Having touched upon various aspects of film-making in his long career, Manish Hariprasad today is the owner of Owlet Films. He has served Red Chillies Entertainment, UTV, Sony, Ogilvy in the past. Other than film-making, which is his profession, he derives immense pleasure from wild-life photography. How he balances a high-end hobby with an extremely demanding job is still a mystery.
I’ve actually never studied life sciences. However, at a very early stage, I think I was in class 8 or 9, I ended up reading Cosmos by Carl Sagan and it influenced me tremendously. The beauty of the writer is that the complex content was no barrier for my age. One of the key theories in Cosmos deals with the evolution of humans and persistence of memory. And that was my only interaction with life sciences for a very long time.
At the same time there was wanderlust.
I was in the first-year of college and decided to go for treks. Those were the times with no cell phones, no google maps, etc. I went to the Himalayas for my first trek with 5000 rupees and managed to spend a month amidst the mountains with that money. I went up till Gaumukh. The kind of a natural beauty that I saw there turned me into a lover of nature along with its thrilling and powerful elements.
I started travelling to forests way before I got into photography. Travelling was a passion. Then someone gave me a camera. I started clicking photographs during my travel. Things just fell together. In my scheme of things, it was important for me to travel unexplored places in India, which nobody had seen before – at least not the civilized world. So I visited many bizarre corners of the country, which aren’t listed anywhere even till date. Jungles like Pakke, Arunachal or Agumben, the south of India, Sambhar near Rajasthan or the carcass dumping yard in Bikaner – these are the places that no one knows about, forget visiting.
I guess you have to start; and then one place leads to the other. Information is collected on-the-go. 90% of the attempts based on such information could be bad and futile, but the remaining 10% just makes up for it.
The biggest wonder of being is that there is life in everything. There is immense joy when you are in a jungle, you locate a small puddle of water and realize there’s a whole universe inside it. Take Agumbe in Karnataka, for example. Agumbe is a rain forest. It gets more rain than Cherrapunji now. This Agumbe is a crazy place. You throw a stone at a bush and three snakes will come out. It’s the only jungle where they tell you to wear very bright clothes so that you are seen by all the creatures and there are no “accidental meetings”.
Here I met this guy called Veteker. He is an Anglo-Indian – English father and Indian mom. He has worked very hard to classify snakes and made a snake book out of it.
Photography-wise I realized animals are too easy to click. They are almost stationary. Birds are a little difficult because they are far off and they can just fly. Animals can only run on lands; you can pretty much follow them. Birds, you can’t follow. This seemed far more exciting and challenging, hence I got into birds. Since birds are more colorful, they make better pictures.
I started off with very small birds in my backyard in Mumbai. You will be able to trace a pattern in everything, once you start looking for it. Patience and observation tells you a lot about birds. You get to know how they are going to behave. So you also get an idea of how to click them.
Lately I have moved to insects and butterflies. They are random and are really small at times. This has been evolution of my photography.
Circumstances teach you. For one of the first few birding trips I took, I went to north-east. From Siligudi, an old gentleman called Dr. Mitra accompanied me as a guide. Dr. Mitra was a professor in a college. I don’t even know if he was teaching life sciences or related stuff. He could very well be a chemistry professor! But he was extremely knowledgeable in wild life and an equally mad fellow. Every time I would pick my camera, he would hit me with his walking stick literally on my hand and command, “First watch the bird”!
Soon I learnt, once you know the typical habits of a bird, it will be extremely easy for you to click it. There are birds which will fly from one branch, they’ll catch a bee and come back to sit exactly there. If you know that then you won’t chase it with your camera. Dr. Mitra got me to observe the birds. I got to know that most of the birds poop just before they are taking off. It’s like, why carry extra weight during the flight. So as a reverse, I would know that if a bird is pooping, maybe it’s ready to fly off. So while preparing for a flying shot, I would wait for the bird to poop. These are those simple things that Dr. Mitra taught me.
Observation and experience is the greatest teacher. Most of the notes I put up with my pictures are my own observations. These are not observations which you find in a book. Just the other day, I saw a pelican couldn’t find fish; it grabbed a pigeon and ate it. I posted that video on social media. It was amazing to know that this bird can swallow another when hungry!
Since I am not formally educated into it, my responses to things come with an awe and carry the innocence of a common man, while simultaneously having the passion of a wildlife lover.
Often people take to very stern path for conservations, which I feel is not the correct way. Real conservation happens if you can make people interested in wildlife. Humans will feel for other creatures when they know about the humanly things that the animal or bird is doing. For example, when the female hornbill is ready to lay eggs, she sits inside the tree hole. The male brings wet sand from the river bank and literally seals the entire tree-hole to save the female from predators and leaves only a small slit through which its own beak can go inside or the female’s beak can come out to give or take food. For a period of four months, when the egg are laid and chicks are out, the male returns with food every two hours. By the end of four months, the male is exhausted to death. It’s such a human thing to do.
If a hunter kills the hornbill, chances are that the female and the chicks will die inside the tree hole. Now once you tell this story, it can make people think. Killing one bird means wiping out a family practically. Sharing such stories are far more impactful than enforcing conservation rules. People tend to break rules, but they can’t not feel touched by stories.
There are many. For example, Pakke is a jungle where people live in boundaries and not animals. Most of the national parks you see, have a boundary. Whereas, only if you go to Africa, you find there’s a jungle for animals and people live in enclosures. So Pakke in India is still one of those places where people live in enclosures. There is a guest house on top of a cliff and we rested there. There were these two birds I had never seen before called the Jerdon’s Baza and the Black Baza. Baza is Baaz. So these were both birds of prey. I saw these two birds flying high in the air, then swooping down and suddenly picking up one of the chicks. I informed the lady who is the wife of the caretaker of that guest house. She seemed very casual about it. I asked her if she has ever counted her chickens. She said, No, I’ve never counted. See, we are living in the area of this Black Baza. So he has the first right to whatever we have and whatever is left, is all ours!
That’s a lot of richness coming from a simple, illiterate woman.
During my travels I’ve lived in places where I literally needed to tell people that I am coming because they will take three days to construct a hut for me. So once you confirm your travel plans, they start building your residence. There are people who dedicated their lives to these areas, the tribals who have moved on from hunting to conservation. Dr. Mitra for example, worked at Jaldapara, Mahanagara sanctuaries where he adopted tribal kids and educated them to become either a bird guide or a butterfly guide because those kids knew the jungle like nobody else. Dr. Mitra must have trained more than 40 tribal kids and made them guides to various wildlife sanctuaries.
There have been bizarre moments. Once I was not getting the network anywhere and someone showed me that exact spot where I’d get the network. So next morning I thanked him. He rolled his eyes and asked, You went there at night? I said, yes.
I was then strictly instructed to go there only during the day because at night a leopard comes and sits at the same spot!
Similarly, in Agumbe I was given a room and all the rooms were named after the birds, except this last one which was named after a leopard. I asked why and was told very casually, because a leopard comes there!
I came to Mumbai only in 2000 for work. Like most of us do. So in that sense I am a migrant in Bombay. I lived all my life in Rajasthan.
I studied in a hostel for a long while. Hostel was a completely different world. Boy’s hostel can be heaven or hell depending on how strong and handsome you are. I used to play table tennis. I was No. 4 in all India Table Tennis and studied in Pilani and stayed in Bharatpur, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Pilani, etc. I lost my parents very early.
From a very early age I think I’ve been one of those curious people who would not say ‘no’ to something before having tried it out. Curiosity generally makes very good stories. There was a friend who always used to say that no matter how many locks you put in a place, there will always be a way to get inside. We used to try this theory in almost every few days. We lived in a government colony where people would get transferred from time to time. Before the new people came, the houses would be empty but locked. We would break in and enter just to see what comics, what books and what broken toys they had left behind.
I was the Chief Creative Officer with Red Chilies about 3 years back.
After I moved out, I created a company which is dealing with scripts. I know the value of a good script, having been a producer. I started Owlet Films, dealing only and only with scripts. At some point of time if we feel that someone is ready to produce with us or allow us to do the full project ourselves, we would do it. But we would go step by step. I was very surprised to get a call from Red Chilies saying, we’d love to collaborate. So as a first of its kind, we have taken the onus of all creative work at Red Chilies. You can say Owlet is a creative consultant or a creative adviser for Red Chilies.
The times have changed with enough number of multiplexes opening up in India and digital entertainment flooding into our lives. So there is less supply and more demand for good content. I do see film-making as not a passion of one man, but like a relay race. I see it as a distance being run by many individuals rather than 100 meters run by a single individual. Someone starts the process, someone takes its forward, someone works more on it and then someone culminates it and takes it to the finishing line. In which case, the script becomes the first leg. Identifying an idea, getting it put into a proper format which can excite a director, is a lot of work. In India unfortunately, most of the directors are writers themselves and most of the writers want to become directors at some stage, which according to me is a self-defeating notion. While a person can direct two films in a year as a director, or at least a film a year, will possibly will come out with one film in 3-years if he is also writing it.
Every single person associated with film-making happens to “see” the film from his own perspective, before starting work on it. The DOP feels that he sees the film because he knows the angles. The art director does because he has to do the art. The costume person will see a film because they have to dress those people convincingly. So every person involved in the film-making process has to see the film. Maybe the writer sees it first but he is not the only person who does, before a film goes out there. It’s a mind block to not let go of the baton to the next person and being unnecessarily possessive. It affects the macro output. But then, the respect that is given to the directors is way more than the respect that a writer gets. This changes every equation.
Shah Rukh Khan is Red Chillies but Red Chillies is not meant to stop at Shah Rukh Khan. Shah Rukh’s vision was to create a production house, a studio which is not dependent on him but goes beyond him. Which is why it is not called Shah Rukh Khan Productions. Having said that, the person we work with is a superstar and he has been a superstar for many many years. There’s a lot to learn from him, especially the way he conducts himself, the way he is able to hold his team together, the way he divides himself between professional and personal space, etc. He is one of the most creative guys I’ve ever met, knowledgeable and opinionated with ample social observations, without necessarily being judgmental. Red Chilies offers absolute freedom to experiment with genres and to employ diverse creative talents in storytelling. We don’t live under any defined compulsion. As for Shah Rukh, he brings certain class to our work. That class and quality becomes our base and it takes us only higher from there. In the years ahead, Red Chilies will be coming up with new genres of films; films of different budget and scale. And films on different subjects.
I’ve been asked very often to make coffee table books or to have exhibitions of my photographs. I have generally stayed away from it because I like to keep it as a hobby rather than making another profession out of it. When you convert your hobbies into something commercial, it does go out to a lot many people, but it also brings with it lots of other work which adds fatigue and takes away the joy of doing something innocently. You pursue a hobby when you have time, because you can relax with it. Commercializing it takes away that relaxation. Gardening in your own backyard is very different from running a nursery.
(Transcripted by Nazneen Kachwala)