‘Fire in the Mountains’ Review: An Entrancing Reverie of Himalayan Life in India From a Self-Taught Filmmaker

Sundance: A mix of heavenly landscapes and desperate lives, Ajitpal Singh's debut feature is like if Apu in "Pather Panchali" had TikTok.
Fire in the Mountains had its world premiere at Sundance 2021
"Fire in the Mountains"

The snow-capped mountains in the distance jut into a sky as blue as a jewel. The hill community beneath those peaks is covered in the lushest green grasses. Livestock are grazing everywhere. And tourism is taking off. Who wouldn’t want to fill their lungs with this fresh, clean mountain air?

Switzerland? No. It’s Uttarakhand, a state in the north of India, nestled along the western border of Nepal. But at first glance it’d be easy to mistake the Himalayas for the Alps, and that’s a similarity the central family in Ajitpal Singh’s “Fire in the Mountains” very much wants to play up. (The original title of the film was “Swizerland.”) Singh tells a personal story loosely inspired by a real-life family tragedy. This tale of parents driven to distraction by an ailing child — and doing whatever they can to get him treatment despite the most strained of means — isn’t original in itself. However, it feels like something new because of its beauteous setting. Like “Pather Panchali” in the age of AirBnb and TikTok, “Fire in the Mountains” empathetically dramatizes the struggles that locals face in a place where tourists come to play.

The film opens with Chandra (Vinamrata Rai) hustling for the business of a family of tourists that have just made their way into the Himalayan hills. But a rival for her business is there, so, in a bit of anxious comedy, she keeps dropping her price until she’ll barely make any money on the deal. The family accepts and goes to her glorified AirBnb, which Chandra and her family call “Swizerland Homestay.” (Whether or not they become aware of the misspelling is never explained.)

If she seemed desperate there, she is: Chandra’s son isn’t able to walk, and she needs money to continue his orthopedic treatments. The only problem is that, after an earlier injury healed, it seems there’s nothing wrong with his legs. The doctor, frustrated with what he thinks is a psychological problem preventing the boy from standing up, threatens to cut off his legs on the spot. And yet this is the only medical provider available in the small town.

Except for one other possibility. The boy’s father, Dharam (Chandan Bisht), thinks they must have angered a family deity and they must conduct an elaborate ritual in Folk Hinduism called a Jagar instead, as a way of exorcising their bad luck. Then the boy will walk again. But that will cost money too, especially since he’ll require the services of a particularly hostile guru to do it.

Working toward the goal of increasing their coffers, the family goes about their daily lives, framed against the most stunning of backdrops. Singh and his cinematographer, French cinema workhorse Dominique Colin, present this hill community as if everything is slightly at an angle — and, well, it is. They use their frame dynamically, making sure you need to look up and down, rather than just side to side. One shot of the son in his wheelchair facing us in the foreground has a sudden interruption as a group of kids march on a hillside tier above him. This is living vertically.

Singh is a self-trained filmmaker who’d only made one short before this full-length debut, and “Fire in the Mountains” definitely has a “first feature” vibe. A couple characters, such as an aunt who apparently just abandons the family after an insult, could have used more development. And there’s an intriguing subplot about the family’s daughter, a top student with social media influencer aspirations, developing a following on TikTok by performing Bollywood-style dances, that doesn’t quite go anywhere. But the whole story feels so personal, even if it lacks the craftsmanship of a more seasoned filmmaker: the inspiration for Singh’s story apparently came from how a cousin of his died when her husband refused to take her to a hospital, preferring a spiritualist remedy instead. With this movie, Singh has said he wants to question the idea of blind faith.

But it’s the ritual born out of blind faith, the Jagar, that ends “Fire in the Mountains” and that will likely be the aspect of the movie that stays with viewers the most. The Jagar is a reverie of faith and folly that ends being an uncategorizable cinematic experience — and a haunting one. It suggests that if you’re looking for grace, sometimes it helps to go a little bit mad first.

Grade: B

“Fire in the Mountains” world premiered in the World Dramatic Competition at Sundance 2021. It is seeking distribution.

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