Fire In the Mountains runs just eighty-something minutes and it's Ajitpal Singh’s debut feature. It premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and is centred on a family in a remote Himalayan village. On the radio, there's constant news of how this government has done these great things none of the earlier governments did. But at least in this tough terrain, the reality appears a little different. The principal source of the economy seems to be providing homestays to cost-conscious middle-class vacationers, but the homestays near the main road seem to be doing better. What about the ones deeper inside the village, which have no roads for easy access? That is one of the many issues faced by Chandra, a steely woman played by Vinamrata Rai in a performance of pure steel. Looking at her, you know she won't bend or break. Halfway through the film, you realise why. She cannot afford to bend or break. She is the sole breadwinner of the family.
Her husband is not a bad man, but he is after harebrained get-rich-quick schemes (and the money Chandra has saved up). The daughter is a sharp student, but she's also a hormonal teenager – and she likes to put out videos of herself on social media. She also seems to have a boyfriend, something that annoys Chandra to no end. The young son is confined to a wheelchair, as he cannot use his legs. And a widowed sister-in-law completes the unhappy family picture. The fact that Chandra carries the family's load is depicted both literally and metaphorically: every time her son has to be taken to the doctor, she hoists him on her back and walks through the uneven slopes until she reaches the road, where her husband waits with his scooter. It doesn't occur to him that, for once, he can carry the boy to the road. His obliviousness could be a metaphor for the patriarchy in the region. He wants the money from the homestay but Chandra is the one who's left to haggle with tourists.
Chandra is the practical one, and her husband Dharam – like his name suggests – believes that a religious ritual will solve everything. Fire in the Mountains is a chronicle of contrasts: man versus woman, blind faith versus practicality, progress versus status-quo, the traditional way of life versus technology-induced modernity… Thus, when there's news about the Prime Minister attending the inauguration of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya, there's the instant question of how important such a "ritual" is when there are so many pressing concerns in the country. Is this juxtaposition of the personal and the political deliberate? But the film certainly begs to be read that way. Meanwhile, a goat is sacrificed. A leopard is on the prowl. And there's a magnificent splash of sunlight in the sky that looks like a manifestation of the title. Dominique Colin is the cinematographer, and the philosophy behind the images seems to be to peel back the beauty of the region and gaze at stark realities.
Chandra never feels sorry for herself and we are never asked to pity her. She uses her body to try and get what she wants. She uses her mind. And yet, the only time she is taken seriously is when she appears to get possessed by the goddess. It's the point Sanal Kumar Sasidharan made in Sexy Durga: the goddess Durga is venerated while the woman named Durga is violated. Chandra is not exactly a non-believer. We see her ring the temple bell and clasp her hands in worship. But it lasts just a matter of seconds. There's a lot of work to be done and perhaps she'd feel better about God if she got the slightest hint that someone was actually looking out for her. Besides, even the guru Dharam goes to makes her life miserable by instigating Dharam against her. The region may look like heaven, but clearly, there are no miracles. That's why the surreal end seems so appropriate: perhaps, finally, Chandra has created her own miracle.