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On wings of a kakapo, flight to Green Oscars

Ashwika Kapur, a 26-year-old wildlife filmmaker from Calcutta, has become the youngest woman from the country to get nominated for the Green Oscars — a part of the annual Wildscreen Film Festival at Bristol, UK.

Her film Sirocco — about one of the rarest birds, the kakapo flightless parrot species of New Zealand — fetched a nomination in the Best Newcomer category from a 42-country field of 488 entries. The film focuses on a single kakapo, perhaps the only bird in the world with a government job.

The La Martiniere for Girls and St. Xavier’s College alumnus has travelled extensively across Africa, Asia and Australia with a camera in tow and worked on films for the WWF. She hopes to raise awareness about wildlife through her work.

Also known as The Panda Awards, the festival slated for October 19-24 is one of the most influential and prestigious events in the wildlife and filmmaking calendar. Previous winners from India include wildlife filmmaker and conservationist Mike Pandey, the Bedi Brothers (Ajay and Vijay) and Dusty Foot Productions.

Ashwika tells Metro about her journey through the wild.

A fortuitous encounter with a lion is just another day at office!

Life as a wildlife or natural history filmmaker is mostly unpredictable but always thrilling. The ability to observe the world through the lens of a camera and tell a good story underlining an enduring love for animals is a journey that has been an immensely satisfying, personally and professionally.

The first memory of any association with wildlife is that of taking my pet duck for walks on a leash when I was four. Over the next five years, my 12th-floor apartment on Ballygunge Circular Road was steadily getting converted into a zoo… a pair of rabbits, 20 pigeons, squirrels, macaws, a tortoise and more.

Ten years on, I was in the Limpopo province of South Africa on a filmmaking course. I came within inches of a lion unaware of its presence. By the time I realised how close it was I found that my bag was in the car and so a brisk walk to the parking lot in the open jungle ensued. I got my bag and traipsed back to the campsite only to be told that the lion was sleeping under the car — all the while as I was collecting my bag.

Around the time I was turning my home into a zoo, I had been spending a lot of time on film sets as a child actor and was in absolute awe over the entire process of moviemaking. My decision to become a wildlife filmmaker was a marriage of the two loves that shaped my growing up years — animals and cinema.

From heading the photography department at La Martiniere for Girls and the Fine Arts Society at St. Xavier’s College, the transition to the world of cinema was quite natural. After assisting in films like Antaheen, I felt I was ready to take the plunge and get behind the camera.

From the great wilderness of Africa and the rainforests of Borneo to the natural beauty of New Zealand, this passion has taken me to many corners of the world that I otherwise may not have had the opportunity to explore or experience.

After graduation from St. Xavier’s College, I went on to specialise in wildlife filmmaking in South Africa and worked on a number of projects. I then applied to the highly selective postgraduate programme of science and natural history filmmaking at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

Since the centre accepts only about 10 students a year, getting admission there was a huge personal milestone.

It was in New Zealand that I made Sirocco – How a Dud became a Stud.

It was my film, a one-woman production, for the university degree. From research, filming to editing, the film was a solo project. I was not only able to pull it off but also earn kudos. That has been a huge encouragement.

I dug deep into the natural world, the treasure house of stories, when I was researching for ideas. That is when Sirocco, popped up and gave me my eureka moment.

I chose to make my film not so much on the critically endangered species but for a single individual member of this loveable bundle of feathers.

My film traces the rags-to-riches story of this unique character that betrays human-like emotions. He is the only bird in the world with a government job. He is a VIP — and acts like one — in New Zealand with a reserved seat on the aircraft when he travels to meet his fans.

Apart from film festivals, I have taken the film to schools, colleges and clubs across Calcutta, including Modern High School, St. Xavier’s Collegiate School, St. Xavier’s College and Saturday Club. Other than the screening, Sirocco has attracted extensive interactions and healthy debates.

The Green Oscars nomination feels like a validation of my efforts. The journey so far has been highly enriching as well as challenging. My non-science background has been a handicap that tries to restrain me, but Googling through hundreds of science journals and research papers helps me overcome the disadvantage. And with time, I guess I will be able to count more on my experience than Google.