Kino Lorber
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Ajitpal Singh
Screenwriter: Ajitpal Singh
Cast: Vinamrata Rai, Chandan Bisht, Harshita Tiwari, Mayank Singh Jaira, Sonal Jha
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/3/22
Opens: May 20, 2022 at New York’s Film Forum. July 19, 2022 streaming.

Are you a mountain person or a beach person? Do you like to vacation in safe places that speak your language or exotic destinations whose written language looks like a secret code? Are you willing to pay $1000 a night in London’s Portnall Rise or prefer something more reasonable? You filled out a questionnaire given to you by your travel agency. Turns out you would go for exotic scenery, strange language, mountain vistas, budget accommodations. We have just the place and here’s a film to describe it more accurately than mere words can do.

The film shown to the tourist family is “Fire in the Mountains,” which takes place near the Himalayan mountains foothills possible near Kumaon where, for 1000 rupees daily ($13) you get amenities like satellite TV and an Indian toilet (don’t ask). You might be invited to watch their jagar, which is a ritual with music in honor of the locals’ spirit ancestors. But you would not likely be invited into the ramshackle home of Chandra (Vinamrata Rai) and her husband Dharam (Chandan Bisht), who have regular arguments about how to deal with their sullen son Prakash (Mayank Singh Jaira), who for unexplained reasons depends on a wheelchair as he has been unable to walk for several months.

Chandra saves her rupees to have her boy treated by a doctor, who administers a foot bath which passes for physiotherapy. Dharam believes that a shaman can cure him and steals his wife’s money, when he can find it in a hiding place. We watch the doctor and then the guru administer to the lad, the latter with the company of just the father, but neither protocol looks promising. Chandra holds out a hope that the government will build a road, making it easy for her bare-bones hotel to attract tourists. Radio broadcasts that tout a running journey by the prime minister to rural areas promise the road, maybe to begin “this Saturday,” but all the government really chooses to prioritize is making India a developed country while at the same time large masses of the population do not have basics like running water and electricity.

In a climax that regresses into violence, the local people play hosts to their departed ancestors, where Chandra, who all along thinks little of spiritual services, frantically dances as though participating in a voodoo ceremony in Port Au Prince. So what does writer-director Ajitpal Singh in his bold, freshman full-length film want us to come away with? While making sure we see the stunning mountain view as green as the coast of Ireland and waterfalls that may not compete with Niagara’s but look impressive enough against the snow-covered mountain tops, he nails the government in New Delhi for promising but failing to deliver. He sees Chandra as a feminist hero who carries her son up and down the hillside and whose industriousness threatens her often drunk husband. Most of all he tells a solid, bewitching story of the kind of life that millions of South Asians are living, the poverty-stricken people giving vent to emotions similar to those of folks in much better circumstances.

In Hindi with English subtitles.

84 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – A-
Technical – A
Overall – B+

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By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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