Full disclosure: Valley of Saints is the first India-made movie I have ever seen. I am almost entirely ignorant of broader Indian customs, and I certainly don’t know anything about region-specific cultures. It’s completely foreign to me.
So I went into Valley of Saints with apprehension, because I had literally no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know if it would resonate with an ignorant American like me. And now that I’ve seen it, I’m still not entirely sure. But I’m conflicted about that idea, because I don’t know if my lack of understanding is affecting my enjoyment of the film, or if it’s just a film that’s not particularly great.
Valley of Saints
Director: Musa Syeed
Valley of Saints is set on a lake, specifically Dal Lake in the Indian region of Kashmir. Gulzar (Gulzar Ahmed Bhat) lives in a rather rundown little hut on the lake with his uncle, and he makes all of his money on the lake as a tour guide. With a cute little boat, he picks up white, English-speaking tourists to tour the lake by badgering them with supposedly better prices than all of the other people doing exactly the same thing. That wasn’t something that particularly endeared me to Gulzar, because I hate people who do that, but a man’s gotta eat, and if people actually do want to see the lake, there are worse ways to do it. Gulzar has aspirations of leaving Dal Lake, though, and when Valley of Saints begins the plans are already in place. He and his friend Afzal (Mohammed Afzal) are going to get on a bus and go off into the world. Gulzar waits for his uncle to leave for a period of time, and then the two get ready to leave.
Unfortunately for them (and everybody, really), a political uprising stops their plans as a travel ban and strict curfew are put into effect. Even though Gulzar and Afzal become smugglers, hoping to have a bit more cash when the time comes for them to leave, the nightly riots act as little more than background noise in Valley of Saints. The violence shows up periodically, and one scene hints at some repercussions, but nothing ever comes of it. Some cursory Google-ing tells me that there is some civil unrest in the area (caused by the “Kashmir Conflict,” which is not entirely unlike the Israel-Palestine issue), but that doesn’t really mean much here. To an outsider, it just seems like a narrative reason to keep people on the lake. And even if it is inspired by real fighting, that’s all it really is.
Valley of Saints is very much an environmentalist’s film. During the curfew, Gulzar and Afzal find themselves in the presence of Asifa (Neelofar Hamid), a student who is studying Dal Lake. She was staying in a hotel-boat on the lake when the curfew was put into effect, and Gulzar is asked by the hotel-boat’s owner (who is not allowed back into the area) to help her out with food and the like. Gulzar and Asifa develop something of a relationship, and that obviously plays a big part in the narrative, but I can’t help feeling that Asifa is just an environmental mouthpiece. Dal Lake is in trouble, and I know that because Asifa wouldn’t shut up about how much trouble Dal Lake is in. Everything in it is dying and everybody is destroying it. She takes samples of the water in a number of different areas, and Gulzar helps her get to them.
I understand that this whole lake thing is a problem and Valley of Saints wants to call attention to it, but I don’t appreciate films that beat me over the head with their message. I understood what the film was after the film time it showed junk being poured into the lake. Harping on that image just takes away from any interesting drama that could be taking place between the characters. The characters are in service of this grand message, and when the film decides to become about the environment, everything stops. There are ways to better combine the message with the narrative, and those steps simply aren’t taken here. It feels as though director Musa Syeed was hoping to draw people in with the environmentalist idea on its own, and didn’t really care if there was a narrative benefit to it. It doesn’t work.
But when the message takes a break for a little white, Valley of Saints is a relatively compelling character drama. Seeing a girl break up a relationship can be a terribly generic way of creating conflict, and to some extent that’s the case with this film, but the actual interactions are more interesting than that might suggest. Gulzar and Afzal are a good pair, and there are some really nice scenes between the two of them. I like buddy movies. Seeing two good friends face the world makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I’m not sure what that says about me, but it means that a good friendship in a film can be enough to keep me interested midst some things that really aren’t worth watching. Some of my favorite moments from the film came from their interactions with each other before Asifa showed up, and then in the times where she was out of the picture. She didn’t ruin things so much as complicate them in a way that the film really didn’t seem to able to handle so well.
Perhaps my ignorance is shining through in this review. I wouldn’t be surprised. But if I did miss some massive revelation that makes all of Valley of Saints somehow better, I’m not the only person who won’t see it. That’s an inherent issue with foreign films, especially ones with cultures as different as India and America. But there are environmentalists everywhere, and even if I didn’t get a lot of what was being done, I could latch onto that. It certainly gave me a look into some things that I don’t understand, and for that I’m happy to have seen it. Valley of Saints is a decent film. It won’t blow your mind, but you’ll probably get something worthwhile from it.