Sundance 2021: Fire In The Mountains Is A Triumph Of Textural Filmmaking

This story is of a reactive India rather than an original one – a recognition of the fated, not the isolated
Sundance 2021: Fire In The Mountains Is A Triumph Of Textural Filmmaking

Director: Ajitpal Singh
Cast: Vinamrata Rai, Chandan Bisht, Sonal Jha, Harshita Tewari, Mayank Singh Jaira

Every character of Ajitpal Singh's debut feature, Fire in the Mountains, is the star of their own little film. Chandra (Vinamrata Rai) strives to be the hero of an authentic female empowerment story: Her son is in a wheelchair, her husband is a God-fearing drunk, her teen daughter is flirting with puberty, her sister-in-law is a bitter widow, her village is roadless and she is the de facto runner of a modest Himalayan homestay. Her loneliness is too crowded; her pragmatism is at odds with the regressive rage of her surroundings. Dharam (Chandan Bisht) thinks he is the misunderstood hero of a dysfunctional family drama: He is an alcoholic, his son is crippled, his wife is fighting a losing (and expensive) battle with medical science and rural development, and he is convinced that Hindu divinity is the only remedy. Kanchan (Harshita Tewari) is the sprightly teen star of a sociocultural coming-of-age tale: Her brother is the central focus, she is a gifted student, the bright future of an unlettered family, but she also nurses a secret life of adolescent love and tiktok videos. Kamla (Sonal Jha) is the tragic protagonist of a dark psychological drama: She feels like an imposter in the family, she is a widow, her mental health is deteriorating, and she resents Chandra for being a woman of agency and hope. 

The Uttarakhandi region of Munsiyari is the hero of a geopolitical satire. In some of its lanes, the radio coyly reveals news reports of religion – like the Prime Minister inaugurating the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. In others, the radio proudly features reports of science – like India finally becoming a Space superpower. It struggles to host the intersection of two Indias: the adults hinder its progress to manipulate tourism, and the kids shoot viral videos in its woods. 

Even the son of an urban couple at the homestay is the face of an activist origin story: He is curious about the villagers, the superstitious setting, the family feuds. And last but not least, there's Prakash, the complex hero of a disability drama: He is a sixth grader in a wheelchair, the fallen apple of his mother's eye, the mute driver of the family's misfortunes. Chandra carries him up and down the hill to the clinic, without making him feel like a burden on her shoulders. Early on, we see a few hints of Prakash's reticent personality. He is skillfully painting a pillow, he spends nights star-gazing with his faithful dog – an allusion to the fact that perhaps Prakash is an artistic soul, a sensitive misfit in a village full of bullies and traditional masculinity. School is not his thing. People are not his thing. One senses he isn't missing a 'normal' childhood. Only Chandra seems to get him, but somewhere along the way, even her empathy is hijacked by her growing desperation to fix him. 

Fire in the Mountains is no stranger to physical detail. It resists the temptation of overplaying the natural beauty of the setting. The cinematography is spare in its flights of Himalayan fancy – restrictive in atmosphere and exotic imagery so that we sense the urgency of residents defying the serenity of their background. These people survive on monetizing the allure of beauty, so the viewer is not quite supposed to see the scenic hill-stations of glossy brochures: the name of Chandra's homestay, "Swizerland," mirrors the remoteness of a community that's always a missing alphabet away from attracting the attention of governments and Bollywood songs. The locals don't have time to vacantly stare into valleys; the camera can't afford to give spaces the luxury of time. 

The restrained visual palette and performances reflect director Ajitpal Singh's keen sense of cultural translation

More importantly, Fire in the Mountains is perceptive in its construction of human individualism. Chandra's film is the one we see. It's her underdog perspective that is suited to give us a panoramic view of the land. More often than not, movies introduce protagonists like Chandra as a magically enlightened misfit – they're progressive and "different" because a film is being made about them. But Vinamrata Rai's performance exudes the unwritten, even if a few stereotypes around her (a sleazy pradhaan, for example, looks straight out of an 80s potboiler) threaten to derail her narrative. She turns Chandra into an accidental doer, a person whose pragmatism is a consequence of crisis. She wants roads and development in her village to make her son's life easier, not because she's a pathbreaker amidst plebeians. She has probably spent years observing the armchair activism of her city-slicking guests, which is why she represents the middle ground between her daughter's "reckless" liberalism and her husband's blind conformism. Her fight is far from romantic; it's necessary, selfless, and by extension, selfish. 

In a way, the restrained visual palette and performances also reflect director Ajitpal Singh's keen sense of cultural translation. The film is reportedly inspired by a personal tragedy: the death of Singh's cousin triggered by her husband's refusal to hospitalize her after he believed her to be possessed by ghosts. But Singh resists the natural starkness of this tragedy – instead adapting it to fit the slow-burning confines of a familial drama. It's not so much about what he went through as it is about the hidden subtext of heritage. Threatened by the modernity of urban vacationers, it's the locals of tourist destinations who tend to overcompensate with their aggressive preservation of tradition. As a result, this story is of a reactive India rather than an original one – a recognition of the fated, not the isolated. After all, a fire in the mountains is often defined by how fast it spreads.

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