Kolkata-based Ashwika Kapur spends a lot of time in odd locations – high on the mountains of Ladakh, deep in the forests of Assam, or on the plains of Kenya. But the great outdoors is not her only workspace. As a wildlife filmmaker, she’s used to spinning a lot of plates on most projects, and as a result, she hops in and out of the editing suite, the recording studio and even the occasional corporate office.
Kapur is best known for winning the Wildscreen Panda Award, known as the Green Oscar, in 2014. She received it for her documentary film about a kakapo – a critically endangered parrot native to New Zealand, titled ‘Sirocco- How A Dud Became A Stud.’ In 2022, she was nominated in the Best On-Screen Talent category at the Royal Television Society Awards in England in 2022 for presenting an episode on gibbons in Assam for the BBC series, ‘Planet Defenders.’
Apart from being a filmmaker, Kapur is a mentor for the Natural History Museum of London, for which she works with young photographers interested in conservation in South Asia. She’s been a speaker at the COP27 Climate Change Conference about the power of storytelling in addressing the climate crisis. She’s also narrated Tigeropolis, a tiger conservation audio book series that was broadcast on the radio for kids in the United Kingdom, and works with the WWF on the conservation of tigers.
In 2022, she finished filming for a conservation project in West Bengal with the children of hunting communities.
On a call with Lounge, Kapur talks about researching a story, shooting in the field, building the film in an editing suite and what her ideal workspace would look like. Edited excerpts.
There’s no one answer to this - it could be an office, a tent in a field, a treehouse, a studio, or even my dining table. It starts right from pre-production, when I’m doing my research to find a good story. This can happen anywhere – even on a vacation – because at this stage I’m on a laptop for hours just reading, finding ideas, developing stories or making calls. I could work for 8 hours at a stretch, forgetting to eat lunch, or hit a block and not work at all for a few days to give myself a break.
Production is a whole different ball game. The places are usually extremely remote, in the wilderness or villages, and the accommodations are very basic – it could be a hut or a tent, with no internet, hardly any phone signal and sometimes no electricity. The hours depend on the animals we’re there to film – if they’re crepuscular, so are we; if it’s a blazing hot summer and they move only at night, we stay up all night and sleep all day; if it’s winter and we won’t be able to film them by late afternoon, then we’re up and about very early; if we have to trek to where they are, then that’s more hours commuting to and fro.
Post production is once again indoors – if I’m handling it, I will set up my own edit system at home and then head to the studio for technical details. For other films there’s usually a big team to work on it.
Always! I cut across several sectors of filmmaking as a director-shooter-editor-producer and even presenter. I like the way each part of the process feeds into the other. What doesn’t change is my mindset – when I’m working, I’m completely immersed in it.
Complete focus, with blinders on, no matter where I am. No physical space has anything to do with it – it’s really a state of mind.
I clearly remember a shoot in the Sundarbans in which I was filming mudskippers – a kind of fish that can survive on land. As boat after boat of tourists went by with cameras looking for tigers, I was lying flat on the bank for hours studying these fish! That’s when I discovered that they have entire complex societies. I spotted the alpha males and the aspiring alpha males, I found out how they fight, and I discovered that they’re really territorial and have a particular fin movement when they respond to intruders. Even the tiny fiddler crabs, which share the same space, had a story to tell. There were multiple crabs competing for the attention of one female, and the bigger their pincers, the more they showed off to the females during their mating dances! I went to that shoot with one script in my head and came away with a completely different story. I also had to be pulled out of the mud, into which I had sunk up to my waist, and which had hardened around me.
You mean if I can’t create this state of mind? I’d just have to retire!
I think the most important think would be to have a whole lot of like-minded people around me. Nothing substitutes the joy of team work – you can share knowledge and resources and learn so much from each other.
I always give it my best. That’s my belief. Have fun and give it your best – the rest follows.
Rushati Mukherjee is a writer based in Kolkata
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