The Kashmiri reading group I’m a part of recently saw Valley of Saints, a 2012 Sundance-winning docudrama indie film made by Musa Syeed set in Srinagar, Kashmir which is where my family is from. We’ve been trying to consume more Kashmiri art and literature in the group; we previously read Suhas Munshi’s excellent travelogue This World Below Zero Fahrenheit and Agha Shahid Ali’s The Country Without A Post Office.
It was nice watching a film on Kashmir that didn’t scream about Trauma and Violence in your face (though given that it’s Kashmir, both pulse in the background like a bassline). It was sweet-sad, gentle as a lake, rarely overflowing in its emotion. The movie is driven by the friendship between two childhood friends, Gulzar and Afzal, who make their living off of Srinagar’s beautiful but dying Dal Lake. The two men plot to leave Kashmir in search of better opportunities, but a military curfew forces them to delay their plans. The arrival of an enigmatic Kashmiri-American woman named Asifa who is researching Dal Lake’s ongoing environmental collapse causes tension and rivalry to develop between the two men, leading Gulzar to make tough choices.
Gulzar and Afzal’s friendship has an almost homoerotic tone, as close childhood friendships often do. I’ve noticed that Elena Ferrante frequently and brilliantly portrays that in her female friendships; it was refreshing to see that done for male friendship. The film’s cinematography does an excellent job contrasting the beauty of the Kashmir Valley, with its neck-crick-inducing Greater Himalayan peaks and flower-speckled meadows, against a city slowly being swallowed by its own filth. The environmental catastrophe facing Dal Lake is sensitively presented with all its moral complexity: Asifa is frustrated with how the local people treat the lake, while Gulzar argues that its exploitation is crucial for people’s livelihoods. I could identify with Asifa’s anger: I remembered the disgust I felt seeing the open drainage and muddy water that plagues Srinagar. Yet, like her and the audience of the film, I have the privilege of being a tourist in a land gripped in humanitarian crisis. Asifa argues that the lake’s impending death will be fatal for those living off it, while Gulzar responds philosophically that all things die. A strain of nihilism is recurrent in the film: why preserve that which is doomed? The friendship between the two men, complicated by the arrival of a foreigner, seemed to me to metaphorically reflect the asundered love between Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims. But this interpretation might be influenced by my own identity, which could be inserting itself into a story where it is not necessary. One cannot help but symbolize everything in Kashmir as being about the larger conflict, which is indicative of how hard it is to make a film that is just about being Kashmiri.
Overall, I loved Valley of Saints, and would recommend it if you’re into slow and poignant dramas set in a conflict zone.