‘Fire in the Mountains’ Review: The Story of a Headstrong Rural Woman Battling Tradition Has Quiet Power

Despite its vague ending, Ajitpal Singh's observant directorial debut portrays female experience in a Himalayan village with visual splendor and nonjudgmental specificity.

Fire in the Mountains
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Fire in the Mountains” opens with a perfect introduction, the kind that propels audiences into curiosity about a character they’ve only just met. We are on a country road with a breathtaking Himalayan backdrop, witnessing an urban family vacationing in the region negotiate with a sly, salesman-y guide. He insists that the family choose the homestay he represents, gradually lowering his price, but not quite to their satisfaction. Then Chandra (Vinamrata Rai) interrupts the conversation with her serene, non-pushy authority. She will gladly accept less money. Her homestay comes with a view and modern toilets. It’s also away from the bustling noisy roads, though not all that far on foot. After her skillful negotiation, we watch the petite, soft-spoken but no-nonsense woman carry the family’s heavy suitcase up a mountain trail without breaking a sweat.

This quietly memorable, feminist opening sequence exhibits debuting writer-director Ajitpal Singh’s evident gifts as an observant dramatist, even when his “Fire in the Mountains” feels somewhat unfinished in its complex yet abstract finale. But that his story, dedicated to a very specific type of female experience governed by patriarchy, doesn’t stick a neat landing in the end doesn’t diminish its lingering power on the whole. And this is mostly thanks to how clear-eyed Singh is about his depiction of Chandra — a determined problem-solver and often, the sound of reason — and how committed his sensational lead Rai is to the character’s even-keeled demeanor. That is, until she is forced to unleash her demons.

In that regard, Singh maintains a character-driven approach throughout “Fire in the Mountains,” juxtaposing Chandra’s priorities against that of her conservative Indian village and its unsympathetically backwards men in influential religious and legislative positions. When we gradually come to understand what she’s been juggling as a mother of a special-needs kid, a savvy businesswoman in charge of her modest family homestay Swizerland (no “t”) and the wife of her hard-drinking husband Dharam (Chandan Bisht), we feel even more in awe of her cool composure.

Picturesquely situated though it may be, her home lacks a reasonable road leading to it, making it hard on the family business and impossible for her wheelchair-using son Prakash (Mayank Singh) to have continuous access to healthcare and an ongoing education. Insisting on bringing proper infrastructure and accessibility to her neighborhood — and carrying Prakash on her back up and down the muddy paths in the meantime, a strenuous act both physical and metaphoric — Chandra painstakingly saves every penny that she makes toward an easier future that she envisions. Not sharing his wife’s ambitions and believing that their homestead is cursed, Dharam eventually steals his wife’s money in a cruel act, only to waste it on orchestrating a shamanic ritual.

In its heart of hearts, “Fire in the Mountains” is a conventional tale that pits progressive ideals against tradition. But what makes it work is Singh’s resolve to avoid miserablism and 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 Nuri Bilge Ceylan-level authenticity in his visual, unhurried portrayal of rural life.

Not shy about accentuating the spectacular exteriors and wide-canvas nature shots, captured by Dominique Colin’s mostly handheld camera, with bright colors in costuming and production design, the director emphasizes the region’s one-of-a-kind splendor and rhythm. His compositions are reflectively layered, and the pastoral details of everyday life his story contains — like dogs lounging around the property, animals being matter-of-factly slaughtered for food or a loose leopard terrorizing the neighborhood on random nights — are perceptively specific if not oddly beautiful.

Still, Chandra’s reality is far from the beauty of her surroundings, no matter how neutral Singh’s writing skews. At times, as in a heartbreaking occurrence when Chandra tries to register her son for the village school, the young woman resorts to her femininity against the corrupt men of her town. Sometimes, she has to fend off the manipulation she feels at the hands of both her family and the village, two losing battles in the long run. Add to this having to raise a daughter and budding in her own empowering femininity amid the same patriarchy that continues to restrain her. Singh is shrewd and non-manipulative in his interpretation of Chandra’s conundrums, even though he can’t quite figure out how to harness them toward a meaningful exit. Though fiery, aptly angry and rousing, his finish line seems too vaguely drawn for a character otherwise defined by a reassuring sense of clarity.

‘Fire in the Mountains’ Review: The Story of a Headstrong Rural Woman Battling Tradition Has Quiet Power

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (online), New York, Feb. 1, 2021. Running time: 83 MIN.

  • Production: A Jar Pictures Production. Producers: Ajay Rai, Alan McAlex.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Ajitpal Singh. Camera: Dominique Colin. Editors: Parikshhit Jha, Simon Price. Music: Arnaud van Vliet.
  • With: Vinamrata Rai, Chandan Bisht, Harshita Tewari, Sonal Jha.