The houseboats of India's Dal Lake, with their picture-postcard views of the snow-capped Himalayas, have long been a symbol of tranquility and the pampered life.
Tourists dream of sitting on the cushioned seats at back, admiring the houseboat's elaborate gingerbread trim and sipping tea while the shikaras ply the surrounding waters of the lake, slipping between the water-lilies.
The reality of life in the city of Srinagar and on Dal Lake is quite different from this tourist-brochure idyll. The Kashmir Valley has been a flashpoint for armed conflict ever since Partition in 1947, which saw the departing British divide the valley between India and Pakistan. Although development in the region of the lake is supposedly tightly controlled, illegal construction still goes on. Many houseboats still dump their sewage directly into the lake and some sections of the lake are now highly polluted. Hardly the kind of scene you'd find on a picture postcard.
Valley of Saints is an Indian/American co-production written and directed by Musa Syeed, which gives viewers an inside view of many of these issues, as seen through the eyes of two young men, residents of Srinagar. As the film opens Gulzar and Afzal are eager to leave the valley, where opportunities are limited, and life is hard. They imagine a brighter future for themselves somewhere -- anywhere -- else (their plans are vague), and when Gulzar's elderly uncle leaves for a few days to attend a wedding, the pair intend to take the next bus out of town. Naturally things don't go quite as planned (we wouldn't have a movie otherwise): unrest in the streets of Srinagar results in a strict curfew, with Indian troops patrolling the streets. No buses can enter or leave.
Another victim of this curfew is Asifa, a young Indian woman from another, more advantaged class, who has been doing research on the condition of the waters of Dal Lake while staying as a paying guest on a nearby houseboat. Due to the forced absence of that houseboat's owner, Gulzar and Afzal have been enlisted to make her meals and shuttle her about the lake. Despite the enormous differences which separate them, a friendship eventually develops between Gulzar and Asifa.
Valley of Saints is a quiet and rewarding film, which offers a nuanced if somewhat simplified overview of some of the complex issues that face Kashmir today, while still managing (thankfully) to avoid many of the expected clichés.
Although it does a pretty poor job of selling the film, you can watch the trailer here
There's one show remaining: on October 2 at 10:30 am at the Empire Granville 2