In the film, Wild Karnataka, apart from its famed tigers and Asiatic elephants (the state is home to the largest population of the species in the world), we also meet the lesser-known lion-tailed macaque, the sloth bear, jungle cats, king cobras, the hornbill, the sand bubbler crab, otters, and many others. But when you ask filmmaker Kalyan Varma about the most dangerous thing they faced in the jungles, he says, it is the ticks and the leeches. “It’s the smaller things that make it harder. These forest ticks itch for months sometimes,” he says with a laugh.
A team of four — filmmakers Varma, Amoghavarsha JS, forest services officer Vijay Mohan Raj, and naturalist Sarath Champati — collaborated about five years ago to span the length and breadth of Karnataka to tell the tales of its diverse wildlife. They cover a range of landscapes — from the evergreen forests of Western Ghats to the deciduous forests of Mysore district, thorn scrub forests and rocky outcrops of Ramanagara and Daroji, and Kanara, the long coastline. Most of these locations are only a seven-hour drive from the capital city of Bengaluru.
“We came up with the idea after a conversation with officials at Karnataka’s forest department. They were talking about how we make films for international platforms, but there isn’t one that takes pride of our own backyard. So we wanted to do a blue chip film that was behaviour-based, had a lot of drama, and showcased lesser-known habitats and animals,” says Varma, who has been making natural history films for over a decade. In collaboration with Icon Films, the team has come out with Wild Karnataka, the 52-minute film that took over 1500 days of production with footage from 20 cameras, and uses the ultra-high 4K broadcast quality. The film releases in theatres today, which makes it the first wildlife film to receive such a release. “It’s a bit of an experiment for all of us, and it looks like people have an appetite for such films. Our hope is that this will encourage the next generation of filmmakers to make such independent films,” says Varma, adding that a Kannada version of the film will be taken to the rural areas in Karnataka.
What makes the film even more significant is that it has narration by Sir David Attenborough, the 93-year-old English broadcaster and natural historian, known for writing and presenting some of the best natural history documentaries. The background music is by Grammy-winning composer Ricky Kej.
“If you ask someone in Delhi about wildlife, they would say Ranthambore or Corbett, and the only animal they want to see is the tiger. We wanted to break that stereotyping of wildlife. Though this is based in Karnataka, we wanted to highlight how rich India’s biodiversity is. Also, 50 per cent of the wildlife we shot in the film is outside wildlife parks and sanctuaries. India is a country that has so much wildlife in rural areas. Some of the iconic species, like the king cobra and jungle cats that we shot, were in somebody’s backyard or field,” says Varma. The state of Karnataka is home to five national parks, 33 sanctuaries and five tiger reserves.
As wildlife filmmakers, a luxury that the team enjoyed was time. “We were able to follow a single animal for many weeks. After a couple of days, the animal starts trusting you. Like the jungle cat, which is there in this film. It does not allow you anywhere near her kittens. But as we spent a lot of time around her, she let us come really close, to the point that she left her kittens and went off to hunt. Usually, mothers don’t do that, and those are the moments you live for,” he says.
But the hardest part while working on the film was weaving the story. Varma used his mother as the benchmark. “She doesn’t care much about wildlife, so how do I get her interested and excited? If I make a story that is funny and has romance and drama, she will remember it,” he says. Music also adds to it. “Our narration is minimal, hence the music is critical in building the tension, the suspense and the drama,” says Varma. But working with Attenborough was one of the biggest highlights of working on the film, he says. “When we started making it, we never expected that one day, we will get him to narrate for us. After we had finished editing the film, we suggested this idea as a joke to our folks at Icon Films, and they said that we can try. It took a lot of convincing as he does a limited number of projects,” he says.
Talk about noticing the effects of climate change on the ground, and Varma says that it was the reason why it took them four years to make the film. For instance, it was difficult to capture the congregation of over 400 elephants, who travel from as far as 300 km, every summer, in Kabini. “For many years, it was guaranteed that you’ll see the elephants together, but in the last five years, the pattern has completely changed. Elephants start migrating when the forests have dried up, but when there is unexpected and untimely rain, they are confused and don’t see a reason to move,” he says. On the other hand, due to shortage of rain, the team found it hard to film the dancing frogs, as they did not come out and mate at all. “We see it play out in front of us. Animals live according to weather patterns where they expect certain conditions to be met for them to function,” says Varma. They had filmed the turtles too. They did not make it to the final cut, but they do tell a tale of climate change. “The sex of the turtle is determined by the temperature. Now because the sand temperature is about a degree more than the average, almost all the young ones being born are male and there are barely any female turtles. So we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. It is worrisome,” says Varma.