Review: “Fire in the Mountains” expertly explores Indian womanhood

Review: "Fire in the Mountains" reveals the difficulties Indian women face

Ajitpal Singh's debut film is inspired by his defiant, headstrong mother.
Published: September 30, 2021

"Fire in the Mountains" explores the challenges and limitations women often face in small villages.

Fire in the Mountains reveals the difficulties and social barriers to being an independent and strong Hindu woman in a small village in the middle of the Himalayas. Director Ajiptal Singh did a wonderful job at conveying how ingrained patriarchy is in this Himalayan region. Even though his main character, Chandra, is incredibly independent and strong, it is extremely difficult to reach any point of change or evolution in the way this society views women. 

Singh’s first feature film ever, a family drama, closed out the Human Rights Film Festival last Saturday. Fire in the Mountains tells the compelling story of Chandra (played marvelously by Vinamrata Rai) and her family — her husband, son, daughter and sister-in-law. Her son is bound to a wheelchair. Chandra saves money to build a road, so she can bring her son to a hospital for treatment. Her husband Dharam (Chandan Bisht) doesn’t believe money is the solution. Instead, he turns to shamanic rituals and magic to rid his family of a curse.

In a live Q&A post-film, Singh said that the main question he asked himself before writing the film was “how does India society, whether modern or traditional, treat women?”

That idea really shines well as the core of the film. When Chandra’s sister-in-law runs away. Chandra and her husband go to the police, yet the officer ignores Chandra and only speaks to her husband. Singh conveyed this imbalance of power by having Chandra standing up while her husband and the police officer are sitting down at a table but yet Chandra had no power.

When the police officer finally addressed Chandra, he said, “Sister … she was a widow and you didn’t get along with her.” 

This great piece of dialogue suggests that a woman with a husband is lost — and it’s one of the reasons she runs away.  

Throughout the film, Singh explores how women are treated through Chandra’s character. She has her own money, her own business, she battles with contractors so they can have the road built for her son – in other words, she more than holds her own in this world. 

On the other hand, her husband Dharam is passive and useless. He doesn’t know how to parent or take care of business and is often intoxicated. Chandra holds the family together.  Though, Singh shows us how this Hindu society won’t let her get away with it. The shaman, who’s well respected by the men and especially Dharam, pressures Dharam to take control of his family and decide what’s good and what’s not. If he, the husband, thinks a ritual will help is better than their son, then that should be the end of it. So Dharam acts on the orders of the Shaman and tries to take control of the family. He attempts to beat his wife (unsuccessfully, as he doesn’t go through with it), whips his daughter with his belt and he tries to heal his son with the Shaman’s help. 

Chandra should intervene but Singh brilliantly takes the opposite route. Chandra begins to succumb to societal pressures. Her sister-in-law discourages her, the women she works with only seem to want to work to provide food for their family, and her daughter is too young to battle alongside Chandra. Singh’s film wouldn’t have worked if Chandra received that support; it wouldn’t have shown the complexity and reality of societal pressures in Hindu culture as effectively. It would just have been a fantasy. The film proposes allyship as a strategy to combat sexism in Indian society.

Singh should also be commended for his use of the environment in Fire in the Mountains. He and his cinematographer Dominique Colin use nature as a symbol of freedom. The family lives in the stunning mountains of the Himalayas with greenery and animals running freely around the forest. Yet, Chandra is still confined by her village. The world might be beautiful and large on the outside, but in reality, it is limiting and dominated by men.

 In the Q&A, Singh said his mother inspired the making of this film.

 “She’s a very strong woman… She’s very liberal and she doesn’t believe in dark magic and superstition and all that,” he said.

And just like Chandra in Fire in the Mountains, Singh’s mother had a strong head and refused to be ordered around. 

“People would come to our house and say ‘don’t leave the broom like that, it’s bad,’ and my mother would say, ‘O.K., I’ll see when we die in my house today,’” Singh said.

 

Correction:

In a previous version of this article “Hindi” was incorrectly used to refer to the characters’ culture. Hindi is a language, and Hindu refers to the religion of Hinduism. This article has been updated to correct this.

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is a graduate student in the Arts Journalism program and a contributor for The NewsHouse.