Guneet Monga doesn’t believe in half measures. When Netflix, and debut director Kartiki Gonsalves came to her with the idea of a documentary on Bomman and his relationship with a baby elephant Raghu, she plunged into the documentary whole heartedly. She called Gonsalves home to Mumbai to stay with her for a month and a half so that they could understand each other; she went to the Mudumalai National Park in Tamil Nadu when Bomman married Ballie, his helpmate in taking care of Raghu; and even now, three and a half years later, when The Elephant Whisperers (available on Netflix) has been shortlisted for Best Documentary Short at the Oscars, she almost abandoned her honeymoon to get a head start on the campaign to promote it.
So, what drew Monga to The Elephant Whisperers? “Who can say no to baby elephants,” she asks, laughing. She was struck by Gonsalves’ fierce passion for the film. “She discovered the story, shot a schedule, made a reel, took it to Netflix and then reached out to me. I was blown away. I feel Raghu and the other baby elephant, Ammu, chose us. When you start you don’t know where the story will take you. It’s not like making a fiction film, shooting for 30 days, editing, done. Verite documentary work is long, you have to follow a story and wait for it to come together. We just showed up with integrity, passion and honesty. It was karmic.”
Set to the sound of the birds chirping, fore grounded against clear water and tall trees, we meet Bomman, calling out to Raghu, “My baby, my heart.” The viewer knows this is a beautiful bond. They head to the river as the sun breaks while the tiger, wild cow and hawk watch quietly. Much of the filming was done at Theppakadu Elephant Camp, one of the oldest elephant camps in the region. This is the land of Bomman’s ancestors in the Nilgiris. And we fall in love with these creatures, much like Gonsalves did.
Gonsalves shot on her phone, a GoPro, and then a DSLR camera. She had 400 hours of footage, which she finally got down to 40 minutes, chronicling the story of Raghu, an orphan whose mother was electrocuted. Abandoned by his herd, he started grazing with wild cows, but there was not enough food and water. Raghu then started stealing in the nearby villages, and was attacked by wild dogs who bit his tail, until he was finally handed over to Bomman. It’s a story for which, says Monga, they were grateful to be shortlisted. To be nominated is epic, she adds.
I feel Raghu and the other baby elephant, Ammu, chose us. Verite documentary work is long, you have to follow a story and wait for it to come together. We just showed up with integrity, passion and honesty, says Guneet Monga, producer
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Monga, 39, doesn’t come from money or a film family. Yet, she is the executive producer of Period. End of Sentence, which won the 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. She is a 2015 BAFTA nominee for The Lunchbox; and one of The Hollywood Reporter’s top 12 women achievers in the global entertainment industry in 2012. She has built her career on her intuition, honed since the days she began as a production coordinator for international movies in her home city, Delhi. She moved to Mumbai in 2006 with the Milind Soman-starrer Say Salaam India and switched to Anurag Kashyap Films in 2009. “I learnt a lot from Anurag,” she says, adding “he was like my film school.” They did some iconic independent movies together, such as Gangs of Wasseypur, Part I and II (2012), That Girl in Yellow Boots (2011), Trishna (2011), Shaitan (2011), and The Lunchbox (2013). Monga has often put her life on the line for her work. As her long-time friend writer-director Shaan Vyas says: “Be it selling her house for a film, or finding five different approaches to get in touch with that single annoying unapproachable person, to crowdfunding a movie on Facebook, using every last vestige of her persuasion skills to convince people of her vision, once she backs your project, she will go to any extent to get it made and released in the best way possible.”
It’s a quality that has made her one of India’s most successful independent producers. Her chutzpah was evident when she went from theatre to theatre in Delhi convincing them to screen morning shows of Say Salaam India for schoolchildren, the movie had become a box-office dud after India crashed out of the 2007 World Cup, but recovered its cost with Monga’s tactics.
Monga is one of the best producers working in the country right now, because she approaches all projects with tremendous passion and a very clear-minded vision. She is among that select bunch of producers who tried to create alternate audiences and markets for indie films in India and all over the world, and way before the advent of OTTs. According to Vyas, the greatest gift she has is to never get daunted by failure. “Because she has indeed failed multiple times, but she’s always managed to jump back with more strength and vigour,” he adds, alluding to movies she bet big on like Vasan Bala’s Peddlers (2012) and Amit Kumar’s Monsoon Shootout (2013) that were barely seen in India.
To work with her is to be included in her warm embrace. Producer-director Mozez Singh has known Monga for over a decade now. She is not merely a producer on various projects (including his next feature) but also a very dear friend. She is family, he says. “From the moment we met, we connected and what really impressed me about her at the start and still continues to is her sheer tenacity, her unbroken resolve, her deep faith in her own path and in getting the job done. Plus, she has a big heart,” he says.
It is a heart that has been tested over time. After her greatest professional triumph, The Lunchbox, directed by Ritesh Batra, she took a break of three years, due to depression.
Why did they stop working together after The Lunchbox? I asked Kashyap and he said she had different ambitions post the film. “I am ambition-less. And she has been doing what she wanted to do very well. I am happy with what I do and where I am. And I am happy and proud of what she is doing. I don’t have her drive,” he says.
As a first-time filmmaker it was important to see a strong and resilient woman like Guneet in this field, who has amazing respect for the material and does not interfere, says Kartiki Gonsalves, director, The Elephant Whisperers
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Post The Lunchbox was the time she discovered Guruji, the spiritual guru known as Divine Light, and started the practice of Gurbani. Singh, who directed Zubaan (2015), which Monga produced, says, “Guruji is her guiding light. She introduced me to his Grace a few years ago and nothing has ever been the same ever since. I can’t thank her enough for bringing him into my life and she is so lucky to be blessed by him.”
Monga says her deep spiritual journey makes her look for how she can add value to stories. “All we can do is to show up every day, give more, be grateful,” she says. Born to Sikh parents, she grew up in and around gurdwaras but lost the connection when she lost her parents at 23. With Gurbani and Shabad, she rediscovered a version of it. Monga is forever excited, forever looking for something new, says director Shlok Sharma, who worked with Kashyap and Monga on That Girl with Yellow Boots as a script supervisor. “I told her the story of my short film, Tubelight ka Chand, and she immediately loved it. We had barely any money, but it wasn’t about that. It is about a person’s energy. People like her give you confidence,” says Sharma, adding that Monga produced his first film, Haraamkhor (2015), through crowdfunding as she did with Vasan Bala’s Peddlers. Haraamkhor became a possibility because of cinema lovers who put in many lakhs of rupees each.
Across some of the most prestigious film festivals, round the world, she is loved and revered for being a trailblazer filmmaker. Vyas gives an example: she was part of the jury at the Zurich Film Festival in 2013, which also had the Pulp Fiction producer Stacey Sher, Killing them Softly director Andrew Dominik, Swiss director Thomas Imbach, and World War Z director Marc Forster.
She runs Sikhya Entertainment now, balancing both indie movies and documentaries. “Getting into a film is like a marriage,” Monga says, “day in and day out, there’s a lot to unpack and unfold.”
Going to the Oscars takes a lot of hardwork and a bit of grace. Gonsalves has been in the US, doing interviews, organising screenings, handling the campaign. Monga will join her soon and stay in Los Angeles until March 12, when the Oscars are announced. “Push and hustle are part of my DNA,” she says, as she strategises whom she can reach out to. With Netflix, she says she feels safe and secure. “It’s like putting a hoarding on the moon as our movie has been seen across 190 countries by 230 million viewers,” she says.
She is totally consumed by The Elephant Whisperers right now; but is also enjoying time with her “brand new husband,” entrepreneur Sunny Kapoor; giving final touches to her Netflix movie, a satire called Kathal; and shooting a new series in Dehradun. “They are calling me there but I’m off to Los Angeles,” she says excitedly. It’s a long way to carry the sweet little story of an unusual family of two adults and two orphaned baby elephants, which not only puts love at the front and centre of human relationships but also highlights the problems of climate change, and possible indigenous solutions.
For Gonsalves, Monga is a reminder that it is possible to be a strong and resilient woman in the movie industry, and that the journey doesn’t have to corrode you. For Monga, her work is all about people, and the stories they tell. “We will continue to experience success and failure,” she says. “Ultimately what matters is people and the human connections you make.”
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