Art & Entertainment

Guneet Monga On ‘The Elephant Whisperers' Oscar Nod: There’s So Much To Do For Cinema, My Country

'The Elephant Whisperers' talks about a couple in South India, who devote their lives to caring for an orphaned baby elephant named Raghu.

Producer Guneet Monga; Shot from 'The Elephant Whisperers'

Debutant filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves' directorial 'The Elephant Whisperers' has made it into the Oscar race by getting nominated in the Documentary Short Film category. The project, which is about a forged family between the human and the animal world, is backed by Guneet Monga under the banner of Sikhya Entertainment.

Nonetheless, Guneet is not new to heading to the Oscars. Earlier, she backed Rayka Zehtabchi's ‘Period. End of Sentence’, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) in 2019. Now as she is competing in the same category at the 95th Academy Awards, Guneet, in a conversation with Outlook, opened up on what made her back the project along with Netflix, and how she feels on getting nominated again. Excerpts from the interview: 

‘The Elephant Whisperers’ was recently nominated under the Best Documentary Short Film category at the Oscars. We saw you jumping with joy, but how would you describe the feeling in words?

We are extremely excited. Ofcourse, you all saw that video. My feeling is absolutely surreal. There is no other word to describe the epitome of joy. I think it is every filmmaker’s dream to be at the Oscars, and to be nominated with our documentary is something we are beyond excited about. We are humbled, honoured and very grateful.

It’s a documentary on two mahouts and their elephants. Of course, it’s a story with cuteness overload. Tell us the process of how you got on board.

This project and the story was discovered by Kartiki and she found Raghu and became friends with him. She shot some footage with him, a reel, and a pitch trailer. She took it to Netflix. Netflix’s Singapore documentary team and Kartiki then reached out to me to come on board as a producer. For us, to work closely with her and to shepherd it logistically all the way, Sikhya and I came on board as producers. Technically, this is bankrolled by Netflix and I am excited to work with a platform with a global presence. It has a presence in 190 countries, so it has been amazing working with them. I am grateful for their rock solid support as it has been a journey for 3.5 years for us. We were also putting it out to the world, so it was also a lot of love and nurturing from Netflix as well.

Your 2009 project ‘Kavi’ about bonded labour or the 2019 short documentary, ‘Period. End of Sentence’, you are not new to international recognition. Do you now feel content after the latest Oscars nomination?

2010 was the first time I went to the Oscars when I produced ‘Kavi’, and you know it has been a long journey to explain what producers actually do. I don’t come from money or from a film family. In India, most people think if you are a producer, it’s a lot of money. You can bankroll things. But I creatively shepherd things, I find a story and double down on it. I go on to find money per project. For me, every film or every show and even every shot is like a startup. I find the money, make a report and market it, release it. It is a lot of work, be it ‘Lunchbox’ or ‘Masaan’, I have packaged the film and released it, and taken it to festivals. Netflix understands what a producer does to nurture a project and protect the vision of the filmmaker as well. A project is so many years in making. But to say I am content, I am content and grateful for today but I do hope a lot of my films travel, get funded and win Oscars. Because why not? I actually feel I got started, this is nowhere my end. There’s so much to do for cinema and my country. ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ is now in the top five, and to be nominated in itself is a great deal. I hope it wins and we continue to do more. 

You have been a voice of women empowerment, bonded labour, and several other taboo subjects? ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ too talks about the culture of indigenous people, forest preservation and much more.. What’s your mindset as a producer?

For me, it is incredible to join dots over so many years and discover my own taste. I really get attracted to a story because of its core, its soul. I don’t think I consciously go beyond a reason or a mission. It is just the combination of the story and the filmmaker, the world view of the maker. I am excited about ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ because it is Kartiki on the other side, a debut female director who is also the cameraperson. It is all my life objectives rolled into one. It is amazing we talk about conservation and coexistence in this film, and how we keep demanding more. Nature is enough for everyone. I don’t give myself this credit on how I chose a project. I genuinely feel stories chose us, ‘Lunchbox’, ‘Masaan’, ‘Period’ they all chose me. Similarly, for ‘The Elephant Whisperers’, Raghu and Baman and everyone else chose us to be mediums so that their story could travel and do justice to it. We hope we take it as far as we can.

How was it to collaborate with the debutant director of the film, Kartiki Gonsalves? Did it take any time for you to trust her vision?

Kartiki has a wonderful, purest vision for this story and she is brought up near the Madhumalai reserves. The story is personal to her and I wanted to nurture it. I wanted to be around her to have the best version of the story. I was convinced from day one and if we don’t back female filmmakers who will? Honestly, who can say no to baby elephants? Kartiki is dynamic, from being a cameraperson to researcher and writer. She has held the story for long in her journey for five years. It is incredible to be around an energy like her, and she has excelled. For me, to creatively work with her, it was incredible. And we really need to trust female filmmakers so that we have more such debutants. It is part of my mission in life. Hope we both win the award and make our dream come true. If I had to do it again, I would do it in a heartbeat. 

You are working again with Tahira Kashyap Khurrana for a new film project. Any details you can divulge?

Tahira is a dear friend and also an incredible writer, filmmaker. She gets human emotions really well and has nuance. I have seen her writing, her stories cut across classes and age groups. They are relatable and in my own life, I am her fan. I love who she is. I cannot tell you much about our latest work, but it takes the conversation of women forward. And I am glad we both are working together again. We worked on ‘Pinni’ together, a short, and now we are working on the feature. More details will be divulged shortly. 


'The Elephant Whisperers' will be contending alongside 'Haulout', 'How Do You Measure a Year?' (Jay Rosenblatt Films), 'The Martha Mitchell Effect" (Netflix)' and 'Stranger at the Gate'.