Alesser director would have gone gaga over his debut film and minted stories on the enthusiastic response. But trust ‘thinking man’s director’ Ajitpal Singh to use the opportunity to impress upon pressing concerns. As his much acclaimed ‘Fire in the Mountains’ streams on SonyLiv, he takes us behind the scenes on the making of an unconventional film that neither fits the Bollywood prototype, nor the festival type. He also dwells upon the challenges before indie makers. Besides, he is candid enough to admit that so far, ‘Fire in the Mountains’, that dropped last week, has not found many takers. Among those who have watched it, many are impressed that despite being ‘not a man of mountains’, he has got the life and culture of Uttarakhand right.
But to go back to the beginning, while working as an assistant to German and Canadian documentary makers, among the lessons Ajitpal learnt was ‘to observe’. During his recce trips for the film’s research, he relived the lesson. “When you talk to people, you get answers that they believe will make an impression, whereas watching them unobtrusively reveals their real self.” ‘Fire in the Mountains’ took him to Uttarakhand where he lived in a small room with a toilet he had to share with six others.
Up close, he was also exposed to how hardy women of the region are, how fascinating the custom of ‘Jagar’ is. Of course, the genesis of the film lay closer home. Losing his first cousin in Punjab to a supernatural practice had made him angry and devastated. As he began to question how ritualism was seeping into Sikhism, which it once stood against, the story began to take shape. However, the more he delved, the more he understood that rituals can’t be debunked outright. “Modern science has forgotten the scientific rationale behind rituals. Sure, rituals can’t cure diabetes or cancer, but these could play a key role in lifting of mental blocks,” he feels.
He can’t say whether incorporating the shamanic ritual in his film was the most challenging part. However, arriving at the climax that is not a direct indictment of the practice certainly was. Interestingly, the mystery behind the young boy’s inexplicable behaviour (in the film), too, had something to do with his childhood: growing up in Gujarat at the height of anti-Sikh sentiments in the country, how he, the only Sikh boy in his class, hated to go to school.
As people watch the film through different lenses, some finding it a critique of touristy India and development and others hailing it as salute to a woman’s inner strength, what is his perspective? He laughs, “If I knew what I was writing, why would I be quoting Haruki Murakami, ‘Which is why I am writing this book. To think. To understand.’” Besides, he feels that you can’t write or make films with preconceived notions. “When I decided I will make films for the festivals, none of my shorts worked.”
Today, ‘Fire in the Mountains’ has been to prestigious festivals like Sundance, but he is still not over the moon. Rather, he says, “Who are the audiences at the festivals? They are already well-versed with literature, cinema; it’s like converting the converted.” In fact, he shares how the biggest, rather dismal, creative challenge for independent filmmakers is: “What to do with the film once it is made.”
The OTT-driven landscape of entertainment, too, has not helped the cause of indie makers much. “Seriously, how many independent films are bought by the streamers? The last film I saw was ‘Chhello Show’, perhaps picked up by the platform as it was India’s Oscar entry. The data itself is telling how independent filmmakers are ignored.” In his case, the mega-success of web series ‘Tabbar’ that won eight Filmfare OTT Awards last year could have paved the way for the release of ‘Fire in the Mountains’’ on OTT. On whether makers need to strike a middle ground as he did with ‘Tabbar’, he says, “When I make a film, I don’t have a blueprint in my mind that this is going to be mainstream or art-house.”
The reason why he became an independent filmmaker was to “question everything that is a privileged norm and you want people to engage with your inner voice”. At the moment, as he is busy making a film based in Punjab and a web series about class conflict, there is no set method/pattern. All he knows is, “The material talks to you, tells you that it needs the poetry of Baba Farid (‘Tabbar’), decides the treatment.”
In pursuit of “the profound truth” that needs to be illuminated, he also understands what Abhijit Naskar says, “Truth is an ever-evolving force. And if your mind gets attached to the truth of today, it won't be able to accept the truth of tomorrow.”
No wonder, truth is not cast in stone but comes in complex shades in his work.
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