Kashimiri films making news at American film festivals isnâ€™t commonplace. This year, US-based, Kashmir-origin filmmaker Musa Syeedâ€™s debut film Valley of Saints (or Pir Vaer in Kashmiri) has made all the right noises after it opened at the Sundance Festival in Utah, US. The feature tells the story of Gulzar, a shikarawallah, who plans to abandon his conflict-torn village in Kashmir with his friend, but comes across a beautiful young woman, researching the dying Dal Lake, who leads him to envision a different future. In conversation with Riyaz Wani, the 27-year-old director unveils a lesser known face of Kashmirâ€”of universal love, hope and dreams.
Tell us a little about how you came about the idea of the film.
My parents were born and raised in Kashmir, which they told me was the most beautiful place in the world. However, it was a place I didnâ€™t know growing up. My father immigrated to America in the 70s, after he was released from a Kashmiri jail as a political prisoner. I was born and raised in America, but my parents were mostly silent about their past life in Kashmir. We werenâ€™t taught our language, and we stopped visiting our family members still living there. So Kashmir was only a figment of my imagination.
However, a few years ago, I felt the natural longing for home, for my roots, for my place in the world. So, as soon as I could afford a ticket, I went back to Kashmir, the first time in nearly 20 years. What I had known about Kashmir until that point had largely been about the conflict, but going back, I began to have a more personal connection to the place. I wanted to tell a new, different story about Kashmir from what audiences are used to seeing, something more personal than political.
Why did you choose the environmental degradation of Dal Lake as the subject of your film?
The lake is just such a visually interesting and unique setting. What interested me about it first was that it is a â€œliving lakeâ€, that it is a kind of water-world, where thousands of inhabitants row themselves around island shops and villages. I thought the lifestyle of the community of boat people was fascinating and had great cinematic potential. But then I also came to know about the serious environmental problemsâ€”raw sewage and overdevelopment among them. This great landmark was under threat, and I felt like all Kashmiris, regardless of their background, were concerned for its future. I thought approaching the environmental angle on Kashmir would be a way to explore something not often talked about that is still true to the place, while at the same time engaging a global concern.
Dal Lake in your film, however, is a searing metaphor for the prevailing political situation in the state.
Iâ€™m interested in how the political situation affects people personally. Everyone in Kashmir has been touched by the conflict in some way, and there is a general sense of loss and nostalgia for the way things used to be. But despite the political state, people find a way to carry on. I found it interesting that the feeling of loss was also true of Dal Lake. This symbol of pride and international recognition is going to waste, and Kashmiris long for the bygone glory days of the lake. Iâ€™ve tried to explore the lake as an allegory for Kashmir as a whole, but with a positive outlook: great beauty and life in the face of destruction. While much has been lost, for Kashmiris and for the Dal, there can be hope for what remains and for a different future.
Kashmir is primarily known as a conflict zone internationally, and most films, documentaries and literature have not highlighted anything different. You have chosen to tell a human story instead.
My film will probably be the first introduction many Americans have to Kashmir. From my own experience, I can say that the way Kashmir is usually talked about and perceivedâ€”only as a â€œproblemâ€ or an â€œissueâ€â€”doesnâ€™t allow for those unfamiliar with the politics to develop a human connection with the region and its people. We need more personal, human stories coming out of Kashmir to help create some common ground. Ultimately, people donâ€™t empathise with politicsâ€”they empathise with people. I donâ€™t think we should ignore the politics, but that canâ€™t always define the entirety of our stories and conversations.
For Western audiences who see Valley of Saints, the beautiful, unique world of Dal Lake may be foreign, but the filmâ€™s characters will be very familiar to them. Gulzar, the protagonist of the film, searches for his place in the world, for love. These are universal struggles that anyone can relate to. If audiences can empathise with the filmâ€™s characters, then maybe they can begin to understand Kashmir.
You shot the movie through the autumn of 2010 when Kashmir was going through a period of unprecedented unrest. Just beyond the Dal Lake, there were protests, stone throwing and killingsâ€¦
We came to Kashmir knowing that there was a curfew in place, expecting to be trapped on the lake for the duration of production. And that was mostly the case. We were afraid of what would happen if we ventured beyond the tourist haven of the lake into the unpredictable city. We often heard tear gas shells firing and gun shots a couple miles from where we were. At first, we made only small attempts to capture the military presence around us. When I tried to film soldiers, I would be yelled at and ordered to stop, as I was thought to be a local protesting youth. So, our cinematographer, Yoni Brook, would go out on his own to military checkpoints in his finest tourist outfitâ€”a floppy hat, T-shirt, and sandals. With a small camera he would pretend to be a tourist, posing with them and literally handing them the camera. Thus the feared soldiers became photographers. Our camera and photographer deemed not a threat, we were able to get closer to the soldiers and film them more intimately.
Tell us about a few spine-chilling moments of the shoot.
Perhaps one of the scariest moments was during a shoot in a graveyard. A group of youth started throwing rocks at us, mimicking the protesters on the streets. I thought they missed us, but then I saw Gulzar, my lead actor, clutching his head, his hand bloodied. It was a painful sight to see. I got him out of harmâ€™s way, tended to the wound as best as I could, and took him to a doctor. Although the wound didnâ€™t turn out to be so serious, it certainly frightened me. Not long after that, while we were shooting at a bus station, our cinematographer Yoni fractured his foot. He finished the final weeks of shooting with a cast on his foot, a crutch under one arm, happily creating the third leg of a full-body tripod.
Riyaz Wani is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.