During his childhood, writer-director Ajitpal Singh was not fond of cinema. Instead, it was the coffee machine in the cinemas that fascinated him. He loved watching the foam pour out. However, by the time he graduated from St Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad, with a degree in industrial chemistry, he had already developed a strong desire to tell stories. This desire, initially triggered by his theater experience when he wrote and directed five plays during his college days, grew stronger as his exposure to the world of cinema grew.
“After graduating, I followed a multimedia course. I worked as a game designer and also made corporate films. Still, the thrill of creating something from scratch while I was working on those plays stayed with me,” says Singh, who joined Natarani – Mallika Sarabai’s theater group – in 2002 to learn more about drama and acting.
A few years later, after his exposure to world cinema, most notably Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), he found himself drawn to movies. Singh explained what he needed to know to become a filmmaker. The self-taught director devoted time to photography, editing and experimenting with the short film format. “This all seemed random, but I had a plan. However, my parents were worried about me all the time,” the 44-year-old said.
In 2010, Singh decided to distance himself from everything and focus on writing. Things looked good for him when his screenplay, Man who Broke the Mountain, was selected for Sundance Screenwriters Lab 2012, where it won a grant. “Naive, I thought I had arrived,” Singh recalls with a laugh. While no film was ever made of that script, the acclaim it received encouraged him to move to Mumbai in 2013 to pursue a career in films. It would take him another seven years – during which he took on several freelance assignments, wrote multiple scripts and made two award-winning short films, titled Hummingbird (2017) and Rammat-Gammat (2018) – before making his directorial debut with Fire in the Mountains.
The impetus to write Fire in the Mountains, the story of a mother’s struggle to save money for her son’s treatment, while her alcoholic husband believes in appeasing the family deity, came from questioning the social circumstances leading to the death of his cousin sister in 2018. Singh’s cousin, who was suffering from typhoid fever, was denied medical attention by her in-laws due to their superstitious beliefs. “I had several questions: how could this happen in 21st century India. One question led to another. Would my sister have made a choice other than what was made for her? This led to the question: what is the place of a woman in our society? Writing was my way of finding answers to these questions and understanding life,” says the writer-director. Fire in the Mountains had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Last week, the 82-minute film won the Audience Award for Best Feature Film at Los Angeles’ 19th annual Indian Film Festival and its next screening is slated to be the New York Indian closing film. film festival.
The Fire in the Mountains script began to take shape when Ajay G Rai, who co-founded Mumbai-based JAR Pictures with Alan McAlex in 2011, wanted to develop a feature film with Singh. His only condition was that Rai shoot the film in Uttarakhand so that they could control the budget.
Fire in the Mountains had its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2021.
Born in Punjab and raised in Ahmedabad, Singh spent five months in Uttarakhand doing research and then writing the script. The process was followed by searching for the perfect location with mountains as a backdrop before arriving at Munsiyari, which offers breathtaking views of the Himalayan peaks. “While the story of Fire in the Mountains was inspired by various locations across the state, Munsiyari seemed to have all those elements I had in mind – with the inaccessible road to villages, the beautiful views and proximity to wildlife” , says Singh, who was associate director of Shanker Raman-directed Gurgaon (2017) and wrote dialogues for Once Again (2018).
The cast of Fire in the Mountains is a mix of non-actors and trained actors. “I am aware that my stories are melodramatic. So I like actors who can show restraint. They make the scenes much more realistic. Delhi-based Vinamrata Rai, who had played in Hummingbird, came in as Chandra. Chandan Bisht, who plays the role of Chandra’s husband, is from Uttarakhand. That made it easier for him to understand the character,” Singh said. Despite the film’s strong feminist tone, Chandra is flawed. While Chandra does her best to raise her son and give him medical care, she is not so concerned when it comes to her daughter. “Chandra has prejudices that she is not aware of,” Singh says.
During the pandemic, the director has gone through an unexpected roller coaster ride. While his debut film is currently making the festival rounds, Rammat-Gammat is streaming on MUBI. Meanwhile, Singh is directing a web series, a family drama with thriller elements, which is likely to be released on SonyLIV later this year. “It’s a strange coincidence that in recent years I’ve been busier than ever in my entire working life,” Singh says. However, there was a personal setback. While pre-production for the web show was underway, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had surgery. Shortly after his recovery, he rushed back to the sets of the unnamed show in Punjab.
Singh is not new to life and does not work as planned. His family moved from the village of Kadiyal in the Moga district of Punjab to Bhatinda in 1983 after his father, a farmer and ex-army man, sold their land. “He wanted to educate his children, but our village had no school. He rented a movie theater in Bhatinda,” Singh recalls. The following year, he invested a hefty sum of nearly Rs 60,000 to secure the rights to screen the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Sharaabi (1984). After Operation Blue Star in June 1984, a curfew was imposed in Bhatinda and they could never get that money back. “With the money we had left, the family started a candy store. When Indira Gandhi was killed, the curfew was re-imposed,” Singh recalled.
While the family struggled to survive, his father left for Gujarat to find work. “We didn’t hear from him for nine months because he couldn’t find a job. He eventually got a job as a security guard and brought us to Ahmedabad in 1986,” Singh said. Life was not easy for the Singhs in Ahmedabad and they faced strong anti-Sikh sentiment. “In school we were called terrorists. I was isolated and targeted until the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992. Then I found Hindu friends at school, as Muslims were considered the others,” he recalls. His father not only worked as a security guard, but also made and sold incense sticks. His mother used to knit sweaters.
While Singh is pleased that his work has been viewed and appreciated by people over the past year, he is alarmed by the horrors of the pandemic and the way it has been handled thus far. “The new reality unfolding around us has made my old scripts obsolete. Every week I write something and then read about something bizarre happening around us. Then I throw that idea away. I’ll just wait and see how emotionally I’ve been touched by the current crisis. We may not fully realize it yet, but this is going to shape the next century,” says Singh.