February 21, 2021 6:13:23 am
Something about Chandra’s face is immediately arresting. It’s a face which belongs to the mountains, the skin ruddy with exertion, the cheeks flushed with the bracing air. Her synthetic-sari-three-quarter-sleeved sweater combination is also typical of the women who toil all day, fetching grass for the cattle, ensuring there’s enough kindling for the open chulha (wood-fired stove), and so on. She is the sole breadwinner of her household, comprising a drunken husband, a widowed sister-in-law, and two children, a young boy who is a wheelchair-user, and a teenaged girl.
Ajitpal Singh’s strikingly atmospheric debut feature, Fire in the Mountains, which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last month, tells us a story of resilience and courage, with a strong woman at its centre. Vinamrata Rai is fantastic as Chandra, the woman who does everything: from lugging the bags of the family she skilfully persuades to try “Swizerland” (without a ‘t’), her modest homestay which is up a slope, to piggy-backing her son up and down the same steep path in order to get him to his doctor, while her husband Dharam (Chandan Bisht) lolls lazily about, looking for the next drink. He doesn’t believe that his son can be treated by science; what the boy needs, he’s convinced, is a shamanic “cure”.
Singh has been on record to say that he was deeply impacted by the tragic death of his sick cousin whose husband, convinced that she was possessed, refused to seek medical assistance. The use of these shamanic rituals (in this instance called a jagar) is still widely prevalent in many parts of India, and it becomes the chief bone of contention between Chandra and Dharam. The clash between superstition and modernity, and between genders is in full play through the film. Chandra’s powerfully feminist demeanour comes up against the belligerent I-know-best attitude of her husband. We also see her using her intelligence to deal with other power structures in her village, especially the pradhan (village head) with a glad eye, to get what she wants: a pakki sadak (road) that leads up to her house.
The film’s gender politics is clear. It is firmly on Chandra’s side. You can also see the yawning gap between the grand promises of the state, and the lax execution at the local level. If the pradhan has a hotel of his own, why would he help Chandra build a road so that her homestay can become accessible? Despite these roadblocks, other kinds of “progress” are visible: Chandra’s daughter Kanchan (Harshita Tewari) is a “Tuk Tuk” addict, in thrall to her male classmate who wants her to send him “revealing” videos. The sister-in-law listens to the sounds of her brother and his wife making love, and experiences long-suppressed desire. It is a momentary but blindingly-revealing flash.
I wasn’t as convinced about the way Singh chooses to end his tale, but no matter. Fire in the Mountains is a gorgeously shot, authentic slice of contemporary Indian life: watch out for it when it comes out in theatres.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines