Completely self-taught, Ajitpal Singh decided 10 years ago that he would become a filmmaker. Now, his first feature film Fire in the Mountains just premiered as the only World Competition film from South Asia at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Nuanced acting, sly comedy, and a layered mise-en-scene contrasting tradition with modernity punctuate his unique debut. Inspired in subject by real-life experiences, and in style by Singh's unusual life, the film tells the story of a pragmatic woman in a remote Himalayan village who is saving up money for a road to take her wheelchair-bound son to school.

No Film School caught up with Singh before the premiere to hear the incredible story of his life and how it put him on the long road to learning the language of film.

How riding in a "tempo" may have been an early inspiration for Fire in the Mountains

Singh's film starts with the main character Chandra trying to get her son transportation for his shot at education. When asked about his origins, Ajitpal Singh explained how education, or the inability to get one, played a big role in his upbringing.

Tempo_vehicleA popular vehicle in rural India, the 'Tempo Hanseat.'Credit: Carthrottle

Ajitpal Singh: My father retired from the army, and then he decided to take up the farming in our ancestral village. And in the village, there was no television. So I never saw a movie when I was in the village. And there was no school in our village. We used to go to a school which was around 10 kilometers away from my village, and somebody used to come in a tempo. Tempo is a kind of rugged vehicle. But the tempo driver would not come two or three times a week. So we would miss a lot of school.

That’s when my father decided that we needed to move to a city for education. So we shifted to Bhatinda. My father sold his land, and with the money rented a cinema hall. That's where I first saw a movie on the big screen. And I don't really remember much. At that time, I never really thought that this is something that I will take up seriously much later. It was not like Cinema Paradiso.

For me, the attraction to go to the cinema hall was a cup of coffee. Because we [had] a coffee machine; not like a proper cappuccino machine. It made instant coffee, but steam would fall in the cup and create that froth. So for me, that was the attraction to go to the cinema hall.

50811455866_77d5fb8a53_kSeen on a vehicle needed to get to education, Vinamrata Rai, Mayank Singh Jaira and Chandan Bish appear in 'Fire in the Mountains' by Ajitpal Singh.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The closing of the cinema hall and the start of a long, hard road

Singh: The cinema hall didn’t go so well. This was around 1984.

There was a section of Punjabis who demanded a separate nation. And then the government at that time, of Indira Gandhi, played politics with it. It became very volatile. The Indian army stormed into the Golden Temple, which is a holy shrine of Sikhs. And they killed the man who was a separatist, a terrorist in fact, but he also had a lot of loyalty of right-wing fundamentalists.

So there was a curfew in Punjab for almost a few months. So we lost the revenue because of the curfew.


When the curfew ended, I remember my father invested a lot of money on a Bachchan film. Amitabh Bachchan was a big star at that time. So he invested a lot of money to buy the film of Amitabh Bachchan.

But then the Sikh bodyguard of our prime minister, Indira Gandhi, killed her. There were riots against Sikhs all over the country. There was a curfew again. So we lost all the money.

How the family survived

Singh’s father shifted to Gujarat, working for peanuts as a security guard. For eight months, the family didn’t hear from him.

Singh: In Punjab, my mother was selling our furniture, our household stuff, to survive, to eat. Eventually, we ran out of everything. We had sold everything and suddenly, there was no food in our house. So my mother started cleaning somebody's utensils and clothes. And this is how we survived for a few more months.

I was really angry with him for many years [for leaving us]. And then I think it was around 10, 12 years ago that we started drinking together. And I finally asked him, “What did you do? Why didn't you send a message?” And he said, “You know, I had so little money, I felt so guilty. So I used to spent that money on buying alcohol to drink myself to sleep.” So that's what he did.

50811569447_fd6eead9fd_hWife and husband, Vinamrata Rai and Chandan Bisht appear in 'Fire in the Mountains' by Ajitpal Singh.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The importance of reading

One of the main characters in Fire in the Mountains is a father who is throwing away the family money on drink and impulsive business ideas.

Singh: In Gujarat, in the beginning, it was not so good because there was this feeling of hating Sikhs all around the country and that time. You know how it's for Muslims right now? If you're a Muslim, you struggle. It's easy to call a Muslim a terrorist. It was similar for Sikhs at that time. I didn't really have friends. My classmates would call me "terrorist." Even my schoolteacher had called me a terrorist.

But what happened because of that was, I started reading a lot. Luckily, where my father had a new job, that place had a library. So I would go read books. I would read comics, newspapers, magazines, adult books. That was the only thing I could do. Read and walk around. I would walk into the farms, fields, steal mangoes from people's houses and read.

How French New Wave saved Singh from loneliness (and science!)

Around this time, a leader called Lal Krishna Advani started a movement to demolish the Babri Mosque, and replaced anti-Sikh sentiment with anti-Muslim feelings.

Singh: Suddenly the Muslims became the target of people around me. And I was suddenly accepted. People stopped calling me a terrorist. I remember that I felt so good about it. Suddenly, I had friends. I felt bad, I even took part in that march where I shouted to destroy the mosque, without even knowing what it all meant.

And then another funny thing happened was, I used to barely pass my exams. And when this pressure was lifted off my shoulders, I was topping my class. I was coming first or second. This is how I finished school. In India, that if you're a good student, you usually take science. Everybody tells you to become doctor or engineer. So I also wanted to be an engineer, and I took science.

Ajitpal_profile_pic_mustard_flieds_fitm_director_smallA young Ajitpal Singh in a mustard field.

Singh in school

As Singh studied chemistry in college, he found himself always wandering toward stories.

Singh: Once I got to college, there was an even bigger library—the best library that you can ask for. So I started reading English literature, Russian literature, mainly, translated into English. And I started writing plays, directing plays, acting in plays.

In school, I spoke Hindi, but at home, we spoke Punjabi. Then outside the school, I spoke Gujarati. And then suddenly, I did my college in English. So I knew that I wanted to tell stories. But I didn't have command over any language, because they were all mixed up.

So then, one day, there was a film festival in Ahmedabad, a French film festival, by Alliance Française. And there I saw this film called The 400 Blows, by François Truffaut. That film really hit me. With the anguish and loneliness of that boy, that was exactly how my childhood had been. And then there were family issues in my family, fueled by poverty. I connected so deeply with that film. And then I suddenly realized that cinema can be so much more than Bollywood.

This film inspired me, and I realized, I don't need to know any language. I can just learn this visual language, and I can make films. What I didn't know at that time, it would take me another 10, 15 years to learn that language.

Why finding your style of cinema means asking the right question

Singh spent years writing short screenplays. Finally, he wrote his first feature script, and it was accepted into the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

Singh: I was heavily influenced by the cinema of Satyajit Ray and the French New Wave. I love their cinema because it's a visual, beautiful way of telling the story.

But when I was making my first three short films, I was constantly trying to imitate. And it didn't work. And then I started wondering, why are my short films not working? And it was a very slow realization during the course of three, four years that my own life experiences are probably different from [those filmmakers]. They can pull off this kind of cinema because they know certain things about life from their own experiences.

So what is the right form for me to make cinema? And that's why, when I made my fourth short film, it was very personal. I took a subject that I had experienced. Suddenly the framing changed, acting changed, editing changed. Everything changed because this time, I knew what I'm trying to say. Suddenly, your cinema changes. You start discovering the form on your own. You started [with] the right question—from whose point of view am I telling the story? 

How real-life tragedy surrounding superstition versus pragmatism influenced the characters of Fire in the Mountains

Singh: The idea came because my cousin sister, Amarjeet Kaur, had died. Her husband didn't take her to the hospital, thinking that she was possessed by a ghost. And I knew her very well. She was a very rational woman. She was the first woman, or first person, in fact, who graduated from her father's side of the family. And she inspired many of us to pursue studies. I became the first male graduate from my father's side of the family because of her, actually.

We had lost touch. Then I suddenly read that she's dead. I was shocked. How could it happen? How could somebody not take her to the hospital? And how could somebody in [the] 21st century believe that she's possessed by a ghost? So all these questions were in my mind.

50621343131_07f0b17c21_k_0Vinamrata Rai appears in 'Fire in the Mountains' by Ajitpal Singh, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Why the use of humor is the mark of filmmakers who have lived tough lives

While Fire in the Mountains follows dramatic relationship struggles between the main characters, it employs humor and a unique tone at times to do so. Singh described his choice of tone as one of authenticity.

Singh: That humor came because I have had a tough life, until the time I was a teenager. But there was always humor. We still managed to laugh. We still managed to find lighter moments. So whenever I saw films made by filmmakers who didn't have a tough life, I felt they lacked humor. Because they haven't experienced it, so they all think that it's all always sad. Which is not true. That's how the humor came in.

Finding the right setting (a remote village in the Himalayas!)

Singh’s short film Rammat-Gammat, which played at Oberhausen, caught the attention of producer Ajay Rai. Rai encouraged Singh to write something that they could make together, and for budgetary reasons, shoot in the Himalayan region of Uttarakhand.

Singh: That thought of my cousin sister just would not leave my mind. I was continuously thinking about my sister. So that's when I started giving a story about a woman who's rational, pragmatic, married to a man who is very traditional. And there's a conflict between them. So I had this basic premise. My cousin sister lived in Punjab, so I went to Uttarakhand to see if I can do the story in Uttarakhand. And there, I found this ritual, jagar, which is the climax of the film. It’s a visual manifestation of the belief. So then I set it up in Uttarakhand and I did five, six months of research, spread out around two years, to create the authenticity and recreate that world.

50620599788_2ae1225214_kVinamrata Rai appears in 'Fire in the Mountains' by Ajitpal Singh, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The challenges of filming in a remote, mountainous location

Once Singh began production in Uttarakhand, it was far from smooth.

Singh: The nightmare began on the first day of the shoot. Our light was going to come, and there was one truck with light and generators, and it got stuck because it was coming to the village, and the entire road collapsed. It just vanished. There was a landslide, and the entire road vanished in front of the truck. It literally happened, the truck tried to go back to take another route, and another part vanished behind the truck. So our truck was stuck on a road with two parts gone, front and back. It was literally on an island.

And then our line producer, he had contact with the government. He called the army, and the army came and repaired the road for us to get the light.

Ajit_fitm_shoot_1Ajitpal Singh directing on the set of 'Fire in the Mountains' located in the Uttarakhand region of the Himalayas.

The production

For cameras and other tools, everything had to be chosen to fit the remote region.

Singh: Our producer wanted us to shoot on really a good camera, like a heavy-duty RED or ARRI. But the cinematographer and I felt we needed a smaller camera. So we opted for Alexa Mini...for the second camera...a Sony a7S II. Wherever there was rough terrain, we would use a gimbal. The cinematographer, Dominique, had something very interesting. It's a DIY moonlight. He would fill the balloon, around three feet long, with helium. And he would fill around 10 of those balloons. And then he had connected them with three fishing rods. So it would go up, and with the three fish rods from three directions, he could control it and stabilize it, and then he would bounce the light on this balloon and create the moonlight effect.

We didn't have so many lights. We shot the entire film on two portable generators. I don't know about in Europe or in the U.S. but in India, there is a tendency to light the entire space, and then control it in the DI, in the grading. In the grading, you start making dark corners. But Dominique and I decided that we will do it during the shooting. We will not illuminate the entire space, just what we need to see.

So we did rehearsals first, to give complete freedom to the actor to sit, walk wherever they want to walk. And then we would light according to what they were doing in the scene.

Forget networking, just study films!

Singh has had an incredible journey, and at 44, he's made his first feature. What is his advice for others?

Singh: In 2009 or so, some of my friends had come to Bombay. I was still living in Ahmedabad. And they had become producers, production designers. They were really successful. I started to feel very insecure. Why am I in Ahmedabad? I should also go to Bombay, I should start networking with people.

50621447862_27f031124f_bAjitpal Singh, director of 'Fire in the Mountains.'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Then I read this book called Screenwriters Masterclass. And one of the interviews was by Guillermo Arriaga, the writer of Amores Perros and 21 Grams and Babel. And the journalist asked him, “What would be your advice for aspiring writers about networking?”

And he said, “I would advise not to bother about networking. If your work has legs, it will run. If your work doesn't have a leg, it will crawl anyway. So focus on your craft.” And that was the interview that kept me back in Ahmedabad. I decided to stay and to write a screenplay.

So I did. I sent it to Sundance. I got into the Screenwriters Lab. And guess who was my mentor? Guillermo Arriaga! So my advice would be that, focus on your craft.

Want to see Ajitpal Singh's work? Follow Fire in the Mountains on Facebook or Instagram.

Can’t take part in this year’s festivities? Check out the rest of our 2021 Sundance Film Festival coverage here.