Consider two scenes, both in 2021 productions. One is in the fifth episode of Tabbar, a streaming series set in Jalandhar, Punjab. Omkar (Pavan Malhotra) is getting drunk in a cheap bar, the kind where water is served in a bathroom mug. After a while, he gets to his feet unsteadily and starts dancing around the room. The other is from the film Fire In The Mountains. Dharam, whose wife runs a modest home-stay in Munsiyari, is entertaining some guests. He too gets drunk and starts dancing to a rap number, as wild as Omkar is in control.
Both scenes reveal character through dance and demeanour, but the real link between them is that they are directed by the same person. Ajitpal Singh is at the tail end of a breakthrough year. Fire In The Mountains, his first feature, played at the Sundance Film Festival in February. His short film Rammat Gammat (2018) was added on MUBI in March. And Tabbar released this month on SonyLIV.
“Actually, I can’t dance, unless I am really drunk,” Singh laughs, when I ask him about the two sequences. “Both these scenes were unscripted. When I am on set I am always thinking, what would the character do in this situation? And usually, something that you don’t think about works better than the obvious answer.”
Singh wasn’t initially involved with Tabbar, a slow-burn drama about a family of four forced to make some dangerous but lifesaving choices. But when producer Ajay Rai consulted him on the script (Harman Wadala is the series creator), Singh realised he wanted to direct it; he saw his parents in the couple played by Malhotra and Supriya Pathak. Having lived in Punjab as a child and visited regularly since, he also knew this kind of small-town neighbourhood milieu, with everyone involved in everyone else’s business. He got the job and directed all eight episodes.
The relatively small number of episodes perhaps forces Tabbar’s plot to move quicker than the story warrants; there are a lot of twists, some quite gnarly, to get through in a short time. I was more taken by the performances and the atmosphere of overwhelming gloom Singh creates. There are barely any bright colours. The greys and browns are blanched, drained. Singh and cinematographer Arun Kumar referred to the look of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys (2008) and approximated the effect of processes like bleach bypass. “The metallic feel (of silver nitrate) works because it’s a thriller,” Singh says. “And the high-contrast bleach bypass is because we wanted to make faces look like landscapes.”
Singh started off making experimental films before he switched to narrative cinema in 2009. He was invited to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2012—his mentors included Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) and Asif Kapadia (Senna, Amy). The experience was “overwhelming”, he says, and he ended up putting too much pressure on himself. His first three short films went nowhere. The fourth, Rammat Gammat, was received well, and set him on the road to his first feature.
Fire In The Mountains is the story of Chandra (Vinamrata Rai), who’s trying to make enough money to get her wheelchair-bound son treated and educated. The contrast between her world view and that of her husband (Chandan Bisht)—not an evil man but a lazy and superstitious one—was inspired by the preventable death of Singh’s cousin. He spent five months in Uttarakhand, living in villages and small towns, understanding the hill culture. “Directors can’t just do academic research. You have to do visual research. You have to get into the rhythm of the place.”
You can see this immersion not just in the disturbing depiction of the jaagar shamanic ritual but in details like the studious daughter using TikTok as a means to break out from the monotony of her life. Singh assembled a non-professional cast, drawing striking performances from Rai and Bisht. He workshopped the script with the actors in reading sessions and was pleased to see them take ownership of their characters. Rai, for instance, would refuse to say and do things that she didn’t believe her character would.
Singh’s three releases offer a snapshot of the avenues open to independent directors in India today: a short film on MUBI, the only platform that showcases arthouse, indie and documentary cinema; a feature film that travelled the festival circuit and is awaiting a digital release; and long-form storytelling in an OTT “original”. He says that since the pandemic, the OTT space that offered such promise to indie directors a few years ago has diverted a lot of its resources to big stars and studios. “They are not realising that the internet audience watches content from Iran, Japan, France, Germany now,” he says. “They are looking for something that’s beyond the formulaic writing and film-making of Bollywood.”