Last updated on November 26, 2022
The Uttarakhand hill stations in India are often compared to Switzerland because of their spectacular mountain vistas, and Munsiyari, which provides the setting for Ajitpal Singh’s Fire in the Mountains, is stunning in its beauty, sitting as it does at the base of the Himalayas. It’s no wonder, then, that it’s a growing tourist destination, with homestays that dot the landscape providing a place to stay for visitors like the family we see arriving at the beginning of the film. But the region’s natural beauty hides the fact that the people in this region have to work hard – usually subsistance based agriculture – and often hustle hard to make a living.
When we first meet Chandra (a sublime Vinamrata Rai), she is rushing to the arrival point of some of those visiting tourists, doing anything she can to get them to stay at her aptly named “Swizerland” (sic) homestay. This is only one of Chandra’s ways to make money – she is in perpetual motion, with her primary goal to make enough money to pay for the treatment of her wheelchair-bound son. To that end, too, Chandra wants to see the construction of a long-promised road, and she’s willing to pressure anyone who can have some influence in seeing this accomplished, even if she has to put up some of the money for it herself.
Chandra’s family life is full of pressures. She gets little help from her husband Dharam (Chandan Bisht) who spends much of his time drinking or drunk, when he isn’t trying out various, failed projects, such as a greenhouse (who wants to buy broccoli and zucchini was Chandra’s feeling on this project), a poultry farm (via a government subsidy), and a tea shop. Her widowed sister-in-law Kamla (Sonal Jha) lives with them, and is aware of the burden she represents for the family, too. And Chandra’s son, Prakash (Mayank Singh), smouldering with passive agression, is a literal burden to Chandra, who must carry him up and down the steep, mountainous path to their home as she takes him to visit the doctor to get help so he will walk again.
There is a bitter irony, though, in the fact that it is clear that Prakash is actually able to walk. In fact, the doctor tells his parents that there is nothing wrong with his legs, and that the problem is likely psychological and requires counselling. He is not wrong – we come to understand that Prakash is severely bullied by several local boys, and his behaviour seems designed to keep himself out of school and away from the bullies for as long as he can possibly manage it.
Dharam, however, firmly believes that his son’s inability to walk (for no one in the family catches Prakash in those moments when he is climbing up to the roof, for example) is because the family’s home is cursed – this curse, too, is why Dharam’s sister is widowed. And for Dharam, the only way to make things better for his family is in the performing of a jagar ritual, a kind of ancestor spirit worship commonly practiced in Uttarakhand. The jagar is expensive, though, and Dharam is determined to find where Chandra has hidden her hard-earned savings so that he can set his family’s fortunes right.
Yet there is much tenderness and gentle humour in Singh’s film, too. On one of those treks down the mountain, Chandra stops for a moment as her troubled son plucks a flower from a tree and places it behind her ear. The couple’s daughter, Kanchan (Harishita Tiwari), gently tells her father that he’s actually a very loveable person when he’s not drunk. There are moments of humour and complicity between Chandra and Dharam, even if there are also moments when Dharam’s frustration at not being able to fulfill his role as the head of the household causes him to lash out and beat his wife (instigated, it must be noted, by other men in the village who see Chandra’s sense of purpose as a kind of defiance in the face of the patriarchal roles they wish to see upheld).
Fire in the Mountains reminded me of two other recent Indian films, both from the Malayalam industry. Both Biryaani (2019) and The Great Indian Kitchen (2021) give us views of female characters who face the challenges of patriarchy and misogyny, and take them on a journey from a place of powerlessness to asserting some control over their lives. And Chandra from Fire in the Mountains is another character who must navigate these issues as well, alongside her sister-in-law and her daughter, both of whom feel trapped , on some level, in a patriarchial society that keeps them repressed. For Kamla, the solution is to disappear; the family wakes up one day to find she is simply gone. For the hard-working student Kanchan, it’s escaping into the flirty “Tuk-Tuk” videos she makes, lip-synching to songs and wearing anything other than her school uniform.
But the most intense of these characters is Chandra, whose frustrations finally reach a boiling point. As the fire for the jagar ceremony burns, so does Chandra, slipping angrily into a trance-like state that causes her to whirl and curse everyone who has stood in the way of the goals she has being working so tirelessly and single-mindedly to achieve. Chandra’s life, and that of her family, is complicated and at times confusing, and it’s to Ajitpal Singh’s credit that he never presents Chandra as pitiable. Instead, she is a fierce presence at the centre of this family and this film, and it’s her final act of defiance that brings her fractured family together again at the end.