Ajitpal Singh’s debut feature film Fire in the Mountains is a lot of things. One thing it is not is ordinary.
It’s a story that intertwines superstition, patriarchy and a dreamy hill station’s somber reality. The director’s master storytelling and cinematographer Dominique Colin’s gazing lens takes you on a journey unlike any other.
A Woman Fighting For Survival In a Man’s World
The film is set in Uttarakhand’s Munsiyari region and revolves around Chandra (played by the stunning Vinamrata Rai) and her family.
Chandra runs a homestay named “Swizerland,” it’s not the easiest place to reach but it comes with the best view and the best Pahadi food. Good deal, no?
Chandra’s desperate attempts to get guests often results in her having to haggle for a few hundred rupees. But she’s determined and she’s head-strong.
To be fair, she doesn’t even have a choice. She needs the money to get her son treated. Prakash has lost the ability to walk and she has to piggyback him everywhere – to the doctor’s clinic, to his school, or wherever he needs to go.
Her husband, Dharam, is of no help. A drunkard who spends away her hard-earned money in foolish endeavours, he’s convinced that the family has been cursed by ancestors and only a ritual will steer them clear of anymore “bad luck.” Her teenage daughter is a rebel and her widowed sister-in-law, somewhat of a burden.
Despite her single-handedly running their lives, we’re constantly reminded that Chandra is not the boss of the house. She can never be. She’s a woman after all. A good-for-nothing man is still a better choice for that position than Chandra.
Empathy For All, Sympathy For One
As much as we see Chandra fighting though – Dharam, society’s sense of morality, the political system – there is one place where she too becomes a victim of internalised misogyny.
She actively despises her daughter Kanchan’s attempts to become something and her sister-in-law Kamla’s presence in her home. She disregards Kanchan’s achievements and leaves her to tend to household chores when she discovers her social media activity.
She also doesn’t seem to understand that both of them feel lonely, even as they are surrounded by family.
On the other hand, Prakash attempts to take the moral high ground by being mean to his mother.
But the interesting part is that while you and I may judge the characters, the film never does. Singh’s directorial gaze is even throughout, portraying empathy for the characters even in their vilest moments.
There’s a redemption arc for each of them, with all characters fleshed out so beautifully, so full of complications, that you know everyone is there for a reason.
Politics, Superstitions, & Divine Intervention
If there’s one glaring theme, apart from a sense of inequity, throughout the film, it’s superstition. Dharam believes that his ancestors are enraged at him and that he has to make sacrifices to ensure peace for them.
This idea follows the film till the climax, when he finally performs Jagar, a Shamanic ritual. This religious and political undertone in the film is also symbolic of the two forces that keep all of Chandra’s dreams at bay – if it’s not her husband, it’s the priest, or the local politician, or the cop.
The radio commentary in the background may roar of India’s progress, but she still has to trek many, many kilometres each day because her village doesn’t have a road. Add to this a man-animal conflict in the region and you have the recipe for a tough, tough life.
Fire in the Mountains reminds you constantly that the lives of the people vacationing in picturesque mountains will never be the same as the people living there.
The film’s social commentary is pretty relevant and appropriate, and the best bit about it is that it doesn’t try to shove its message forcefully on you.
The ending, as unsettling as it is, is cinematically beautiful. I can’t wait to see what Singh does next.
Fire in the Mountains is a 2021 film that premiered at Sundance Film Festival and was the official selection of the festival that year. It is now streaming on SonyLiv.