Feature directing debutant Ajitpal Singh’s “Fire In The Mountains,” the lone Indian film in Sundance 2021’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition, is a powerful feminist tale told by a male who learnt to face down his own prejudices.
Set in a tourist homestay in the Himalayan foothills of northern India, the film centers around a woman (Vinamrata Rai), the sole breadwinner of the household, who scrimps and saves for her son’s medical treatment, while her alcoholic husband believes that an expensive shamanic ritual is the answer to all their woes.
Singh, who had previously directed several shorts, including the Oberhausen festival-winning “Rammat-Gammat” (2018), says that he found himself not heeding advice from his wife, sister and mother, while having plenty of time to listen to the men of the house.
“I understood my own prejudices, how it’s so deep-rooted, and how just with education and by reading books, it doesn’t just go away,” Singh told Variety. “You have to identify and then you have to work on it and it’s a constant process. You need to learn to question these power dynamics on a day-to-day basis, how just by being, we are unfair to women.”
Singh’s self-realization has resulted in a film that is deeply empathetic to women, yet doesn’t reduce men to caricatures.
“Fire In The Mountains” also the brings out the stark divide between urban India, as represented by tourists, and the hardy hill folk in the film. The film is set in the Munsiyari region in Uttarakhand, North India, mostly in Sarmoli, a hamlet with its own Instagram page.
There is a scene in the film Singh refers to that illustrates his point. Of an evening, the tourist family on the homestay villa stoop are lost in their respective beeping, twinkling, flashing devices, while the caretakers rustle up a nutritious meal for their guests. Singh has experience of both sides of the divide, having spent his childhood in a village before moving to a city. Many Indian villages, like the one depicted in the film, struggle for basic infrastructure, like roads, which the cities take for granted.
“You completely forget that the reality in the villages is still not the same,” says Singh. “The reality in the cities is very different from the India that you think is India. This is actually how we are.”
The film was part of the work in progress lab at India’s Film Bazaar, where it won an award in 2019. It is produced by Alan McAlex and Ajai Rai of prolific Indian arthouse producers Jar Pictures alongside Mauli Singh and Amit Mehta. Jar previously produced Busan title “Children of the Sun” and Toronto title “The Elder One.”
The trend these days is for most independent films to go directly to a streaming platform after a festival run. “A film festival is usually the only time for a filmmaker to experience the film on a bigger screen,” says Singh. Due to the pandemic, Sundance 2021 is also largely online. While he will miss the thrill of watching the film with a physical audience, Singh and his producers didn’t want to wait any longer to show the film to the world.
“I think even the film festivals have found an opportunity to find more audiences by going virtual,” said Singh. “I don’t think they are going to go back to being completely physical in future.”