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A jungle cat has been raising her kittens on a tiny hillock, surrounded by villages on all sides, in the rugged Koppal town of northern Karnataka. The family competes for space on the crowded mound with several other families of foxes, jackals, hyenas and six other jungle cat species – all amidst a human-dominated landscape. One day, unnoticed by the mother, a king cobra slithers up to her playful kittens. One inquisitive little kitten, inches dangerously closer to the predator who, by then, has raised its hood, ready to strike. What ensues is an intense face-off between the snake and the gutsy little kitten.
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This riveting encounter is now part of India’s first blue-chip natural history film, Wild Karnataka.
“I wasn’t expecting to shoot something like this, honestly. I just chanced upon it,” Pooja Rathod, the cameraperson who shot the rare confrontation during her month-long expedition to Koppal, told Mongabay-India. “I was initially wondering what kind of danger the foxes posed to the tiny kittens, but then the cobra encounter happened,” she added.
Rathod and her colleagues, who spent several weeks filming the jungle cat’s familial behaviour, were part of the project, which aims to put both India’s rich biodiversity and documentary-making skills on the global map.
And the response Wild Karnataka received at the special screening in early March to mark the World Wildlife Day indicated as much. It helped, of course, that British conservationist and natural historian Sir David Attenborough lent his iconic voice to the film, whose original background score has been composed by Grammy-winning Ricky Key.
Wild Karnataka captures dramatic natural events in high-brow format, accompanied by a sophisticated narration which are key elements of blue-chip films. It is set for public release next month.
Behind the scenes of India’s first blue-chip natural history film, Wild Karnataka. Photo by Wild Karnataka team.
The wild wonder that is Karnataka
Karnataka, south India’s largest state, is both species-rich and blessed with a diverse landscape. It is home to more wild elephants and tigers than anywhere else on the planet, narrates the film. From coral-spotted underwater ecosystems and arid desert areas to wetlands-surrounded forest patches and unspoiled mountain terrain, the state has a diversity of habitats.
Capturing this vast biodiversity, in all its glory, in an hour-long film was a challenge that producers, Kalyan Varma and Amoghavarsha J.S. – who have been associated with BBC and National Geographic in the past – took up happily. From the very beginning, though, they knew that they had their work cut out for them, beginning with picking the best shots – from 400 hours of footage of a four-year-long production. “We’ve never dealt with so much data. At the end of filming, we had about 75 terabytes of footage,” said Amoghavarsha, pointing out that data storage and processing of the footage was a key aspect of the project, which had a tight budget of about Rs. 20 million.
“We didn’t want to flood the film with behaviour sequences. We decided we’d have fewer but richer behaviour sequences,” said Varma. “We had a beautiful sequence of weaver birds. A male builds a nest attracting a female, which in turn inspects the home and mates with the male. We spend many weeks on it. But we had to drop it because we already have a courtship sequence of peacocks. So, it was hard,” said Varma, adding that this is the first time a documentary of this kind has been produced chiefly for domestic consumption and not with western audiences in mind. “It’s like choosing between one of your two kids,” Amoghavarsha chimed in.
The biggest revelation for the filmmakers was the existence of rich wildlife in northern parts of the state, which is relatively drier than other parts. More so because the team shot more than half of their footage outside the state’s 21 wildlife sanctuaries and five national parks.
The team, however, experienced more than just awe and wonder in the four-year-long journey, which included three years of active shooting. There were hurdles in the form of administrative and logistical challenges – from assembling a crew to securing permissions for filming at certain spots. With help from the government authorities, who were familiar with some of the team members, they were able to iron out some of the disputes quickly. Also, given the government is directly backing the project, it helped the filmmakers to accelerate the permission approvals.
The team spent 3 years actively shooting across the diverse habitats in Karnataka. More than half of their footage outside the state’s 21 wildlife sanctuaries and five national parks. Photo by Wild Karnataka team.
A different perspective
Both Amoghavarsha and Varma felt that the presence of a significant number of lenswomen brought in a captivating layer of sensibilities to the film in terms of capturing the sequences. About 40 percent of camerapersons were women; notably higher compared to similar productions elsewhere in India, according to the filmmakers.
Made for the Karnataka Forest Department, with funds raised from independent sources, the government hopes to screen the films in educational institutions across the state. A Kannada version, for the local audience, is also in the making.
According to forest officer Vijay Mohan Raj, who is a key member of the team and also representing the forest department, the biggest takeaway from the film is that it does not focus only leopards, tigers and elephants but on several lesser-known species. “It’s amusing to see that even people from Karnataka (who saw the film) were surprised with the kind of natural history that’s been showcased,” said Mohan Raj, adding that the government has plans for a long-term outreach programme to raise awareness about the state’s natural beauty through the documentary and follow it up with wider conservation efforts for the ecosystems. “Once people’s curiosity is kindled through projects like Wild Karnataka, it can be easily followed up by conservation practices not just for animals like tigers but also smaller birds and animals,” he said.
According to Mohan Raj, the short distance between most of the film’s locales from Bengaluru, India’s technology capital, with a sizeable community of wildlife enthusiasts was a huge advantage for tapping wildlife filmmakers, camera-crew and researchers for the documentary.
The government is planning to raise awareness about the state’s natural beauty in educational institutions through the documentary. Photo by Wild Karnataka team.