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David Attenborough and the wild side of Karnataka

  • ‘Wild Karnataka’ brings the diverse flora and fauna of the state to the big screen in ultra high-def
  • It’s been made by wildlife photographers and film-makers Amoghavarsha J.S. and Kalyan Varma 

Still from the film.
Still from the film.

At an open-air theatre at Bengaluru’s Palace Grounds, as the sun sets and birds swoop overhead, 3,000 people gather to watch the premiere of a movie. They hoot at the introduction of a familiar face, hold their breath when one of the “good guys" gets into a tricky spot, and go wild at a guest appearance by a favourite hero. It may sound like any other first-day-first-show—except none of the actors in the movie, barring the narrator, is human, nor are they acting.

It’s the premiere of the country’s first film on wildlife shot in 4k ultra high definition resolution: Wild Karnataka. The opening sequence was not of a film star making a dramatic entry, although the audience reacted with the same gusto. It was a deceptively simple aerial shot of lush mountains covered in mist, with the whooping sound of a forest sentinel (the Indian langur) set against the opening notes of Grammy award-winning composer Ricky Kej’s fusion score. Comic relief was provided by a family of otters, a tiger, and a draco (flying lizard). A jungle cat’s curious kitten was the “good guy" that escapes a predator by the skin of its teeth. The hero making a guest appearance was the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve’s sole black panther. And the familiar face who brought the house down was Sir David Attenborough, the 93-year old English broadcaster and natural historian, who is the narrator of Wild Karnataka.

Shot by a team of 20 wildlife photographers and film-makers in collaboration with the Karnataka forest department (KFD), the project involved four years of filming and 400 hours of footage. It was led by wildlife photographers and film-makers Amoghavarsha J.S. and Kalyan Varma, along with Vijay Mohan Raj, an Indian Forest Service officer and chief conservator of forests, and naturalist Sarath Champati. The KFD waived the need for a daily shooting permit and gave the team full creative freedom. Funds for shooting the movie (around 1.5 crore) were raised from Sandur Manganese and Iron Ore Ltd, which, the film-makers say, is a responsible mining company, and resort chain Discovery Village.

Film-makers Amoghavarsha J.S. (right) and Kalyan Varma
Film-makers Amoghavarsha J.S. (right) and Kalyan Varma

“It’s a blue-chip film in every aspect—technology, quality of film-making, music, and voice-over. We really wanted to say that we can make a film at this level, at this kind of quality. And that was the vision, to put Karnataka on the world map because it is a state that is rich in biodiversity and the forest department does a fantastic job," says Amoghavarsha, a former software developer and data architect. Varma has worked on several series for the BBC and National Geographic and was the 2008 winner of the BBC wildlife photographer award. Besides the presence of these A-list names, what really elevated the entire experience was the narrator.

Watching Karnataka’s varied landscapes, from wet evergreen forests to rocky plateaus and thundering waterfalls, unfold to Attenborough’s narration is a goosebump-inducing experience. For natural history enthusiasts, Attenborough is, of course, an idol. During the premiere, the Wild Karnataka team played a special video message from Attenborough, in which he said that India can be proud of its enduring wild legacy despite the pressures of development and a vast human population, and this was most apparent in booming 21st century Karnataka.

“We seldom save what we don’t love. You have saved some of Asia’s greatest natural spectacles for future generations to love and pass on. Wild Karnataka sends a message of hope not just across India, but across the whole world. Thank you, Bengaluru. Thank you, Karnataka. Ellarigu namaskara," he said, to thunderous applause and whistles at his perfect diction of the traditional Kannada phrase conveying greetings and respect.

The film has managed to capture several unseen sights of the state’s wild side, like a King Cobra building its nest and a jungle cat’s litter playing in the open, although one would have liked to see a bit more—for instance, the wolves of the Deccan Plateau and the state’s relatively unexplored coral reefs.

The film-makers say their aim is to spread awareness and create respect and love for the state’s natural riches. “Half a million views (for the Wild Karnataka teaser) on YouTube is fantastic, but you can’t stop there. You have to take it all the way. It has to reach the grass roots to create impact. Otherwise, the same few people are going to watch it," says Amoghavarsha.

The Kannada version of the movie, which is still in the works, will be shown in the state’s villages and schools. The team is in talks with digital streaming platforms, and is yet to finalize where and when it will be broadcast. Whether Wild Karnataka will ultimately succeed in both its missions—of finding popularity internationally and creating a sense of pride and love among the state’s residents—remains to be seen but it is one hell of a wild ride.

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