"Valley of Saints" is a quintessential festival movie, transporting audiences to Dal Lake, considered the jewel of Kashmir but spoiled by untreated sewage, garbage, weeds and unregulated development.
Gulzar (Gulzar Ahmad Bhat), who resides with his uncle in a mud-brick house with a leaky roof, makes his living ferrying tourists in a boat called a shikara. "Floating garden, lotus lake, market -- and coming back," he tells sightseers bargaining for the best price.
He plots to escape by bus from Kashmir with his childhood friend, Afzal (Afzal Sofi), to "Mumbai, Delhi, wherever we want," but a military crackdown and curfew force them to stay put.
When Gulzar is hired to check on a houseboat and make food for the young Kashmiri-American researcher (Neelofar Hamid) staying there, he gets a lesson in the ecosystem rotting under his feet, a chance to reevaluate the beauty and worth of his home and even the opportunity to try to connect with a young woman again.
Writer-director Musa Syeed, the son of Kashmiri parents, cast largely non-professionals, worked for two months with a crew of just three and improvised, which may account for the loose, sometimes meandering nature of the film. Some threads are introduced but wither without adequate exploration.
But he captures the tug of war over life and death -- of the lake and the residents -- and question of whether the saints have forgotten Kashmir and if Gulzar should do likewise.
An orphan who is treated cruelly and meets a tragic (or, occasionally, triumphant) end is nothing new to the movies or to literature.
But Mukesh (Shadab Kamal) is a victim of especially cruel twists of fate in this film inspired by Mohan Sikka's short story, "The Railway Aunty," included in a book called "Delhi Noir." It hews to the spine of the tale but ventures into darker, far more depressing territory by the conclusion.
The story opens shortly after Mukesh's parents are killed in an accident and he lands in New Delhi with an aunt and uncle. When the college student -- treated with hostility by a cousin -- asks his aunt to borrow some money to print fliers advertising his services as a tutor, she refuses. "No point wasting money on silly schemes."
He stumbles into an improbable, lucrative and erotic scheme of his own, thanks to one of his aunt's married friends, Sakira (Shilpa Shukla). She seduces him and indoctrinates him in the ways of sex and soon sends him out to service others, as well.
He initially had protested, "I am not that kind of a boy!" but when his sisters are sent to a girls' home, his need for money and independence grows ever more desperate. But, this unlikely gigolo trusts the wrong people, and the melodrama grows increasingly lurid, harrowing and bleak, with Mukesh and others paying the price for his well-intentioned but ruinous actions.
Like the serial favored by one of the ladies in his little black book, the pitch here becomes ever more feverish, unsettling and off-putting by the admittedly dramatic end.