Grade:  B-
Not rated (would be PG-13)

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page,” St. Augustine wrote way back in the 4th century. Travel broadens your world. It increases your understanding, gives you perspective, and, if you’re able to see the world through the emotions of people whose lives are incredibly different from yours, travel also develops your sense of empathy.

If you can’t travel, film is the next best thing. Consider this: if all you and your family watch on your home theater are Hollywood-made formulaic action films and comedies, you’re “reading” just a few pages of the human experience. So I’m going to suggest, as I have in the past, that families with children old enough to manage subtitles should agree to watch a foreign film once a month, then hopefully talk about it afterwards. You could even make it a themed affair, with movie snacks or food from the culture.

Fire in the Mountains is a film in Hindi that offers plenty of possibilities for discussion, starting with the film’s background, which children can research on the Internet. This Indian film debuted in 2021 at Sundance, but for director Ajitpal Singh it was the culmination of many years of work to become a self-taught filmmaker. That’s right. No film school, no mentor—just the spark that came from seeing Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, which Singh says really touched him, enough to where he kept at it and finally created his first full-length feature at age 43.

“I connected so deeply with that film. And then I suddenly realized that cinema can be so much more than Bollywood,” he told No Film School. “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.” But he did. First he tried imitation, and it didn’t work. Finally he realized that he needed to film a subject close to his own experience. When he did that, “Suddenly the framing changed, editing changed. Everything changed because this time, I knew what I’m trying to say.” That kind of passion and persistence is certainly worth talking about with children.

The idea for Singh’s debut feature film stemmed from a cousin’s sister who died because her husband wouldn’t take her to the hospital, thinking instead that she was possessed by a ghost. It was a clash of convictions that was personal for him and set up the basic premise of this drama. Set in a remote village in the Indian Himalayas, Fire in the Mountains tells the story of a family that struggles to get ahead. They run a home-stay for tourists, but it’s quite a hike from the village bus stop and taxi stand up the mountain to where their house stands—not just for the guests, but for Chandra (Vinamrata Rai), who has to carry her crippled son down the mountain and back up again to get medical care. It would be easier if there were a road, and she saves money to pay for it. Her husband objects. Dharam (Chandan Bisht) thinks the problem is an evil spirit that put a curse on the family, and they fight over where their money should go. Meanwhile, every day finds wheelchair-bound Prakash (Mayank Singh Jaira) dealing with local bullies, and the couple’s daughter Kanchan (Harshita Tiwari) is obsessed with making social media videos of herself singing, dancing, or posing—all of which her parents see as problematic.

The film generates more questions than answers. Could the boy be faking the extent of his disability? If so, why? What about those bullies? Why is it always a group instead of a single one? How do these bullies act compared to ones in the U.S.? Is the wife or the husband right about the way their money is spent, or are they both right or both misguided? What are the parents’ concerns about their daughter spending so much time on her phone? How is technology treated in the film? Does Singh seem to sympathize with the old way of life or the new? Voiceover “news” reports proudly proclaim that India is becoming a nuclear power, one of the “advanced” countries, but what viewers see onscreen is far from advanced. Does this gap exist in the U.S. as well? Does an “advanced” country have any responsibility to bring its people into a more advanced state? Or will there always be people living in remote situations? What about the belief in ghosts and evil spirits? How do your family members feel about such things? And what about family life and roles, or how hard or easy daily life might be?

Don’t look for a neat and tidy ending. Life is messy. And don’t expect a standard plot. Fire in the Mountain strives to capture images and scenes that suggest the drama of this family’s life. It’s a visceral film that all but invites you into the world of this family to imagine yourself in their position. Considering that Fire in the Mountain is the debut feature of a self-taught filmmaker, that’s especially impressive.

As of this posting, Amazon has it for 52 percent off: $9.52.

Entire family:  No (6th grade and older?)
Run time: 82 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  Hindi Dolby 5.1 Surround
Studio/Distributor:  Kino Lorber
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG-13 for language and some violence)

Language:  6/10—A handful of f-bombs are thrown early in the film, but even that might spark conversation: is it more shocking to hear this word in a film or to read it?

Sex:  1/10—The daughter tries to emulate sexy poses she’s seen on social media

Violence:  4/10—There isn’t much violence, but what’s here could be considered extreme: an animal is sacrificed, a woman is beaten, and a boy is physically bullied

Adult situations:  4/10—There is brief drinking, smoking, and partying, intended to show a contrast between husband and wife

Takeaway: Singh’s first feature leaves you feeling enriched for having watched it, though some of the bigger unanswered questions might be unsettling to some