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Place in the sun

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on February 04, 2021

Path to happiness: A still from Fire in the Mountains, one of two Indian entries to the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, held from January 28 to February 3 this year

Two Indian entries make a mark at the just concluded Sundance Film Festival

* The Sundance Film Festival, an annual event organised by the Sundance Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah, was primarily online this year

* Fire in the Mountains, one of two Indian entries, tells the story of Chandra and Dharam, the parents of a 12-year-old boy confined to a wheelchair

* Writing with Fire followed the editors of Khabar Lahariya, a newspaper run by a team of Dalit women in Bundelkhand, and won the audience award and the special jury “Impact for Change” award in the World Cinema Documentary category at the festival

* Constance Wu’s CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) won the US Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award and the Directing Award in its category

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An exorcism ritual unfolds in the lap of the Himalayas. As the village deity is summoned and requested to treat the ailing boy, the mother looks on desperately. She had not wanted any of this. She had hoped her son would receive regular treatment in a hospital, and reach it with a road that the village still didn’t have.

Fire in the Mountains, one of two Indian entries to the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, held from January 28 to February 3 this year, tells the story of Chandra and Dharam, the parents of a 12-year-old boy confined to a wheelchair. The couple runs Switzerland Homestay, a guest house tucked away in a Himalayan village. The Hindi feature film was well received by the audience at Sundance where it had its world premiere, says its director, Ajitpal Singh.

Man and the camera: Ajitpal Singh, the director of Fire in the Mountains

 

While this was fiction, the other Indian entry Writing with Fire, which premiered in the documentary section at the festival, was also a women-led film. It followed the editors of Khabar Lahariya, a newspaper run by a team of Dalit women in Bundelkhand, and won the Audience Award at the festival. The Hindi film, directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, tracks the women editorial team in the remote setting straddling Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. While the newspaper is going through a digital transition, the team carries on with its regular work — challenging stereotypes, reporting often from hostile environments and executing video reports with the help of mobile phones.

Ghosh and Thomas, who studied film-making at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, have directed several award-winning shorts, but this was their first full-length documentary feature at 92 minutes. The film also won the special jury “Impact for Change” award in the World Cinema Documentary category. The section showcases a selection of 10 feature-length documentaries from around the world.

The Sundance Film Festival, an annual event organised by the Sundance Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah, was primarily online this year. “It was handled pretty efficiently, in my opinion, with a limited number of tickets selling online,” says Singh. “We were even provided with VR headsets to make it as real as possible.”

In the news: Writing with Fire won the audience award as well as the special jury “Impact for Change” award in the World Cinema Documentary category

 

However, Singh, who is based in Mumbai, missed the “real feeling” of the festival. “Whoever says that the future of work is in Zoom calls is forgetting that we need to meet, to touch, to be in each other’s company, and that feeling is completely different from the one within a screen. We need to be together to create art.”

Singh, whose 2018 film Rammat Gammat received a special mention at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival in Germany that year, says Fire in the Mountains emerged out of personal tragedy. He wrote the story after losing a cousin, who was not taken for treatment of a medical ailment because her husband believed she had been possessed by a spirit.

“This incident had taken place in Punjab, and initially that is where I had thought I would shoot. However, my producer wanted to shoot in Uttarakhand. As I did the recce, I realised how the story was a better fit there, because several communities over there have the very cinematic ritual of jagar, where similar problems are dealt with.”

In jagar, Singh explains, the community deity is summoned and is asked to decide what is to be done in a particular situation.

“I had judged my brother-in-law for my sister’s death, but this film was also a process of letting go, realising that more than the people, it is the system that perpetuates such beliefs.” The lack of access to roads often leads to similar difficulties in treatment, he adds.

An Indo-US production at the festival was Lata, directed by Los Angeles-based Alisha Tejpal. It navigated the world of a domestic worker in an upper-class household in Mumbai. Among the Indian films screened at the festival in recent years were Umrika by Prashant Nair and Photograph and The Lunchbox by Ritesh Batra.

Women-made films were prominent at the festival this year. CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), directed by Constance Wu, won the US Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award and the Directing Award in its category; its rights were sold to Apple Studios for US$25 million, the highest yet for a film at Sundance.

Film producer Tabitha Jackson, the first woman of colour to head the film festival, maintained it was not a “virtual” festival, but a “real” one. “The power of these artists and their work was what made it so,” she said in a statement to the press.

Sundance, founded by American actor Robert Redford in 1978, is the largest independent film festival in the US.

Published on February 04, 2021

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