There’s a scene in Wild Karnataka in which a group of sleek, wet, adorable small otters chase a tiger. It’s a surprising scene, for obvious reasons. But then, as Amoghavarsha J.S., one of the film’s team of makers, tells ThePrint, the single greatest lesson he and his colleagues learnt while shooting this movie is that a script is utterly useless.
“Whether it’s witnessing unusual behaviour, watching an underdog get the better of a giant, waiting for an animal who decides to break its pattern and sleep in, or waiting for rain that is late, you have to be prepared for all kinds of situations. And above all, be patient,” he says.
And that patience shows. It took Amoghavarsha, Kalyan Varma and their crack team of naturalists, researchers, camerapeople, not to mention production crew, four years (double the original deadline of two) to make this wildlife documentary that showcases the wonders of Karnataka. The 53 minutes that made it to the final cut were culled from more than 400 hours of footage (Amoghavarsha recalls that the team ran out of hard disks) shot using technology not used in Indian movies of this kind before, including drones and underwater cameras.
Wild Karnataka, completed in 2019 and released in the theatres Friday, is a pioneering film in more ways than one. It’s the first Indian wildlife movie to be shot in 4K ultra-HD, which means that every ripple of an elephant’s ear, every droplet of water on a tiger’s neck, every feather on a river tern swooping into the water for fish is shown in sharp, glorious detail. It’s also the first time an Indian wildlife documentary will see a commercial release in theatres. This is a very big deal, and Amoghavarsha is excited, not least to see the reaction of young children. He believes a movie like this will go a long way in creating awareness of, and interest in, India’s rich natural heritage.
And then there is David Attenborough. The legendary British broadcaster and natural historian has voiced some of the finest wildlife documentary series ever made, including the BBC’s Life, The Blue Planet and Planet Earth, and the 2019 Netflix show Our Planet.
It wasn’t easy to get the 93-year-old on board to narrate his first Indian wildlife movie, but Amoghavarsha, Varma and their team, including renowned naturalist Sarath Champati, were convinced that this was key to putting Karnataka on the global map. Their own credentials, including, between them, work for National Geographic, the BBC, Lonely Planet, the UN and the Smithsonian, helped.
Amoghavarsha hasn’t been a wildlife filmmaker all his career, though. The Bengaluru boy was a techie, with a well-paying job and an interest in the animal kingdom since childhood.
It was in 2008, while he was working at AskLaila, that this interest became something he couldn’t ignore anymore, and he quit his job to become a cameraman. A few small films for the Karnataka forest department and some freelance assignments later, he and his old friend and fellow Bangalorian wildlife documentarian Kalyan Varma decided it was time to make their own movie about the wonders of their own home.
And so was born Wild Karnataka.
All creatures great and small
The movie offers a 365-day, 360-degree glimpse of Karnataka’s topography and wildlife, from the jungles of Kabini to the boulders of Hampi via the coastline. Elephants lumber through dense forest to reach watering holes where they bathe and play with their young; tigers (Karnataka has one of the highest populations of the cats in India) glide in between tall grasses as they stalk spotted deer and other prey. These are the more obvious shots that one expects in an Indian wildlife documentary.
But the real joy of this movie is in the non-obvious, the not-so-famous creatures who aren’t the face of conservation campaigns, and the facts that Attenborough gives us about them. So we learn about little sand bubbler crabs, who live in the sand on shores, feed on wet sand when the tide comes in and leave behind balls of it on the beach. We witness the hilarious mating rituals of peacocks who engage in competition to win the right to mate with coolly appraising peahens. We are privileged to see the hatching of baby cobras, we learn that the dry season provides better opportunities to packs of dholes (wild dogs) to hunt deer, we find out that Malabar pied hornbills feed on Strychnos nux-vomica, a neurotoxic plant that is fatal to most vertebrates — and this monopoly on the fruit makes these birds the most prolific disperser of seeds in the forest.
And this is, as mentioned, just 53 minutes out of more than 400 hours.
The film opens in the post-monsoon season, when the jungle is green and clean and its residents have easy enough access to food, then takes the viewer through six dry months, when watering holes are booked out and river terns swoop into the shallowing water to pluck out fish for their young, finally ending with the advent of the most important seasonal phenomenon, the monsoon, which regenerates the land and breathes new life into the animal kingdom.
And keeping time with the birdcalls and croaks of frogs is the music scored for the film by Grammy-winning composer and environmentalist Ricky Kej. He’s used a distinctly Indian vibe, from a light tarana sung while the crabs do their thing to swelling crescendo when the waterfalls gush in the first monsoon rain.
If at all there’s a quibble with the film, it would be that the vocals are sometimes a little too shrill and a little too cliched, and mostly distracting. The music works best when it is purely instrumental, like the cheerful percussion beats that accompany a sloth bear cub trying to get its fill of ants.
How to shoot animals and stay eco-friendly
Four years and around 20,000 hours in the wild was not easy for the crew of women and men making this film. But by far the greatest challenge, says Amoghavarsha, was to shoot this film without disturbing the creatures they were shooting. “Our team size was kept small — we’d usually send two people out into the field at a time, to minimise our footprint. Plus we have a really well-trained team of naturalists who know their wildlife etiquette. We shot at safe distances and zoomed in so as not to piss off the animals — which is where the high-quality equipment came in really handy.”
The crew shot with a combination of the Panasonic VariCam 35, two smaller cameras and a drone. In fact, the project was also a challenge for the camera crew, because this quality of aerial and underwater photography has no precedent in Indian docu-films.
The other challenge, of course, was money. The film was funded in large part from various companies’ CSR budgets — SMIORE, Discovery Village — and the crew was hosted by Jungle Lodges & Resorts at their outposts across the state. Although the film was supported by the Karnataka forest department, the filmmakers were clear the support would be more in terms of logistics and permissions, rather than money.
“When you take money from the government, things become a bit different, a bit hard, and we wanted to avoid that,” says Amoghavarsha. “But Vinay Luthra, who was then the principal chief conservator of forests and head of Forest Force at Karnataka forest department, was very open to giving us permission for everything, and helping us out as much as he could. All he said was, ‘Give us something world-class.’ And I hope we’ve been able to do that, to show the world what Karnataka has to offer.”
Wild Karnataka released in PVR Cinemas on 17 January in multiple cities across India.