When little terrorist was released in 2004, it made giant waves. The 15-minute tale of a Pakistani boy who strays across the border was nominated for an Oscar in the live action short category. It also became India’s first short film to go into theatrical distribution. Most important, it heralded the advent of Ashvin Kumar as a sensitive director capable of garnering international acclaim.
The Oscar eluded Little Terrorist and, in the aftermath of that brief glow of global glory, he was in danger of being branded a ‘one-film wonder’. But he had other ideas. Three years on, the 30-something director is back with a full-length feature, The Forest. It centres on the dwindling numbers of leopards and tigers and how they are falling prey to mankind. “India is home to more than half of the world’s surviving tigers. Rather than saving them from extinction, we are assisting in their depletion by indulging in activities like poaching,” states Kumar.
Doesn’t that sound a tad too serious for a commercial film? Not at all, says Kumar. The thriller, set in the jungles of Kumaon, has Javed Jaaferi portraying a forest officer. His ex-lover, played by Nandana Sen, is a childless woman who is vacationing in the forest with her husband to sort out their troubled marriage. As dark secrets tumble out and dangerous games are played, they become oblivious to signs of the lurking menace of a leopard wounded by poachers and desperate for a kill. “Rather than preaching through a documentary, I felt it would make more sense to deliver the message through the medium of an entertaining film,” he adds.
Not unusual thinking for a self-confessed film industry underdog. Bollywood, Kumar laments, is ruled by a handful of families. “It is a virtual monopoly of five-six families where the reins of a production house are inherited and films are rehashed. The bigwigs have the money but are simply too complacent to experiment. The new entrants aren’t usually welcome.”
He should know. Son of fashion designer Ritu Kumar, he has faced his share of struggle. Starting out as a theatre actor, he went on to direct plays, dabbling with plays like Becket and specialising in the theatre of the absurd. “It was a learning experience and fun, but there was little room for that kind of theatre. I didn’t really see myself making a living off bedroom farces,” he says.
So he packed his bags to pursue a postgraduate diploma in filmmaking from the London Film School, but here too he was in for a disappointment. He dropped out after the very first semester. “Making films can’t really be taught, only knowledge about basic techniques can be imparted. There was no point wasting my time to attain a degree,” he reasons.
Instead, he launched his own production company, Alipur Films, in London, besides ambling his way around film festivals to sample world cinema. South Korean films caught his fancy and Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami and Hong Kong’s Wong Kar Wai still remain Kumar’s favourites. “The global industry is booming and there is so much India can do, but somehow an attempt has never been made. I hope to tap the laboratory of stories that we as a nation have to offer. The art lies in making films that may seem local in content and inspiration, but are international in appeal.”
And that isn’t just empty talk. International sales agents, Arclight Films, are promoting The Forest, which has in its crew Markus Heursch as director of photography, Sylvain Nahmias as production designer and Roland Heap as sound designer. To ensure that the dummies of animals used in the film look real, prosthetics expert Gulliame Castigne was called in, while internationally acclaimed animal trainer Thierry Le Portiere handled the climax for which leopards where flown from France to Thailand, where part of the film was shot. “We had some of the best in the business,” smiles Kumar.
His proposed co-production with Richard Dreyfuss to convert his featurette Road to Ladakh into a full-length film may not have taken off, but Kumar is still gung-ho about making global inroads. “That is a thing of the past. Road to Ladakh may be made into a film later, but right now I’m garnering support for my forthcoming projects.”
On home turf, meanwhile, Kumar is ready with a bundle of ideas that he hopes to guide to fruition in the near future. The Forest, scheduled for release in September, will be followed by an issue-based film set in Kashmir. It will deal with Islam, terrorism and radical fundamentalism. But he is quick to assert, “It will not be a stereotypical film.” Kumar is also scripting a city-based trilogy to be shot in Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore. “Each of the three films will have a generic theme reflecting the flavour of the city,” reveals Kumar.
Moreover, he intends to compile a documentary on his road trip from Kerala to Gujarat in the 1990s. A documentary was not on his mind at that time, but Kumar felt that this would be a means to portray the cultural diversity of the country and also bring lesser-known artists into prominence. “The tour stretched into several months and we have interviews from performing artists, glimpses of folk art and the diverse traditions in different regions,” reveals Kumar.
The young filmmaker is clearly determined to prove that the Oscar nomination was no flash in the pan.