Fire in the Mountains recently won the Best Director Award at the New York Indian Film Festival. Ajitpal Singh’s debut feature film on women’s right to exercise their choice premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2021, competing in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition category.
The film, featuring actors Vinamrata Rai, Chandan Bisht, Harshita Tiwari, and Mayank Singh Jaira, is about a wife who struggles to save enough money so that she can take her son, who is in a wheelchair, for physiotherapy even as her husband believes that a shamanic ritual (Jaagar) is the remedy.
Drawn from personal experience, the film was the result of his quest to find answers to questions surrounding women’s choice, says Singh, speaking to Silverscreen India from Punjab, where he is shooting for his upcoming web series.
“In 2018, my cousin Amarjeet Kaur died because her husband did not take her to the hospital when she was ill because he believed she was possessed by a ghost. She was actually suffering from typhoid. She was the first graduate in my father’s side of the family and she inspired many of us to pursue studies. I was attached to her and her sudden passing left me angry and baffled. How could something like this happen in 21st century India? I knew that she would not have made the same choice her husband did,” the filmmaker says.
“I started to wonder why women, even though they contribute equally in the household, are not allowed to have an equal voice when it comes to making big decisions. One question led to another and eventually resulted in Fire in the Mountains,” he adds.
Calling Fire in the Mountains his most personal work so far, Singh confesses that prior to this he used to disregard any advice that came from women, including his wife Mauli Ajitpal Singh, his mother and his sisters, while often trusting “the same advice” when it came from a man.
“I realised that although I am a well-read and educated person, this did not make me sensitive towards the discrimination and bias that women face every day. So I was on this journey to understand the challenges that women face and slowly, it materialised into an idea of a strong-headed, modern woman married to a traditional man, and the conflicts they would face,” the filmmaker says.
Initially titled Switzerland, the film oscillates between tradition and modernity, between a husband and a wife.
“The characters’ home stay is called Switzerland. But in India, when we say Switzerland, because of Bollywood, we immediately think of an ideal place — almost a heaven. So it sounded ironical,” says Singh.
The current title refers to the protagonist Chandra, who is a fierce woman. Originally, Singh wrote the film from the perspective of the boy. “But after almost six months of writing, I realised that the best way to tell this story would be from Chandra’s point-of-view,” he says, adding that it took him a year-and-a-half to finish the script.
The film was shot over a 33-day period from September to October 2019. A small Himalayan village called Munsiyari was chosen as the location and its remoteness led to many difficulties for Singh and his crew.
“To reach there, you have to take a flight to Delhi and then an eight-hour train ride to Kathgodam, followed by a 12 to 15-hour taxi journey to Munsiyari. Once our crew finally made it, we realised our lights had not arrived. There was a landslide ahead of the truck carrying our equipment. And when the truck tried to reverse to take another route, the road behind also vanished in the landslide! So, the first day, we had to shoot without lights,” the filmmaker recounts.
That wasn’t the end of their woes either. “Our cinematographer Dominique Colin developed a severe toothache and there were no dentists in Munisyari. The nearest dentist’s clinic was seven hours away and we had to travel there each time to get his medicine.”
Once they finished filming, the plan was to complete editing Fire in the Mountains by March 2020. But, the sudden announcement of the Covid-19 lockdown left Singh with a lot more time. “So we edited the entire film all over again and I think that helped make the film much better,” he says.
Having worked on short films like Rammat Gammat and Hummingbird, a feature film, and now, a web series, the director feels that making a short film is the hardest, although it is the best way to learn the craft. “Short films are like poems, and not short stories. Feature films are short stories. Web series are like novels. With short films, you are not telling a story, you are just conveying an emotion, and that is the toughest.”
However, Singh says he kept making short films because he did not have the funding or support to make a feature film. “I did not want to sit and sulk about not getting an opportunity to make full-length films, so I kept making short films.”
The acclaim he received for his last short film, Rammat Gammat, enabled him to make Fire in the Mountains, he adds.
Rammat Gammat or My Best Friend’s Shoes is an 18-minute Gujarati short film that released in 2018. Set in a village, it revolves around two friends and football enthusiasts belonging to different social classes. It travelled to various international film festivals, such as the prestigious 64th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, where it received a special mention, the Palm Springs International Film Festival, and the Stony Brook Film Festival.
Apart from the web series he is filming now, Singh is currently also working a script based on the coronavirus pandemic. “I just did not enjoy writing anything else, so I started writing something about coronavirus. But it will take me some time to give it a proper shape. And then I will figure out whether to make that into a film or a series.”
Meanwhile, Fire in the Mountains is yet to be made available in India. “We want to have a good festival premiere in India before we approach an OTT platform,” says Singh, adding that he hopes the film will be out in the country sometime this year.