Kashmiri Movie, Made With Local Cast And Crew, Premieres In City

Kashmiri Movie, Made With Local Cast And Crew, Premieres In City

23 October 2012
The Indian Express
Alaka Sahani

Srinagar: It was quest for identity - atypical of 20-somethings - that took Musa Syeed to Kashmir after nearly two decades. The Kashmiri-American had not spent much time in the homeland of his parents till 2009. His father was a political prisoner in Kashmir in the 1960s and after setting foot in the US he never intended to go back. But Syeed visited the Valley as soon as he could afford on his own and returned rich with the idea of making his first feature film - Valley of Saints. This Kashmiri language movie, which won the audience award at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and which has been shown at many international festivals, premieres in India on October 24. It will be screened at the 14th Mumbai Film Festival where it is in competition for First Feature Films of Directors. “Making the film was my way of reconnecting with my family. I also hope it opened a window to this misunderstood and forgotten place,” Syeed says. From the start, he was certain he wanted to take the film beyond the headlines and give Kashmir a human face. That he hoped to achieve through an unusual love story between a conflict-wary local boatman and a foreigner researching on the Dal Lake. But the unrest of 2010 threatened to put a spanner in his plan. “When I visited in 2009, there was the occasional hartal, but things seemed mostly calm. Believing that it would be easy to work in Kashmir, I wrote a draft of the script that included lots of locations and characters,” Syeed recalls. However, when he went there to shoot the film a year later, he had to adapt to the circumstances. “I cut down the locations and focused on the Dal Lake. We did not bring the cast and crew from America. I couldn’t pretend that the curfew wasn’t happening, so we had to incorporate it in the film,” he says. These changes, Syeed believes, made the film more real. Making the film under curfew in many ways required absence of planning. “We didn’t know what would be available to us on the day of the shoot, so we had to improvise. After we decided not to bring an actress from America, it was impossible to arrange auditions during the curfew. We found a producer with some kind of permit that allowed him to get past military checkpoints. He brought us a couple of actresses, we auditioned them by the lake side, and that’s how we found Neelofar Hamid,” he says. Once Syeed chose to use the lake’s dismal condition as a metaphor for Kashmir’s, it was clear to him the central character of the movie would have to be a boatman. “I wanted that to be played by an actual boatman,” he says. The filmmaker visited all the shikara stands on the lake and found Gulzar Ahmad. “He had a great presence - not to mention a great singing voice.” Another unexpected benefit of shooting on the lake came from the local community. They helped the crew with everything that they needed - from transportation to food to an extra set of hands on the set. “Our biggest problems came up when we left the lake. We had to deal with issues such as corrupt police officers or children who, mimicking the protesters, threw stones at us,” Syeed says. For Syeed, the best reaction to the movie came when his father, who hasn’t been to Kashmir in 25 years, broke down after watching it. He hopes to show the movie in Kashmir soon. “I hope it’s something that Kashmiri youth in particular can be proud of,” says the director. His next feature film is set in America even though the main character is Indian. “This time, I’m hoping to make a film under slightly more controlled circumstances,” he adds.