Gulzar (Gulzar Ahmad Bhat) and his uncle live in a damaged old house near Dal Lake in Kashmir. When Gulzar’s uncle leaves town, Gulzar hits the lake with his friend Afzal (Afzal Sofi), offering boat rides to tourists and doing other odd jobs in order to earn enough money so that the two can leave the country. When a week-long military curfew is implemented in town, leaving only the lake free for folks to come and go, Gulzar and Afzal become more valuable to those who may need some smuggling done here or there. At the same time, a friend trapped in town asks Gulzar to check on the woman renting his houseboat.
Gulzar immediately finds himself drawn into the orbit of Asifa (Neelofar Hamid), who is studying the decaying ecosystem of Dal Lake. As Gulzar and Asifa’s friendship grows, Gulzar and Afzal’s friendship suffers as leaving the country no longer seems to be Gulzar’s top priority.
Valley of Saints is many things at once. It is a tale of enduring friendship, cautionary statement on the importance of the ecosystem and environment, a love story and a patriotic ode. And yet, while carrying all of these various topics and tones on its shoulders, the film never feels too heavy. If anything, it has a light-hearted and sincere nature that is almost disconcerting in its innocence.
Gulzar and Afzal, for example, do not seem like young adults at all. Well, they look like them, but their actions seem more in line with two children, and their interactions with each other match that playfulness. Even when things get tense between the two, it feels less like two angry men and more like two children who have gotten into a small fight and, once one of them takes the ball and goes home, they’ll immediately reconcile the next day.
Valley of Saints also has many moments of compositional beauty. One standout sequence involves Gulzar happily singing as he paddles his boat down the lake through the canal between two houseboats. It’s a simple, lasting image of a cheerful man accented by the beauty on display in the framing and the momentary peace of his surroundings.