Valley of Flowers
Director: Pan Nalin
Writer(s): Pal Nalin, Sarah Besan Shennib, Anurag Kashyap
Country: India, Germany, France
“Valley of Flowers” is a mystical romance of epic proportion directed by Pan Nalin (best known for film “Samsara”). The story spans from high in the Indian Himalayas all the way to the island of Japan. The story follows the same path for the spread of Buddhism and is filled with Tibetan Buddhist mythology and Tantric tradition. This imaginative story brings us to the Ladakh region of the 19th century. It is beautifully filmed (cinematography by Michal Englert) with superb attention to details of that age (art direction by Emma Pucci and Abid T. P.). Despite the brilliance of the film, it seems to have escaped the attention and recognition it deserves. In this review, I will try to fill in details left unexamined by the gap in critical coverage on the film, so spoilers cannot be avoided. I recommend seeing the film before reading this review.
The film opens with a group of bandits robbing caravans on Silk Road. Eventually, we find out that oppression from rich landlords in their native lands pushed them into this life of crime.
We were outcasts before we were outlaws, explains the group leader, Jalan (Milind Soman).
They do not enjoy crime, and they have a certain code of honor: they do not kill the robbed, just take their luxury trade items – silk, gold, perfumes, minerals, aphrodisiacs, etc. and sell them later. The latest caravan leaves something more behind however, a mysterious woman named Ushna (Mylene Jampanoi). She does not respond when being shunned away by the group, and only speaks when she sees Jalan. She cryptically tells him
You are the one I have seen in my dreams. Take me with you.
To the surprise of his comrades, Jalan is intrigued by her beauty and takes Ushna with them. She becomes part of the band and helps them out by revealing where other Silk Road paths are with more caravans to rob. One day Jalan secretly watches Ushna dressing in women’s clothing (as she has been “shamelessly” wearing men’s clothing before) and hears her singing. It is then that he starts falling in love with her. That night instead of taking her in the darkness of the tent as he had been, he explores her body in detail. Jalan notices she doesn’t possess her “Center of the Universe”, a naval, leading him to guess how she could have been born like that. Her vast knowledge of the Himalayas, strange habits, mysterious past and lack of a naval are first few clues that she is not just a lost woman. Jalan becomes so blinded with passion for her; however, that he doesn’t question anything she does or suggests anymore. He allows her to lead the band through a very difficult passage away from their usual robbing areas.
At the same time, a mysterious old man that people call Yeti (Naseeruddin Shah) starts pursuing the band and seems to be very interested in Ushna and Jalan’s relationship. Jalan and Ushna are seeking an astrologist in a mountain village to tell their fortune. The mystic explains that there is not a future for them together, but Ushna does not want to give in to destiny. She performs a ritual to steal luck from other people (even though the astrologist warns them that “Robbing other peoples luck will not take you further”). They go into the mountains seeking more non-material treasures where an ascetic yogi has mastered the power of levitation. They steal his power by showing him a mirror (the ultimate goal in many Hindu and Buddhist meditation traditions is the state of “losing oneself” and realization that there is no “you”. Therefore by showing the mirror they reminded yogi of his own existence). Jalan’s companions are not happy with their new methods, and Jalan’s right hand, Jampa, confronts him about it. We can tell that Jampa is not unhappy just because they broke their code of honor and brotherhood, but he is also envious of Ushna, whom he has had an eye for since the beginning. Jalan understand this ulterior motive and in a momentary of blind rage he shoots Jampa dead. The rest of band abandons him and Ushna, but Jalan reasons that
It’s not about who you live with, but who you can’t live without.
Yeti closes in on them; however, and the lovers get separated when Jalan falls of a bridge into a river during a fight. Ushna escapes, but then confronts Yeti in his tent, asking about Jalan. More is revealed about the supernatural nature of Ushna in this scene as Yeti says to her, “Your form of sensual beauty is not enough to make Jalan yours.” Yeti tries to perform a ritual, but Ushna escapes before he can finish.
Jalan survives the fall and doesn’t drown, possibly because of the luck he previously stole. He wakes up in a Buddhist monastery and soon reunites with Ushna. She tells him about a Valley of Flowers, a place where they can be together (it is not explained in the movie what it is exactly, but my guess that is a reference to Pure Land Buddhism of Japan and Lotus Sutra. Practitioners there seek to be reborn in the land of Amida Buddha from where the path to Enlightenment and Nirvana is easier to achieve), but Jalan has another plan. In the monastery he heard about a Valley of Silence and a yogi, Atman, who makes an elixir of immortality (in Buddhism term atman means a “true self, ego”, goal of meditation is to understand the atman and then to let go of it). Jalan and Ushna steal the elixir, drink it, and in the morning wake up to see a lot of guns pointed at them. Yeti, his comrades, and other people who have been robbed by the lovers corner them together. Yeti tries to use a damaru (a Tibetian drum) and a kangling (a horn made out of human thighbone; Source: Wikipedia) to perform a chöd (Source: Wikipedia) ritual, but he cannot perform the ritual since nothing but human voices are heard in the Valley of Silence. Laughing at Yeti’s failure and showing off his newly gained immortality, Jalan tells Ushna to shoot him. Ushna shoots Jalan, and then he shoots her, but to his surprise she falls down dead while he is left in an immortal body. Yeti explains to him:
My intention was never to kill you. And even if it was, I can think of no worse punishment than to let you live forever.
At this point we understand that the encounter with Atman is a metaphor. The “self-ego” intuitively wants to live and cling to life, which is only an illusion. Becoming immortal is the ultimate in clinging to life, but it is a very different goal than the Buddhist ideal of reaching the Nirvana. Here, immortality only brings more suffering to our characters.
Jalan performs a ritual burial for Ushna by cremating her and starts his walking. We see him walking through the ages and the story continues into modern day Tokyo. There, a controversial Indian doctor is practicing euthanasia. Jalan ends up on TV news when he jumps off a 62-story building and lives. A female singer, Sayuri, sees the news and finds Jalan in a police station. He is about to be taken to a mental hospital, but she takes him into her care to get him out instead. Jalan is about to depart in a metro station to the airport when he recognizes that Sayuri is an incarnation of Ushna, and the lovers are reunited. Sayuri explains how she was suffering in samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth), being born each time with no memories of past life but one – a memory of her love. This is her fifth incarnation, and she is tired of her suffering. Jalan suggests immortality to her as he had saved the elixir from Atman. They both drink it near a Buddhist temple; however, in the morning they awaken to see Yeti again. They run from him only to be hit by a truck transporting flowers. Sayuri/Ushna gets up unharmed, but Jalan, having drunk the elixir again, lost his immortality and is dead. Sayuri returns to Yeti in tears, and he finally performs his ritual. When the fog clears, we see that all that is left of her is the stone face of a demon (the same one we see in the beginning of the movie when it falls from one of the bags in a caravan). Yeti takes it to the shore of the ocean, where we see two statues guarding a Torii, the traditional Shinto (and sometimes Buddhist) shrine entrance. Yeti places the demon face on the statue that had been missing it and leaves the place with the overwhelming sound of ocean in the background.
The fatal love story between Jalan and Ushna has a Buddhist teaching. Ushna, an immortal creature broke the laws of nature by pursuing love with a mortal (or dharma, which is the rightful way of living and being, term used in Hindu and Buddhist traditions Source: Wikipedia). We can see how Jalan is corrupted step by step and how he changes. First he feels desire for Ushna which leads to attachment. Then he starts feeling deep passion for her, but only after seeing her naked body in the light and hearing her sing. He falls in love with an illusion; however, since Ushna’s physical form is not real, nor is her singing, which she “copied” from a female shepherd in the mountains (there are Buddhist practices where monks meditate near female corpses to truly understand how impermanent the sensual pleasure and beauty of the flesh is). Jalan compromises his code of honor when he begins to steal the vital energy of innocent mountain shepherds and rob people of their luck. Eventually, blinded by jealousy he shoots his best friend.
In a single shot, you’ve blown twenty five years of our past, our history. Don’t do the same with the future,” Hak-chi tells Jalan after the event.
However Jalan is burning with passion and cannot focus or think clearly. This “burning” is symbolically encoded in their names. Ushna says her name means fire (though I did not find exact etymology, she mentions “agha”, which is close to Agni, god of fire in Hindu religion, and in urdu “Ushna” means fragrance of a flower, which is also connected to the movie), and “Jalan” means flame. Ushna’s “fire” made Jalan burn in passion and jealousy (the word “jealousy” is also connected to the etymology of “Jalan”).
Passion and peace can never live together, says Yeti.
And indeed neither character can find peace in their life or in their mind. Fighting dharma makes the universe work against you, and the cosmic law of justice, karma, is unavoidable. The lovers are punished by switching their lives. Jalan becomes immortal, with all his memories about Ushna, and Ushna becomes mortal and has to suffer in a cycle of samsara.
The other character that is very interesting and mysterious is Yeti. He is well known by people in the area, including Jalan’s bandit band. He lives in a mountain cave, and we get a glimpse of it once, seeing potions, weapons and chained people there. It is never explained who he is exactly, but one sure thing people know is that he likes to drink alcohol. He uses instruments belonging to the tradition of chöd, a spiritual practice in Tibetan Buddhism. It was not a mainstream practice; the chodpa’s lived on the fringe of society near burial grounds or haunted places. They were often associated with shamanism and exorcism and referred to as “mad saints”. Their goal was to reach ultimate wisdom through the emptiness of existence (Source: Wikipedia).
Reality is caused by alcohol deficiency- is a memorable Yeti quote.
Though funny, this quote has a deep meaning. In Tantric Buddhism, reality is like a “big dream.” Everything is an illusion, even samsara and nirvana. The only way to escape this illusion is to go beyond the concept of things, which is impossible using the rational mind and logic (Source: Wikipedia). Thus Yeti’s alcohol consumption is like a metaphor for this. Though at first we are led to think Yeti is hunting Jalan for his crimes, we later discover he is actually after Ushna. At one point, he is referred to as “demon hunter”, which gives another clue to what Ushna is. He disappears into the mountains after Ushna’s death, but appears again in Japan as soon as Jalan and Sayuri/Ushna reunite. He looks slightly different and speaks Japanese, but essentially has the same role – to restore the balance of nature. The movement of the action from India to Japan is symbolic of the movement of Buddhism. As it came through China to Japan, it transformed a lot with different movements and interpretations, however the essence was still the same. In Japan there was even a similar tradition to chöd; the practitioners were ascetic hermits called yamabushi. They were said to possess supernatural powers, and their Shugendo doctrine was a mixture of esoteric Buddhism of the Shingon sect and Tendai Buddhism (Source: Wikipedia). My guess is that the manifestation of Yeti in Japan is a reference to the founder of the yamabushi doctrine Shugendo, En no Gyoja. This historical figure is also referred to as Jinben Daibosatsu, or Great Boddhistava Jinben (A boddhistava is a person who is able to reach nirvana, but refuses to do so out of compassion to other suffering beings and dedicates his life to helping others to reach the Enlightenment) (Source: Wikipedia). This would explain the conclusion of the film when Yeti says:
One who can turn conflict into collaboration is Buddha.
Then he gives a flower to Jalan, and we see that Sayuri/Ushna is disturbed by this. Moments after that, the lovers run out and are hit by the flower truck. When Sayuri/Ushna runs back to Yeti, he states:
The balance has been restored. Thank you for your collaboration, my child.
You promised me you will give us more time together,- Sayuri responds.
Your sacrifice is your true love. Lovers are not eternal, but love is,- he says with deep compassion in his eyes.
My interpretation is that Sayuri/Ushna made a deal with Yeti that she would give in and help him restore nature’s balance. She would return to where she came from, retrieve her immortality, and have to exist eternally with the memory of her true love. In return, she asked Yeti to help Jalan get into the Valley of Flowers (or Pure Land of Amida Buddha), which he supposedly can do as Boddhistava. This is why Sayuri asked Jalan to drink the Elixir of Immortality despite knowing that he would turn mortal again. Knowing what it meant, she was upset seeing Yeti give the symbolic flower to Jalan.
“Valley of Flowers” is truly a masterpiece of cinema. Surprisingly, it was made with a budget of only around six million dollars, which you would never guess while watching it. Moreover, what is “awe inspiring” is the fact that it was shot in the Himalayas, requiring the international crew to live in tents for weeks. They also made some of the highest shots in film history (see making of “Valley of Flowers”). I express my deepest respect to self-taught filmmaker, Pan Nalin. His incredible vision and determination made his dream project happen even with all the difficulties that arose.
While Hollywood films usually teach us “true love conquers all,” “Valley of Flowers” has a different perspective on the topic coming from the rationale of a different culture. It is helpful to understand the basic ideas of Buddhist philosophy in order to understand a lot of the plot turns in the film, but it is not necessary to know all the details to enjoy the film. I truly hope that Pan Nalin will make more films in the future, both to watch them and for the attention they will bring to “Valley of Flowers.” It would be such a loss if this gem of cinema remains hidden in obscurity.