Director: Ajitpal Singh
Cast: Vinamrata Rai, Chandan Bisht, Sonal Jha, Harshita Tewari, Mayank Singh Jaira
Fire in the Mountains is a film of startling beauty. The story is set in a village in the Munsiyari region in Uttarakhand. The film begins with a visual of a woman running across a bridge amidst verdant mountains with a gushing waterfall and a sky that is sharp blue, like the color of Paul Newman's eyes. But within seconds, debutant director Ajitpal Singh slices through the striking scenery.
The woman Chandra and another man haggle with arriving tourists. Both run homestays. They keep lowering their prices, hoping to snag the customer. Chandra then carries their luggage on her head up the winding path to her home. The tourists stop at a scenic spot to take a selfie. They don't offer to help Chandra with the luggage. Meanwhile, a radio in the background drones on about India becoming a superpower. Which when you consider Chandra's reality, feels like a perverse joke. So does the name of her homestay – Switzerland. The terrain might resemble the European country but the living conditions are far removed.
Which doesn't deter Chandra, a woman imbued with stoic strength. She runs the homestay and works as a human mule, carrying luggage, crops and even her son Prakash up and down the mountain path. There is no road and her son cannot walk. He hasn't been to school in five months. An accident damaged his legs but we are never given details about what exactly happened. Now Chandra lugs him up and down for visits to the physiotherapist. She's desperate to see the road built. It's a promise the government has been making for four years. There is talk of a minister visiting, the local Pradhan says he will push the project but nothing happens. Chandra also has to contend with her bungling husband Dharam, her widowed sister-in-law and her smart but stubborn teenage daughter whose hormonally-charged online activities range from fun to risky.
Through the snapshot of one family, struggling to stay afloat, Ajitpal constructs a strident critique of globalized India. There is a sharp contrast between the guests at the homestay and the actual residents of the home. In a telling scene, we see all the guests lost in their own flashing devices. Even when surrounded by such breathtaking scenery, they are tethered to their phones. This new connected world is also changing the contours of Chandra's world. The film is peppered with radio commentary about the country's progress but there is little evidence of it in Munsiyari. This village continues to be paradise lost.
There are several shots in which characters are framed in windows and doorways that reflect their circumscribed lives
Fire in the Mountains reminded me of Ken Loach's Sorry We Missed You, also about a family perched precariously on the edge of disaster. These are ordinary people chasing small dreams – a steady income, a future for their children – but even these elude them. Dharam believes that their troubles will end when they appease the gods with a religious ceremony called jagar. Chandra tries to find more practical solutions. But her climb, literal and metaphorical, only gets steeper.
The film is entirely shot on location and unfolds with a lived-in authenticity. With careful detailing, Ajitpal immerses us into the minutiae of this family. He shows us their relationship with each other and the spaces of their threadbare home. Darshan likes his drink. He's tried and failed at many things but Chandra treats him with forgiving affection. But Ajitpal doesn't let Dharam off the hook. He is a drunkard and a freeloader. Chandra is the spine of the family. There's a lovely scene in which they are in bed, laughing together – a flash of joy in the relentless grind of their daily lives. Ajitpal builds intimate moments like this. Each time Chandra carries Prakash down to the main road, they stop at a particular turn so he can pluck a flower and put it in her hair. Later, this tender connection between mother and son becomes heart-breaking.
Vinamrata Rai has a steely grace as Chandra. It's a tough role – even physically – but we never catch her acting. Her anguish cuts deep. But Vinamrata also captures the brittleness in Chandra and her flashes of cruelty, especially toward her sister-in-law. It's as though her harsh circumstances have inserted flint in her soul. Chandan Bisht is also very good as Dharam, a man frustrated by his own weaknesses and inability to do more for his family. And keep an eye out for newbies Harshita Tewari and Mayank Singh Jaira who play the children. Both are excellent. Mayank has a wise melancholy on his face, almost as if he knows that their struggle is futile.
Ajitpal deftly combines the realistic textures of a documentary with the drama of fiction. DoP Dominique Colin showcases the natural beauty of Munsiyari but also the confined spaces of the family. There are several shots in which characters are framed in windows and doorways that reflect their circumscribed lives. Ajitpal and Dominique permeate their tragedy with lyricism. Which makes it more haunting.
Later, I kept thinking about Chandra – her toil and her sacrifice. Fire in the Mountains is a powerful and empathetic portrayal of the load that women carry. There is a rage in it that will move you.