Dispatch: Moonlit Cinema - A Walk on the Wild Side
The inside scoop on what went down at Lost The Plot's Moonlit Cinema screening of 'Wild Karnataka,' India's first wildlife documentary film to be shot entirely in 4K and be narrated by Sir David Attenborough! Words by Rhea Gangavkar & Nikita Naiknavare
On a crisp, moonlit night on the edge of Pune city, a group of 150 strong huddled together around a 20 ft. wide screen. They had arrived with much gusto for Lost The Plot’s Moonlit Cinema screening of the documentary film ‘Wild Karnataka.’ The evening began with the usual hustle - young people rushing to get the best seats, kids zipping around in a “movie theatre,” parents enjoying the pretty sunset, chit chat amongst fellow wildlife lovers…at its heart, a community screening!
Finally, the sky turned from pink to purple. Latecomers settled down. We welcomed the audience and introduced them to marine biologist and cinematographer, Pooja Rathod - a key member of the Wild Karnataka filmmaking team who had very kindly agreed to indulge us with a Q&A after the show.
And then, with a flicker of the projector, the film took over. We sat transfixed, absorbing the larger-than-life landscapes that had suddenly filled the screen, the roaring of the waterfalls and thick monsoon-laden foliage a treat to our senses. Mesmerised sighs and gasps of surprise floated up to the star-studded sky as we collectively realised that this splendid natural beauty exists in our own backyard!
Wild Karnataka is India’s first independently produced blue chip wildlife documentary. It is shot entirely using 4K cameras and aerial drone technology. It is also the first Indian film to be narrated by veteran naturalist Sir David Attenborough, the iconic voice behind the BBC's Planet Earth series. Traversing South India’s largest state, the dreamlike film takes its audience through a variety of ecosystems, supremely rich in biodiversity, all coexisting within one single state. From the wet evergreens of the Western Ghats and the deciduous forests of Mysore to the thorn scrub forests and rocky outcrops of Ramnagar and Daroji, finally extending to the state’s riverine and marine ecosystems, the film follows not just tigers, leopards and elephants, but also lesser-known creatures like hornbills, the Lion tailed macaque, King cobras and countless species of amphibians and reptiles.
No wonder that kids and parents alike squealed with delight at the antics of the adorable otters and “ooooed” and “aaaahed” when the peacocks spread their shimmery tails! Fascination peppered the chilly November night, punctuated only by the toasty warmth of the coal-heaters. As the credits rolled and we slowly tore ourselves from the screen, we welcomed back Pooja. Below are a few excerpts from that delightful conversation with her.
What was the team structure like?
“The main people behind the film are Bangalore based wildlife filmmakers Kalyan Varma (my boss) and Amoghavarsha J.S., IFS Officer Vijay Mohan Raj and naturalist Sarath Champati. Their knowledge and research about the terrains and landscapes was instrumental to the film coming together. We filmed consistently for about 4 years. The team was made up of 8 primary cameramen. Certain areas also required specialisation. For instance, I was initially roped in by Kalyan to cover only the underwater parts, given my background as a marine biologist. But things went well so I started assisting with the on-ground shoots as well. The key to wildlife filmmaking is to be able to wait for long hours, because you cannot entirely predict the movements of the animals. Despite having knowledge of their life cycles you have to be extremely patient and observant to spot an animal in its natural habitat.”
How did you prioritise the shoot? What was spontaneous and what was planned?
“Things like the peacock dancing, the frog flagging were planned. We knew that mating season occurs at a specific time of the year and that we had to be there to catch it. But some interactions were totally out of the blue - like the confrontation between the otters and the tiger at the watering hole, the incident between the jungle kitten and the deadly King Cobra. Those took us completely by surprise - I guess we were at the right place at the right time!”
How instrumental is the music to the film?
“It is absolutely essential! The music adds so much personality to each interaction and it’s what has made the documentary as magnificent as it is. Ricky Kej, a very talented Grammy Award winning musician, is the soul behind it. If you remove the music from the film, it doesn't make as much of an impact I feel, so yes, the music is very instrumental to the film.”
What was the budget?
“This film’s primary funding came through eco-resorts and a few corporate CSR quotas. Because of the advanced technology we had to invest in, we needed a considerably large budget, which was around 4 crores. Although the Forest Department did not provide funding per se, they supported the project giving access to forest reserves and facilitating the permissions necessary to shoot there. This is a completely Indian production, apart from the final edit, which was done in the best production house in Bristol. This makes us proud.”
What was it like working with Sir David Attenborough?
"Unfortunately, I was not present when the team met him, but they said it was a dream - one of them had actual tears in their eyes while describing it. Sir David’s enthusiasm and professionalism was incredibly awe-inspiring, even at the age of 93!"
What signs of climate change did you see at ground level?
"The unpredictability of the weather and the fluctuating seasonal cycles have definitely made it more difficult to shoot. For instance, we could not spot peacocks for quite some time, because of the extreme heat in the summer. The heat also made the long waiting hours, when you let the animals grow accustomed to our presence, extremely harsh. With the foot-flagging frogs, although the area we were shooting in was very small, because of heavy rains the shallow pools necessary for the frogs to come out and be visible from didn’t exist. So we had to try again another time. And of course from the film, you can see how climate change has made it much harder for the animals themselves to find food, water and shelter. They need to travel much further to find these things now."
Could you give us some names of the places where you shot?
"Oh, it was all over Karnataka, but the few places that we shot the more prominent footage like the tiger and the panther were Nagarhole and Kabini. The reptiles and King Cobra we shot at Agumbe, and the otters we found at the River Kaveri Wildlife Sanctuary. The hornbills were at Dandeli while there were fish and Moray eels at Netrani Island."
Who showed you around these parts?
"We had various sources: sometimes it was the forest department officials, sometimes social media info and footage helped, local guides and villagers and even chance explorations led us to some of these places. The Black Panther ‘Blackie’ is something of a local celebrity. He is so elusive that when he is seen, all of Bangalore’s media reports it. So we knew that a film on Karnataka’s wildlife wouldn’t be complete without him! Tracking him took quite a bit of time and effort of course - we had to try multiple times before he graced the camera."
How did you capture the sound of the animals in the wild?
"Wherever possible we recorded it simultaneously using a boom Mic. But there was also extensive use of Foley sound added afterwards, like leaves rustling, or the tiger’s walk etc."
Were there any dangers involved while filming?
"When you’re in the wild of course there is danger, especially with the filming of elephants. But there was a lot of shared knowledge in the group, so we used tactics like standing in the opposite wind direction so that the elephants don’t get a whiff of you and move away. Also, animals don’t attack without giving warning signals. With elephants, it is the flapping of the ear and raising of the trunk. You just need to be watchful for these signs."
Did any funny incidents take place?
"I don’t know if it’s funny but the incident with the jungle kitten and the cobra was amusing. It was completely unscripted and unexpected. The place where we shot that footage itself was a surprise. For many days, it was completely devoid of any signs of animals in the daytime. We waited restlessly for many days with no animal sightings at all. But once, completely by chance, I happened to go there around sunset and found the place teeming with life! It was also a good realisation to know that animals and humans (the villagers around that area) can still coexist in harmony if they just adjust to each other’s schedules, which they had."
Do you feel that all of Karnataka is captured in the film?
"Not at all, but we have almost 400 hours of footage which we had to relentlessly edit to bring it down to an hour. Karnataka is so rich in biodiversity and so is Maharashtra - it would be impossible to cover all of it in just an hour. I would really love to capture Maharashtra in a similar way too."
400 hours… So is there a director's cut?
"Yes, there will probably be a Wild Karnataka II, along with a Wild Maharashtra, as well maybe..." Well, we for one are crossing all our fingers!
The Wild Karnataka screening took place on Saturday 9th November 2019 as part of our ‘Moonlit Cinema’ series at The Poona Western Club in Bhugaon. We’d like to thank the club for their support and hospitality. Also, a big shout out to our beverage partners, Umamibrew and Pune based microbrewery Great State Aleworks for successfully quenching our adrenaline rush with organic kombucha and craft beer!