Wild Karnataka: Charming Disney-style storytelling with stunning jungle visuals mark this rare documentary to reach theatres
Wild Karnataka is a reminder why films are born to be watched on a mega screen in a darkened hall filled with strangers as awe-struck as you are.
A group of jungle cats is enjoying some leisurely family time when danger slithers towards their rocky hangout. As if on cue, a particularly curious kitten appears from behind a large boulder, its saucer-shaped eyes gazing at the reptile. “One bite from a spectacled cobra is usually fatal,” a familiar voice in the background tells us. “They’re one of India’s most dangerous snakes.” Tension hangs thick in the air. The baby seems mesmerised by that raised hood. Will the cobra get near enough to strike? Just as you think it’s all over, the little one decides to back off, the tension dissipates and the predator glides away.
It is this level of skilful storytelling – brimming with suspense, romance, tales of love, lust, self-preservation instincts and, if you look close enough, the meaning of consent in sexual relations – that makes Wild Karnataka the pleasurable experience it is. The 54-minute-long documentary directed by Bangalore-based conservationists Amoghavarsha JS and Kalyan Varma, presented by the Karnataka Forest Department, and narrated by the legendary British broadcaster and natural historian David Attenborough, this week becomes one of those rare documentaries to make it to mainstream theatres across India.
If your diet consists of Nat Geo Wild and Animal Planet, you perhaps know this already: that watching beasts in their natural habitat can be no less amusing than seeing a live-action masala-filled Kollywood/Bollywood/Tollywood fiction feature about humans or a Disney animation flick on pandas, lions and wildebeest. In Wild Karnataka, as a leopard stealthily stakes out a pack of langurs, a pride of preening peacocks compete for the attention of peahens, a she-lizard rejects the overtures of a he-lizard, a cannibalistic mother abandons her children for their own sake, a dragon flies and a group of otters bully a tiger, it is impossible not to be drawn to – and into – the humour, poignance and grandeur on display.
Such exciting visuals and storyboards are possible only when the crew involved has immense patience, a deep knowledge of nature and empathy for their surroundings. Not surprisingly, Wild Karnataka’s makers let on that they shot 400-plus hours of footage over four years. The time spent in prep and waiting is obviously immeasurable.
Wild Karnataka is an English film that serves as a sort of Beginner’s Guide To Nature Documentaries combined with an Introduction to Karnataka. The makers are planning a Kannada version fronted by a major celebrity from the state. The film is intentionally not esoteric, targeted as it is at an audience of non-experts. The stunning visuals by a large team of camerapersons and Grammy-winning Bangalore-based composer Ricky Kej’s background score that is sedate, mischievous and witty by turns, combined with the sometimes funny, sometimes frightening, at all times fascinating narrative is an excellent blend for this purpose, barring one important concern.
The gap in Wild Karnataka is the absolute absence of any reference to environmental degradation. The filmmakers have opted instead for a fairtytale-like account of the state’s wealth of flora and fauna.
In an interview shortly after the Delhi première, Amoghavarsha describes this choice as strategic.
“I need to know the contents of my house before I care enough to protect it,” he says, citing this quote from the Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum: “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” The filmmaker explains that the goal, with Wild Karnataka, is to usher in a “consciousness change” by building awareness. “We wanted to leave a beautiful moment of joy and pride in the audience, which they could take home,” he says, “and I promise you, all these people will do whatever they can in their own ways because they would have been moved by the film.” Sounds logical enough.
Amoghavarsha proceeds to elaborate on how the world chides India for its poor conservation efforts while, despite India’s massive human population, “we still have elephants and tigers left” whereas “big animals have been wiped out in the West. So my question is, if everyone says things are not so good, and I agree, but how do we still have these animals? Because we as a culture are tolerant towards animals. Now unless we celebrate that, people will not notice why it has worked.”
He then adds: “If the patriotic and religious people of India have to care for the country’s biodiversity, we have to take the path of patriotism and national pride. It is basically what works for different audiences. We can’t say everyone has to understand climatic conditions, because it is too heavy for everyone to understand. We have to use the right tools for the right kind of messaging.”
This is a slippery slope, considering how patriotism has been distorted to a destructive nationalism in today’s India and religion has been weaponised for centuries. But he speaks with conviction and I decide to leave this discussion for another day. Because today is a day for Wild Karnataka, and despite the questions weighing on my mind, there is no doubt that this is a delightfully entertaining and educational encounter with the beasts and landscapes of southern India’s largest state, rich in ways that are little known to the rest of India and even among its own people.
In a film filled with revelations, one of Wild Karnataka’s numerous sit-up-and-take-notice moments comes when Attenborough’s voice tells us in its opening seconds, “One quarter of India’s plant and animal species are found here”, and later when he says, “Karnataka is home to more tigers than any other place in the world. The 400 individuals that live here make up 10 percent of the global tiger population.” Amoghavarsha confirms that these figures – startling to say the least – have been verified with multiple sources from government reports to independent research papers, adding a caveat that tiger numbers may have marginally changed since the documentary was readied.
Even if a representative of Wild Karnataka did not say so, it becomes evident while watching the film that its determinedly light-hearted tone is aimed at making it accessible to the masses, to inspire wonderment in the viewer in addition to affection and admiration for the creatures whose stories it tells. Like those industrious sand bubbler crabs who deliver a quick lesson in physics as they build individual shelters for themselves on a wet beach before the tide comes in. Or the simian silhouetted against the sky as it bounds across giant rock formations in one of the world’s most picturesque locations. Or a male frog performing a hilarious mating dance that Prabhu Deva’s imagination could not have choreographed.
Wild Karnataka is also a reminder of why, despite a proliferation of online streaming platforms and an increasing use of cellphones as film-viewing media, theatres will never die: because some films are born to be watched on a mega screen in a darkened hall filled with strangers as awe-struck as you are.
“The baseline we always kept is that kids should have fun with this film,” says Amoghavarsha. Children will speak for themselves, but let the record show that this article is written by an adult who is completely floored.
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