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War and poverty force Gulzar, a young tourist boatman, to run away from Kashmir with his best friend. But a military crackdown derails their escape, and they become trapped in Gulzar's lake village. Waiting for conditions to change, they discover a mysterious woman, braving the curfew to research the dying lake. As Gulzar falls for her, rivalry and jealousy threaten his boyhood friendship and their plans of escape. Gulzar must choose between a new life and a new love. The first film set in the endangered lake communities of Kashmir, Valley of Saints blends fiction and documentary to bring audiences inside this unique world. Written by
Dazzling cinematography showcases an enigmatic Kashmir but romance plot between the principals, kind of fizzles
The story behind the making of 'Valley of Saints', Musa Syeed's drama filmed in the disputed Indian territory of Kashmir, is probably more interesting than the film itself. Syeed is American born but his parents hail from Kashmir. Syeed went to Kashmir in 2009 to research the culture and see if he could come up with material for a screenplay.
His original story featured an older male protagonist but he ended up meeting a younger man, a tourist boatman native to the area of Lake Dal in Kashmir, by the name of Gulzar. This happy-go-lucky fellow seemed to be perfect for the part, so Syeed re-wrote the script in a very short period of time, featuring Gulzar as the protagonist. He paired him up with another fellow, Afzal, well known to the denizens of Lake Dal as a community activist and journalist of sorts. Gulzar and Afzal appeared to have great chemistry together, so their relationship initially became the focus of the story.
The female interest was the part that presented the most difficulty. Initially a woman by the name of Asifa was cast but she had to drop out as her family did not consider acting a respectable profession. Syeed was forced to consider professional actresses and most of them came from local television soap operas. Fortunately, one of those actresses, Neelofar Hamid, had the ability to go way beyond the range of mere soap opera acting and ended up being perfectly cast, as the scientist writing about the 'resiliency' of the Dal lake dwellers.
Finally, Syeed had to make further adjustments to the script as a curfew was declared in town due to civil unrest. Most of the shooting now had to take place on the lake itself. The story begins when Gulzar and Afzal decide to leave Kashmir but are unable to do so because of the military crackdown. Thus the actual curfew is incorporated directly into the script.
Despite Syeed's admirable improvisation with his screenplay, the finished product, in terms of the plot, is somewhat thin. While Gulzar and Afzal are depicted as life-long friends who play off one another, their antics seem quite childish--the two hardly seem mature at all. .
The discovery of research scientist Asifa on one of the houseboats, eventually leads to a conflict between the two friends. Gulzar is drawn to her but Afzal sees her as an interloper. What Afzal objects to is what he perceives to be Asifa's meddling in the affairs of a culture she is not part of. Asifa is the progressive force who wants to elevate the ordinary Kashmirian's consciousness concerning the environment. She teaches Gulzar how to construct a compost toilet and bemoans the fact that the lake is being destroyed by all the land filling that's been going on. Gulzar counters that the poor people on the lake have no choice but to build their dwellings on the lake, in order to survive .
Gulzar and Afzal eventually have a falling out basically over Asifa and then Afzal gets caught up in the unrest in town. We soon learn there was no chance that Asifa had any romantic designs on Gulzar; despite the intrepid boatman risking his life to obtain medicine for Asifa, after she becomes ill, she decides to leave, but leaves him enough money to win Afzal's release from jail, who has been arrested by the military authorities.
At the denouement, Afzal leaves Kashmir but for Gulzar, the ties are too strong, and he elects to stay in his home town. In terms of its narrative, 'Valley of Saints', doesn't have enough sustainable conflict to thrive. The conflict between the two friends pops up late in the film, so we're expecting much more of the relationship between Gulzar and Afisa.
Gulzar's innocence (as well as his charm) is both his greatest strength and weakness. Who can forget the most touching scene when he rows his boat and sings that haunting, beautiful song? But Gulzar knows nothing of women and nothing happens between him and Asifa. This could have been a beautiful romance between two opposites (Bogart and Hepburn's masterful performances in the 'African Queen', come to mind). But unfortunately there's no chemistry between the two principals. Instead, Asifa becomes a mouthpiece for environmentalism (the Sloan Foundation bankrolled much of the film, due to the progressive environmental stance promulgated by the erudite scientist). Had something really developed between Gulzar and Asifa, his decision to remain in Kashmir at film's end, might have made the story, much more poignant.
Despite the wafer thin storyline, 'Valley of Saints' features some beautiful, unforgettable cinematography, focusing on the people and places of the little seen, Kashmir. Considering that Gulzar and Afzal have no prior acting experience, they did an exceptional job in bringing their stories to the screen. Their real-life adventures are even more inspirational. Both Gulzar and Afzal flew in a plane for the first time when they were flown to the Hamburg film festival, where they became instant celebrities. While Gulzar has entertained the thought of acting again, he's back to working his boat on Lake Dal.
See 'Valley of the Saints' more for its performances and documentary-like cinematography. While the story ultimately fizzles, Kashmir itself, shines!
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