political themes.
Along with Gulzar and Afzal, with whom he remains friends, Syeed followed his film through its acquisition at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, where it won the World Dramatic Audience Award and tied for the Alfred P. Sloan Prize, and onto its opening at the Berlin Film Festival.
Valley of Saints is at once as much a celebration of both natural and man-made beauty as it is a solemn meditation on the loss of those physical places that have been ingrained in our psyches – those places that give life to our myths as well as our histories, and continue to support us to the present day.