It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Musa Syeed’s first feature, “Valley of Saints” is a quiet tapestry of such colorful beauty that it had me sighing and smiling through every scene. Set in the waters of Dal Lake (Kashmir), it takes us through the life of Gulzar (Gulzar Ahmed Bhatt), who plans to secretly escape his homeland with his best friend Afzal (Mohammed Afzal). He meets a scientist named Asifa (Neelofar Hamid), and has to decide. At one level, this is a classic love triangle: a man competes with his best friend for a woman’s attention. At another, this is a film we’ve never seen before: Syeed explores the heart of a rarely visited landscape, and the souls of the resilient Kashmiri people. This is an amazing film.
Morning breaks. Gulzar wakes his beloved, white-haired uncle. Tending to his needs, he helps him brush his teeth. He feeds him breakfast. Massages him. After his uncle departs, he leaves for work as a shikara wala. The shikaras are cousins of Italian gondolas: long slender, two-seated wooden boats, used to taxi tourists through the lake. Gulzar offers rides to visitors through the tranquil setting. Because of political problems, however, the industry suffers, so their opportunities suffer.
Afzal arrives and the two spend their evening together—singing, hugging, playing. These are two friends whose love far exceeds any Hollywood bromance, where such tight friendships seem to end with grade school. The two here are one in love, or something deeper. They remind me that a friendship is possible that reaches such a depth that “love” is not a sufficient adjective. It is as though modernity coerces us to skimp on friendship, though the struggles of modernity—nationalist wars—orphaned them, bringing them together in the first place. And, then they meet Asifa.
Asifa is an American-trained researcher exploring pollution levels throughout the lake. She is, at first, cold and abrasive to these gentlemen, and that ignites their attraction to her. She is a perfect contrast to them. They are two men—rather, boys—from a small, sheltered idyllic world trying to break out. She is an expat who has traveled the globe, now returning home to see the environment beneath the greenery, seeing the second side to Kashmir.