Rumble in the Jungle; in India with Academy Award Nominated Director Ashvin Kumar
“...he did a lot of his hunting at night, when there was no light to see by, except for the moon. But then he preferred not to go out on moonlit nights because just as he could see his adversary, so his adversary could see him! The real battle of wits was between him and the animal he was tracking and the amount of… well there were times he would start tracking a maneater during the day and by nightfall, he had come so far, it was impossible for him to get back to where he had set up camp, so he would be compelled to spend the night up a tree. You just can’t help but admire the courage of this man, who knew that there was a maneating tiger in the district and in fact, very, very close to where he is, because he is tracking it.”
Oscar-nominated director Ashvin Kumar on Jim Corbett, the hunter who inspired his high-suspense film drama Forest, heading for Cannes in May.
I have followed Ashvin Kumar's career with great interest since he completed his first short feature, the Road to Ladakh which he followed almost immediately with his second film, the short Little Terrorist, which saw him nominated for an Oscar. On this occasion the top honours went elsewhere but the exposure did Ashvin's career no harm at all. Stepped up in budget, he has just wrapped his first full length cinema feature, working title Forest. I made a breakfast call to Ashvin in Delhi just after the shoot had wrapped.
Good Morning Ashvin.
Ir's good afternoon here James. We have just finished lunch!
Well I hope you enjoyed it! How’s post coming on?
Post is very good. We finished shooting, two, three weeks ago and we are off-lining at the moment.
You are doing all your post-production in India?
All of it, yes.
Your crew were both Indian and European, including some you worked with before – were there fewer culture shocks this time?
Not too many this time round, not from what I witnessed. People who come onto this kind of project are pretty aware of what they are getting into. Although we were shooting in the middle of the jungle for long periods, in a very small town, very basic.
How did they cope with jungle conditions?
There was the usual bouts of sickness and so on, with people getting ill, because of the cold mainly, more than anything else. It was freezing much of the day, it was very, very cold up there. But no tragedies. Nothing like that.
How much local help were you using?
We were running a shoot of 200 people; it was a large crew, so lots of local help, yes, but main heads of department were all from Europe, including a lot of Shooting People members who worked with me in Road To Ladakh and Little Terrorist.
What about cast? Who will we be seeing in the film?
It’s an Indian cast, a reasonably unknown Indian cast here in India as well, so I don’t think you would recognise anyone in particular, although you would remember Salim from Little Terrorist and he plays a major role in this film as well.
Whereabouts in India were you shooting?
In Corbett National Park.
Real Corbett country then?
[Chuckles] Real Corbett country, yes.
Jim Corbett, who the park is named after and his stories, were inspirational for your film, what can you tell us about Jim Corbett, the man? What was his background and how did he rise to fame as a hunter?
He had a very humble background, living in the hills where we shot and at that time it must have been very basic. No trains, no cars for sure. The only communication was by foot or by bullock cart. What was really remarkable about him was the long distances he was able to cover on foot. He was very, very fit. Able to cover some 15 to 20 kilometers of very hilly country in a day. A lot of the districts he went to, to rid them of maneaters, were very far-flung. Maneaters at that time had become a real menace, because the villagers had no equipment – no guns – they could not afford them. So it was up to sportsmen like Corbett to go out and sort out a maneater or two. Look at the kind of death toll these maneaters used to take; some of them in excess of 500 people over seven or eight years.
That’s a horrendous toll – and in a remote community, devastating I should think.
That’s it exactly, James. A maneater would impose a virtual curfew on an entire remote district of the hills, where it was very, very remote at that time. Even now when you go to these parts of the hills, where the population is far greater than it used to be and now it is connected by road, you still think, my god, this man must have had some kind of energy. And then there was his motivation; the thrill I suppose, of confronting an adversary, but more than that, the need to relieve the local population of a genuine menace you know.
Then the second most remarkable thing about him is that he did a lot of his hunting at night, when there was no light to see by, except for the moon. But then he preferred not to go out on moonlit nights because just as he could see his adversary, so his adversary could see him! The real battle of wits was between him and the animal he was tracking and the amount of… well there were times he would start tracking a maneater during the day and by nightfall, he had come so far, it was impossible for him to get back to where he had set up camp, so he would be compelled to spend the night up a tree. You just can’t help but admire the courage of this man, who knew that there was a maneating tiger in the district and in fact, very, very close to where he is, because he is tracking it. And he would then spend the night in a tree in the middle of winter. We have been there in the middle of winter and it is very, very harsh, with the dew falling and the humidity and the extreme cold that comes under a blanket of very thick trees that hardly get any sunlight in the day. In the winter there’s none to speak of anyway, so it is harsh conditions. Very harsh conditions. So you know, you go out there and you see the country, experience it for yourself and you hear these stories and it is not hard to imagine what he did, what he endured, to try to help these villagers.
And I believe you were using Californian leopards in this film?
[smiles] No, in the end we opted for French leopards. The guy who wrangled for Gladiator came with his leopards for us.
And were they well-behaved actors – they didn’t eat any of your crew?
[laughs] Ah Ha, they were actually much better behaved than some of our actors! [laughs again] But don’t write that!
No. Well, only in context...
Actually, they all did a great job for us with the leopard scenes, because we didn’t have the required rehearsal time. The leopards got stuck in Thai customs for over a week and a half and we had to spend all that time trying to get them out and once we did we were very late of course, so we had to go shooting without the planned rehearsal time at all.
Is it par for the course though, that when shooting in remote of exotic locations like this, that you suddenly run into unexpected bureaucratic problems that simply hold things up?
Yes that’s right. Well the reason why we chose not to shoot the scenes with the leopards in India was because they have some kind of nonsensical ban on shooting with animals. I think animal rights people there had got up in arms about it. So with something like that going on, we had to opt for Thailand. We were pretty tired by then as well, because we had just endured a 30-day shoot in those really harsh conditions I was telling you about, so we really were tired, so we opted then to go to Thailand. We shot most of the film in the Corbett National Park in India and we had a three-day shoot in Thailand.
What sort of budget did you have available?
$2.2m to $2.3m
Can you tell us a little of the story we can expect to see when it finally reaches the screen?
You can expect what it says here: “A compelling human drama about a couple with marital issues that turns into a night of terror.”
I’m not very good at descriptive prose right now as I’m stuck with my head in the edit, if you see what I mean! [both laugh] I’ll send you something official once I have cleared it with the publicity people, they are very fussy about that.
When do you expect to finish the film?
Is that where you will be campaigning it?
Well we have a sales agent attached to it and he’s already been talking to his buyers about it, so things are already under way, [smiles] We are already walking them to their seats….
And have you decide yet what the film will be called?
The film for a working title has been called The Forest and in all our excitement filming it we just haven’t had time to think about something else. We may just stck with The Forest, I just don’t know as yet. I need to discuss all that with my marketing people.
An article about Gentleman Jim Corbett, the maneater hunter and filmmaker who inspired Ashvin Kumar's feature can be found here......