The Spool / Festivals
Sundance 2021: “Fire in the Mountains” is a strange time in the Himalayas

Arjitpal Singh’s drama about a rural family in the Himalayas struggling to get by leans on strong performances and interlocking class critiques to overcome some clunky narrative structure.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

Since 2012 when Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live became the first Indian movie to ever debut at Sundance, the film festival has seen a more consistent inclusion of films from Indian filmmakers. This year’s edition saw two movies from India – one narrative and one documentary. Both deal with underrepresented and economically disadvantaged communities in the country and focus on women. While the documentary (Writing With Fire) is a tale of inspiration and community perseverance, the narrative feature, Arjitpal Singh’s Fire in the Mountains, is more frustrating and somber.

It focuses on a matriarch named Chandra (Vinamrata Rai) in the rural Himalayan province of Uttarakhand who struggles to save up enough money for her son Prakash’s medical problems. Her family runs a mountainside hostel, ironically named “Switzerland”, where tourists come to stay and enjoy an “authentic experience” with home cooking for an affordable price while enjoying the Himalayan landscape. They don’t make much money, and their lack of finances causes the family’s relationships with each other to fracture. Chandra wants to save up money for surgery to cure Prakash while her husband believes the disability is a curse and a shamanistic ritual to dispel the evil spirits is a more effective solution. 

On its face, this premise is a typical starting-off point for a tragic tale of crushing poverty and failure of economic systems to provide for those most in need. But Singh’s movie tackles much more than that. It encompasses so many interlocking conundrums faced by India’s rural farming population, one which is currently engaged in a national protest against the government, that it becomes a bit overwhelming and unwieldy narratively. Still, Singh drives home his point that the conundrum of cultural and ideological clashes is itself is the plight of India’s rural classes. 

Fire in the Mountains (Sundance)
Fire in the Mountains (Sundance)

The family’s neighborhood is seeing an influx of technological and infrastructural advancements which they see as both a blessing and a curse. The new road to be developed will help Prakash get his wheelchair down from their mountain home a lot easier. The new fad with TikTok videos sees their teenage daughter behaving more promiscuously much to the chagrin of her traditionalist parents. The children in the film are the bearers of most of the pain and consequences caused by their parents’ stubborn disputes.

Singh shows Chandra, like many women, having to live in a lose-lose situation. If she maintains a place as a silent homemaker, their farm will go to ruin. But if she takes command, she is the villain for disciplining her kids. Several scenes show her children resent her while gravitating towards their dad’s carefree attitude, amplifying the comforting and privileged life men can lead in a society educated to believe them to always be in the right. Rai gives a committed performance, starting the film off with a smile and a laugh as new vacationers come to stay in Switzerland and quickly turning to a scowl as money problems pile up. She’s unafraid in showing her own frustrations and helplessness in the face of a husband who doesn’t care and a society that doesn’t take her seriously.

While Chandra is generally seen in the film as the reasonable one, believing in practical solutions and doing most of the work while her lazy conspiratorial husband drinks and goes to a phony astrologer for advice on how to deal with his home life, she too has her faults. She is overbearing, undeniably due to the pressure put on her to be the sole breadwinner of the family, and chastises her daughter for being around boys and expressing her sexuality. She scolds her son many times for not fighting for himself and “being a man” when he is relentlessly bullied by kids in his school. 

Singh drives home his point that the conundrum of cultural and ideological clashes is itself is the plight of India’s rural classes. 

The fracturing of Chandra’s family is slow and passive-aggressive, breaking bit by bit starting from the distrust between her and her husband on finances (she has hidden money from him to prevent him from wasting it on a religious ritual). Singh depicts this similarly to Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale where the children start to act up and engage in trickery and poor behavior to attract attention from parents who have neglected their needs. Unlike the Baumbach film, however, the tragedy of Chandra’s family lies in economic issues. The constant infighting and worries and cash counting leave little room for the parents to tend to more emotional and sentimental matters of ‘family’. The film showcases quite plainly how simply being unable to have enough to live well seeps into every other part of life.

The beautiful setting of the film, in the hills of Uttarakhand, lush with green grasses and trees, snowcapped mountaintops, and candy-painted houses, belies the crisis of its people. It’s a community forced into a crossroads of change which can be stark from scene to scene. On one day, villagers are out sacrificing goats, fending off leopards, or gathering wheat and crops for harvest. On another day, they are on their cellphones making business calls and watching Youtube videos of government news. Fire in the Mountains is Ajitpal Singh’s narrative of what he says is “how India really is”, outside the cities, outside the news media, in the rural heartlands. It’s a strange time there – luxuries of first-world technology are slowly infiltrating life and changing culture, while basic economic necessities continue to be scarce. 

Fire in the Mountains played in the World Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and is currently seeking distribution.