Please tell us about yourself Wildlife filmmaker Ashwika Kapur shares her experiences as she speaks of the challenges and the beauty of being in the wild
Kapur believes her love of nature and her study of literature have helped her develop a keen eye for timeless stories. “This has stood in me great stead as a wildife filmmaker, because I choose to tell stories on screen and not simply document wildlife,” she adds.
Have you heard of the Green Oscar? Part of the Wildscreen Festival since 1982, it is the greatest international award in wildlife filmmaking and natural story-telling. Meet the young woman from Kolkata who is the first Indian recipient of it. Ashwika Kapur won the Wildscreen Panda Award or the Green Oscar in 2014 in the Best Newcomer category for her film Sirocco — How a Dud Became a Stud. It was her graduation project that propelled Kapur onto the World stage, and since then she hasn’t looked back.
But what does it take for a woman to make a mark in wildlife filmmaking?
Filmmaking not only requires high level of skills, expertise and enterprise but to do so on wildlife subjects is another story by itself. Being quite candid and forthcoming, Kapur gives us a sneak-peek into her career, the challenges, inspirations and the best part of it all — being close to nature. Excerpts from the interview:
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
There were no such turning points in her life, because films and animals were a part of her growing up years, the natural progression of it culminating in her profession. Kapur was exposed to the movie industry as a child actor, establishing comfort and familiarity with sets, lingo and technicalities with a shoot from a very young age. And when at home, there would be more animals in her flat than humans. “I have always loved animals, loved being among them, loved being a part of their world. During my childhood, my home had turned into a zoo as I would keep bringing animals and birds home,” recollects Kapur. She grew up to combine her two experiences to opt for wildlife filmmaking as a natural course of action.
Challenges that you faced as a woman?
“First of all, there are very few women wildlife filmmakers in India, and with it comes a whole set of societal and personal challenges other than the professional ones. My parents have been supportive in the sense that they have let me pursue my passion, and not tried to hinder me. No parents would want to see their daughter disappear for weeks into a jungle, without network or connectivity,” says Kapur, pointing out that many women have faced tougher battles than her.
It is an unusual choice of career for a woman, but documenting wildlife sounds like an ideal and idyllic profession. Yet, it is not so, since what we see is a drop in the ocean, hours of footage, patience and years of research later do we get the final product. “The most challenging part is the profession itself, one has to have patience and perseverance to excel. You end up going to far-off places, are cut off from civilisation, live in make-shift places with bare-minimum facilities, you don’t know the local language, local customs or the food. There’s nothing easy in this profession,” says Kapur.
After all, animals don’t care if there’s a camera waiting, it is not a scripted performance and sometimes, for a very long time, projects may not work out.
But for Kapur, none of these pose as much a challenge as humans do. “I face more challenges from people, with their permits and permissions and a general attitude of how to hinder rather than facilitate work,” she rues.
What do you love about your job?
“For me, there’s no singular moment, but a series of memories that makes all the tribulation worth it. You need to turn the very challenges to positives — exposure to tribals and new culture, living close to the wild, animals interacting with me and my camera. Sometimes it’s so overwhelming and difficult to describe the things we see — like the night sky filled with stars and the forest full of fireflies,” she reminisces. Only a fraction of the surreal and other worldly experiences is what translates into photographs.
What are your greatest achievements? “I am personally very fond of my graduation movie Sirocco — How a Dud Became a Stud. I enjoyed working on it, the subject matter, the international acclaim that followed although it was an extremely low-budget film. My most memorable experience was working with the legendary Sir David Attenborough on his elephant project earlier this year. It was a huge learning experience as well as an inspirational one. Currently, I am working on a few projects about North east India, I think it’s an undocumented treasure-trove of wildlife.”
Tell us about your career path Kapur who initially completed BA in English from St Xavier’s college, Kolkata before deciding to follow her heart. She enrolled in a course in filming animal behaviour in the jungles of South Africa with The Wildlife Film Academy, a specialised training institute under Natural History Unit Africa. Back home in 2011 she tied up with NGO news in Calcutta to work on conservation programmes. She was later taken to Borneo to further train in wildlife management with Earthwatch UK, where she documented life in rainforests. In 2012, she went on to film a documentary for WWF-India in the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve in Uttar Pradesh. Finally, in 2013, she applied for admission to a specialised post-graduate course in Science & Natural History Filmmaking from the University of Otago. “I had my eye on the course for a while. I knew it was highly competitive; they accept only eight people a year,”she says. Ï knew i needed to have a wide portfolio to apply, so i spent the first couple of years working in the field.” There she enhanced her camera skills and, much to her delight, discovered an innate knack for storytelling.
It was while doing the course that Kapur heard of Sirocco, one of only 125 Kakapo parrots left in the world. “They are all so few in number that all of them have names,”she says
How does one become a wildlife filmmaker?
“There’s no recipe or sure-shot way to do so. There are maybe a few schools around the world that have such a specialised course. But anyone, from any field — from engineering to art — can become a wildlife enthusiast. And that is what matters, because if you are not passionate, you can’t survive the gruelling schedules and frequent disappointments. So for anyone starting out, I would suggest that they work on as many projects as they can, in any given capacity. Every opportunity is a learning one and only field experience will actually train one to become a wildlife filmmaker more than any degree,” points out Kapur