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Exclusive: The Story Behind Wild Karnataka, India’s First Blue Chip Natural History Film!

Stunning drone footage, Sir David Attenborough's legendary voice and 4k ultra HD resolution that captures the tiniest of details—this promises to be a landmark documentary for India! #WildIndia #WildKarnataka

After four years and 400 hours of footage, the Karnataka forest department is set to release India’s first blue chip natural history film ‘Wild Karnataka’ on March 3, 2019.

Narrated by the legendary Sir David Attenborough, the documentary which captures the breath-taking natural wildlife of Karnataka is a product of a team of world-class Indian filmmakers with Kalyan Varma and Amoghvarsha JS at the helm.

In an exclusive conversation with The Better India (TBI), Kalyan Varma, an ace wildlife photographer and filmmaker from Bengaluru who has worked for nearly 15 years with the likes of the BBC and National Geographic, takes us through the story behind “Wild Karnataka.”

If you remember Farhan, the engineer-cum-closeted wildlife photographer from the epoch-making ‘3 Idiots’, then you will find similarities in the trajectory of Kalyan’s life. An engineer once working in a top IT firm, Kalyan left behind a well-paying and steady job to pursue his passion in 2005.

“I always loved the outdoors, wildlife and nature, and began with wildlife photography before venturing into documentaries. Today, I do freelance work doing documentaries for the BBC and National Geographic. It was hard initially to leave a well-paying job, but I wanted to dedicate my life to nature, wildlife and the environment. Once you spend time in the forest, it’s hard to let go,” shares Kalyan.

Karnataka’s state forest department wished to document the wildlife of the state along the lines of BBC documentaries. To this end, they approached Kalyan four years ago.

“Working in close collaboration with the forest department helped us gain complete access to the forest reserves and acquire all the necessary permissions to shoot there. One of the hardest things about documenting wildlife in India is getting the necessary permissions from the forest department and thus acquiring unrestricted access to the forests,” he says.

What many people do not t know is that the state has the largest concentration of tigers and elephants anywhere in the world. Karnataka is home to 10 per cent of the global Tiger population. However, whenever anyone says wildlife, our minds point to tigers, elephants and leopards. Through this documentary, the production team has tried to depict those animals that people are not aware of—bear, otter, jungle cats, wolves and gliding lizards, among others.

Kalyan Varma. (Source: Kalyan Varma)
Kalyan Varma. (Courtesy: Kalyan Varma)

Working with Sir David Attenborough

Anyone with a cursory interest in wildlife must have watched documentaries like Planet Earth or The Blue Planet with Sir David Attenborough’s matchless voice leading you through the natural wonders of our planet. Attenborough started the culture of creating wildlife documentaries in the 1950s.

He was the catalyst behind Kalyan’s desire to get into wildlife documentary. He may be 93 years old, but he talks about wildlife with the enthusiasm of a 10-year-old, reveals Kalyan.

“One key reason why we reached out to him was, we wanted this documentary to have a global reach. Getting him to narrate it in his inimitable voice would get other wildlife enthusiasts around the world to recognise this documentary. However, getting him on-board wasn’t an easy process. Firstly, he is 93 years old, does very few documentaries and mostly works with the BBC. As someone who has worked with the BBC for a long time, I had to leverage all my influence. It took about six months of negotiations. We had to show him that by lending his voice we could do a lot for nature conservation in these parts,” says Kalyan.

Attenborough finally agreed, and Kalyan went to London to meet him to work on the narration. Reminiscing about the meeting, Attenborough’s humility and love for nature stand out the most in Kalyan mind.

“He came to the studio by himself, offered his opinions on the script, and loved the visuals of the film. Even though he was late for our appointment by only two minutes, he was very apologetic. Sir David was truly an amazing person to work with on this documentary,” recalls Kalyan.

Collaborative effort

Unlike wildlife photography where you capture one particular moment, documentaries require recording animals in action which makes the process painstakingly time-consuming, but ultimately worth it. Moreover, one cannot use a set schedule to make such documentaries. It requires both patience and quick responses of the crew to capture a particular animal’s behaviour in its natural habitat.

Four people made up the core team of the crew—Amogh and Kalyan as the lead filmmakers and Sarath Champati and Vijay Mohan Raj (forest department official) to handle logistics. More than 15 camera-persons—including an equal number of men and women—assisted the core team.

Still from the Wild Karnataka documentary. (Source: Kalyan Varma)
A still from the Wild Karnataka documentary. (Courtesy: Kalyan Varma)

“We began shooting around three years ago. Making a wildlife documentary is hard. Seasons decide a lot of animal behaviour. For the first two years of shooting, the state was suffering from a drought and only in the last year did we have good rains. So, a lot of animals didn’t do the things we wanted to capture on camera during the two years of drought,” informs Kalyan.

Thankfully, in 2018, when the state received heavy rains, it became easier to film animals and their natural habitats in their full splendour. All is not easy in the world of wildlife documentaries. “During certain periods when we hoped to capture a particular animal, they wouldn’t show up. For example, I waited for more than 50 days for a critically endangered species of bird called the Great Indian Bustard to show up,” says Kalyan.

The labour of the on-site crew apart, conceiving a documentary on wildlife without the collaboration of scientific expertise and people invested in nature conservation is impossible as well as impractical. Thus, more than a dozen scientists, nature conservationists and non-profits were part of the extended crew.

“In North Karnataka, for example, where we filmed the wolves and jungle cats, we worked with Deccan Foundation, an NGO dedicated to protecting wildlife. They would help us with when to take certain shots or where the animals would appear. These people have been working with local communities to protect these rare species, and without their efforts, we wouldn’t have been able to capture these animals on film,” says Kalyan.Still from the Wild Karnataka documentary. (Source: Kalyan Varma)A still from the Wild Karnataka documentary. (Courtesy: Kalyan Varma)

Capturing different habitats

Another critical facet of wildlife in Karnataka is the natural habitat in which the animals thrive. The documentary showcases habitat that go beyond reserved forests—deserts, rainforests, grasslands and even coral reefs along the coastline.

“People in Karnataka do not know that we have amazing coral reefs in places like Netrani, a small island off the coast of Karnataka in the Arabian Sea. It is situated approximately 10 nautical miles from the temple town of Murudeshwara and takes about an hour on the boat to reach. These are some of the best coral reefs in India,” says Kalyan.

The documentary also captures wolves in the drier lands of North Karnataka near Hampi. “Here you can also find jungle cats, black bucks and other amazing species of wildlife that we haven’t seen or don’t know about because there aren’t any wildlife safaris that happen there,” informs Kalyan.

About a third of the footage they filmed was not even in national parks or wildlife sanctuaries. There were many occasions, Kalyan informs, where they would enter a village or somebody’s farm, to find wild animals busy with something.

For example the King Cobras. “We find them in Agumbe, a high-altitude village in the southwest Karnataka which isn’t part of any wildlife sanctuary. These snakes come into people’s houses, or backyards. We even found a King Cobra nest on somebody’s farm and not a wildlife sanctuary. Another example is of a lizard called Draco, which glides. It has wings. So if it wants to fly from one tree to another it just takes off. The documentary team found them on a plantation in the Western Ghats,” informs Kalyan.

Essentially, there are two key areas where they find wildlife beyond national parks—deserts, dry lands of North Karnataka like Koppla and Bellary district and the Western Ghats, particularly the Malenadu region.

“In these parts, most locals have, like, 5 acres of farming land while the other 5-10 acres of forest area is left alone. From here, once in a while, these farmers will collect some firewood. You find some of the best wildlife in these parts,” says Kalyan.

Still from the Wild Karnataka documentary. (Source: Kalyan Varma)
A still from the Wild Karnataka documentary. (Courtesy: Kalyan Varma)

Documentary and technology

“Wild Karnataka” is the first wildlife documentary in India shot in 4k ultra high definition resolution, which captures the tiniest of details. They also used low-light camera equipment which helped to film during the nocturnal hours. The crew used drones for aerial shots.

“The Karnataka forest department was kind enough to give our drone equipment full access to shoot footage. Unless you see from the sky, you don’t know what’s happening. With drones, we were able to capture animals gathering together, the routes they carve out and other similar elements. For example, we captured the migratory route elephants take and tigers in action, among other spectacular acts,” says Kalyan.

Memorable moments during the film-making process

Wildlife documentary film-making entails spending long stretches of time in the wild. The moments you cherish are when you interact with the wild animals.

“Let’s take the example of elephants. On the first day, they are really alert. Sometimes they charge at you. However, after spending many weeks with them, these elephants begin to ease off believing that these humans aren’t out there to harm us and they let you go about your business of filming them. Those are the happiest moments while filming,” shares Kalyan.

Another memorable moment for him was when they filmed an endangered jungle cat in the Koppal grasslands of North Karnataka. It was a proud moment for all as very few have caught a glimpse of this animal, including wildlife photographers who have worked for decades.

Another memorable moment for him was when they filmed an endangered jungle cat in the Koppal grasslands of North Karnataka. It was a proud moment for all as very few have caught a glimpse of this animal, including wildlife photographers who have worked for decades.

“There was this mother jungle cat, which gave birth to four kittens. She was kind enough to give us full access to her activities just five meters away from her den. She was very calm, and it helped us film the behaviour that many people don’t even have an inkling about,” says Kalyan.

The crew also documented King Cobras. It’s the only species of snake that builds its own nest, lays eggs and guards them against other predators. The idea was not to perpetuate the standard narratives about animals like the King Cobra as they are dangerous killers, but other aspects of their behaviour like how they care for their children.

“They are truly amazing creatures,” Kalyan adds.

Still from the Wild Karnataka documentary. (Source: Kalyan Varma)A still from the Wild Karnataka documentary. (Courtesy: Kalyan Varma)

Interaction with the local communities

“What made the experience of shooting for this documentary even more fascinating is the attitude of local communities to these animals,” says Kalyan.

A wild animal, if found in a human habitat, would either be captured or killed. This is quite prevalent in many parts around the world. However, Kalyan tells us that there are parts of Karnataka, where people co-exist peacefully with the Wild. For example, if a King Cobra is nesting in somebody’s house, and they’ll be like ‘ah it’s okay the snake won’t do anything to us’.

“This was quite an amazing revelation to us. Another example is of local shepherds in the grasslands of Koppal who take their sheep and goats out to graze. Wolves sometimes come and kill the sheep, but their attitude is like ‘they also have to eat sometime too’,” adds Kalyan.

Where can you watch it?

The film will release on 3 March 2019, and there will be a private screening in Palace Grounds, Bengaluru. Nearly 500 tickets have been sold online for the event, with the rest via personal invite. For the initial three to four months, the directors want to screen the film across various film festivals, after which they will release it on one of the streaming platforms for the general populace.

The Karnataka government will screen this documentary in schools and colleges under its nature education programmes.

Also Read: Meet The Woman Whose Orchard Will Give Ladakh’s Stunning Handicrafts a New Home

Funding the endeavour

Usually, a film like this would cost anywhere upward of Rs 4-5 crores. However, both Kalyan and Amogh worked on it pro-bono, while the team had Jungle Lodges & Resorts, a state venture, taking care of their stay and other expenses.

Thus, the total cost of making this film was around Rs 2 crore. A lot of the financial support came from the Corporate Social Responsibility ventures of five companies.

Message to the reader

“See, you can’t expect people to save the tiger unless they care about it. The first step is to help people fall in love with nature. Once you do that, they will automatically care for it. People from Karnataka should take pride in the wildlife they have within their lands. We all know wildlife is under threat in India. This film will help people get in line with conservation. When the time comes, they will step up to save a particular species of animal or a patch of forest,” concludes Kalyan.

Watch the stunning trailer below:

(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)

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