By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 5/31/22 – Currently screening at several Laemmle Theatres in the Los Angeles area is Ajitpal Singh’s debut feature film Fire in the Mountains (India, 2021), after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2022. It is the story of a headstrong rural woman who lives In Uttarakhand, a village in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, in India, which backs up to the scenic and towering Himalayas. Writer-director Singh, who is in his 40s, tells a personal story loosely inspired by a real-life family tragedy. This tale of parents driven to distraction by an ailing child – and doing whatever they can to get him treatment despite the most strained of means – isn’t original in itself. However, it feels like something new because of its beauteous setting with the snow-capped mountains in the distance might remind some viewers of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955). Fire in the Mountains empathetically dramatizes the struggles that locals face in a place where tourists come to play in the contemporary age of AirBnB and TikTok.
The film opens with Chandra (Vinamrata Rai) hustling for the business of a family of tourists that have just made their way into the Himalayan hills near Chamba, in Himachal Pradesh. But a rival for her business is there, so, in a bit of anxious comedy, she keeps dropping her price until she’ll barely make any money on the deal. The family accepts and goes to her glorified AirBnb, which Chandra and her family call “Swizerland Homestay.” (Whether or not they become aware of the misspelling is never explained.) If she seemed desperate there, she is: Chandra’s son Prakash (Mayank Singh) isn’t able to walk, and she needs money to continue his orthopedic treatments. The only problem is that, after an earlier injury healed, it seems there’s nothing wrong with his legs. The doctor, frustrated with what he thinks is a psychological problem preventing the boy from standing up, threatens to cut off his legs on the spot. And yet this is the only medical provider available in the small town.
The boy’s father, Dharam (Chandan Bisht), thinks they must have angered a family deity and they must conduct an elaborate ritual in Folk Hinduism called a Jagar instead, as a way of exorcising their bad luck. Then the boy will walk again. But that will cost money too, especially since he’ll require the services of a particularly hostile guru to do it. The Jagar is a ritualized form of ancestor spirit worship still practiced in the hills of Uttarakand. When the only medical provider in the small village fails to find a diagnosis, she moves on with the goal of building a road to take her son Prakash (Mayank Singh) to physiotherapy. However, Chandra’s husband, Dharam (Chandan Bisht), who is a fervent believer in traditional religion, disagrees heavily with Chandra’s science-based methods. Instead, propelled by his faith in shamanistic cultural rituals as the ultimate “cure,” he decides to steal her savings as their familial relationships begin to unravel.
Fire in the Mountains is a conventional tale that pits progressive ideals against tradition. But what makes it work is Singh’s resolve to remain nonjudgmental throughout, apparently inspired by a heartbreaking family tragedy that opened the filmmaker’s eyes to the extent of female-specific struggles in his culture. Staying true to those unbiased instincts, he examines Chandra’s life with respect, even allowing Dharam grace notes of humanity, sometimes seen through the eyes of his family. For example, in one of the film’s many casually attentive scenes, the couple’s daughter Seema (Harshita Tewari) tells her drunk father how sweet he is when he’s sober. We perceive small signs of his charm earlier in the film, too, when Singh underscores humor and warmth in Chandra’s marriage, giving us a small taste of affection in her everyday life. Elsewhere, Singh displays a level of authenticity reminiscent of the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, in his visual, unhurried portrayal of rural life.
Ajitpal Singh’s Fire in the Mountains is a slow burner of a domestic drama, with an explosive finale of a Hindu ritual celebration of the Jagar around an open fire at the end. During this ritualized form of ancestor spirit worship, even Chandra becomes possessed by the spirit of her grandmother and dances like a crazed person pushing back against the men in her village until she dances on the burning coals of the fire. That transformative moment at the end of the film somehow pulls her family together, as her son stands up and rushes to help her. A couple characters, such as an aunt who apparently just abandons the family after an insult, could have used more development. And there’s an intriguing subplot about the family’s daughter, a top student with social media influencer aspirations, developing a following on TikTok by performing Bollywood-style dances, that doesn’t quite go anywhere. But the whole story feels so personal, even if it lacks the craftsmanship of a more seasoned filmmaker,
Despite its seemingly small scale, Singh’s debut screenplay is remarkably ambitious, attempting to tackle lofty thematic goals that many first-time feature filmmakers would opt to either save for future projects or stumble through in their debut. Throughout the accomplished film, a logical trust of western medicine and scientific advancements is juxtaposed with a blind but steady faith in the traditionalist ways of religion, shining light on an age-old conflict. Orchestrating an atmosphere buoyed by Dominique Colin’s visceral photography and the editorial restraint of Parikshhit Jha & Simon Price, Singh breathes out a hypnotic and captivating directorial flair that serves to create a transcendent climax. With surrealist touches, much of the ending is up to the interpretations of one’s belief system, resulting in an atmospheric film.