'Who can say no to baby elephants': Oscar-winner Guneet Monga

Interview/'The Elephant Whisperers' director Gonsalves and producer Monga

AWARDS-OSCARS/ Golden girls: Kartiki Gonsalves (left) with Guneet Monga at the Oscars photo room in Hollywood, Los Angeles | Reuters

After The Elephant Whisperers won the Oscar for best documentary short film, director and cinematographer Kartiki Gonsalves thanked Bomman and Bellie, elephant caretakers and protagonists of her film from the Kattunayakan tribe, for their traditional wisdom that helped her in the making of the film. It marked a moment of glory for the indigenous community that inhabits the Nilgiris, and reaffirmed the friendship between Gonsalves and her “lifelong friends”. She grew up there and had to share their story with the world as a way of showing her gratitude. Being an ace cameraperson, she shot several long-form reels on her phone and other cameras and sent them to producers. Guneet Monga, with her keen eye, spotted the story as a “winner” and went all out to back it. In their first interview to an Indian publication post the Oscar win, the producer and director talk about what it takes to make an Oscar-winning film. Excerpts:

Q/ Congratulations. Did you connect with Bomman and Bellie after the win?

A/ Gonsalves: Sadly, just recently there was an electrocution of three elephants in Dharmapuri (northwest Tamil Nadu), so Bomman has been in the field. They are both overly excited about the journey. I have not personally spoken to them.

Q/ On one hand, we have a film portraying the bond between man and animals, and now we have this sad news. Did you come across such instances while making the film? Did you consciously edit it?

A/ Gonsalves: Yes. One hundred per cent. Because I live in a place where animals coexist with nature on a whole different level. We have people and communities living on the periphery of the forest and it was a conscious decision to not go down the route of showing all the depressing things that were happening around. I wanted to focus only on the love and passion and the beautiful bond we share with the animals and to focus on the emotional intelligence of elephants. This, I believe, would also help in protecting the species and the landscape. So this film is an attempt at reaching out to every person, not just those from the wildlife fraternity. The film comes with a global message and resonates across continents. An example is the P-22 mountain lion in Los Angeles, which was euthanised.

Q/ How do the two of you plan to celebrate your victory in India?

A/ Monga: I plan to go to the Golden Temple the very next day after I land. I had said it at the Academy interviews backstage that I want to take the statuette with me to the Golden Temple. And then, when we are in Mumbai, we plan to hold big screenings, get the entire crew together from Delhi and Mumbai. And, above everything else, to go through the over 10,000 messages that are currently unread on my phone, and I am not kidding!

Gonsalves: The first thing I would be doing is meet Bomman and Bellie. It has been three and a half months since I last saw them and I have been missing them throughout this journey. My parents are with me over here, so I am celebrating the victory with them right here. But once back, I would visit the forest department, and meet the elephants and share my joy with them.

Q/ Any plans to help the tribals and the wildlife of the Nilgiris?

A/ Gonsalves: I did this documentary to help people understand elephants on a deeper level. The Tamil Nadu forest department is phenomenal. To me, they are the most hardworking and dedicated forest department in the country. At the same time, there are issues, too, that cannot be handled overnight.

Monga: Here in America, too, in the last one month we were asked if they could give money, what could they do to help... but they actually don’t need money. The Tamil Nadu forest department is doing a great job. We have recorded in the film how far they go to save elephants and to ensure they have everything they need. In fact, they put in all the efforts to send the elephants back into the wild. So this is more about love and acknowledgement than donating money.

Q/ What were your reservations before you invested in the film?

A/ Monga: Absolutely none. Who can say no to baby elephants! And, Kartiki had amazing cinematography. She put together a reel that I saw and the potential of the story was evident to me right then. I was the first one to say that this is going to go all the way and will win.

Q/ How difficult or easy was it to direct Bomman and Bellie? They come across as reticent.

A/ Gonsalves: I grew up in this very space. The first time I ever went to the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve was when I was three. My father grew up there as well, so it is a place that I call home and it started out as a personal relationship with baby elephants; I was in love with them.

And I also got to know Bomman. It was a friendship that evolved organically into what it is today. I think I found family friends in Bomman and Bellie and it is a lifelong bond that will continue to grow. And so because of the beautiful bond we shared initially, it was very easy to just go in and bring a camera in there because we had already built that trust and had the bond.

My background has been that of a natural history photographer. So, one of the things I tend to do is spend more time with my subjects, which helps in building trust and makes it easier to get into their lives and understand who they are and how they are as a people. Also, given that they are indigenous, I made sure I was listening to them and to their story rather than impose my own visualisation of their story.

I was sure in my mind that I would not get any outside narrator who would take over their voice because it would act as a barrier between the subject and the viewer. No third person who was alien to them was allowed to come in as a narrator because that would take away from the emotional connect we wanted to build with the community.

We did not have any sets; there were no actors and all we went in with was a lot of patience. It was unpredictable; we had to be there and not be there; we had to capture things and yet not go in with a large presence. We had one cameraperson, one sound person and one production person. And when we went into the forest, we had a naturalist, two camera people, and two more people, depending on the situation. We had a beautiful set of lenses.

Q/ Bomman and Bellie got married on camera―the icing on the cake!

A/ Gonsalves: Yes, but it was a journey that unfolded over time. Initially, when I first met them they were independent people, but there was definitely this beautiful energy that was going around. They were both parents to Raghu (the elephant) and over the course of time we saw their bond getting stronger and stronger. Once Raghu was taken away, it was a big loss for them and you could just see how they connected with each other so beautifully over time. They did not show love the way we normally show love. They would snack together, fold clothes together. In fact, Bomman and Bellie were living together before they got married. We could literally feel their love on ground while we were around because the two of them shared so many beautiful moments together.

Q/ You have a good instinct when it comes to films, like Masaan, Lunchbox, Gangs of Wasseypur. How do you decide which scripts to green-light?

A/ Monga: It is years of work and intuition combined. Further, conversations with the filmmaker help a lot. I think we are chosen to tell stories. We work hard. We show up every day. But above and beyond everything, I do think we are chosen to be a part of certain stories. There are so many stories around the world and I feel that there is this huge cloud of stories that we tap into and sometimes the right one clicks. There are so many people who have similar ideas. I think we are chosen, so I feel spiritual about this. From day one, this was a very spiritual and a sacred bond between Bomman and Bellie, and Raghu and Ammu, and I am grateful to have been a part of it and do my bit to throw a light on the story and to bring the laurels to our country. Netflix gave us a phenomenal platform. We had a fantastic back-end team―from Sikhya Entertainment [her production company], to the edit team, the camera team.

Q/ Period. End of Sentence. (2018), in which you were the co-producer., had also won an Oscar. But the Academy does not acknowledge you in its records.

A/ Monga: I was the executive producer for [it] and I have always mentioned this everywhere and on all my handles that I was not nominated. The Academy is not supposed to talk about me; it is supposed talk about the nominated people in the film. Even in this film, Achin Jain is my co-producer. Only one producer gets nominated.

Q/ What does this victory mean to you? What does it change?

A/ Monga: It encourages us to move on to our next project now.

Gonsalves: It has given the confidence to people to go out there and tell the stories they wish to. No story is too small.