Tune into any wildlife channel and the sight of a Cheetah running after antelopes in high speed chase is commonplace for most. The predator pinning the prey to the ground in a strategic kill is a sight of triumph for some, but a disturbing wrath of nature for others. Like my mother, who wouldn’t want to miss seeing the fate of the poor animal, but only through her translucent dupatta.
What we see are successful hunts. No one likes to watch a complete fiasco in the making. Defeat or failure just don’t appeal to our instincts. We turn a blind eye to a majority of hunts wherein antelopes manage to escape. In fact, the mortality rate of these preys might be just 10%. Adventure filmmakers often undergo a similar experience. Most of the time our passion projects find a safe place in the archives of our computer storage. The project escapes from us. The endeavors end in vain and can be said were futile. I too underwent the feeling of being an unsuccessful Cheetah recently.
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We had a ski project in hand. Some of the good skiers had been engaged way before it was time for the first snowfall of the season. It’s not always the nature that’s unpredictable. Let me introduce you to ‘people’s schedule’! The skiers called off the shoot a day before we had to leave. They made their own plans. As unbelievable and ludicrous as it may seem, it is true. Being bootstrapped we had to shoot locally and a manhunt for skiers with different skill sets started. Fortunately, we were able to find them.
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Rajat Thakur is a hidden gem. Not only is he into climbing, but also calisthenics and backcountry skiing. He introduced us to Deva Indra Thakur, who has undergone training at the Asian Games in Luge. Deva does some snowboarding as well. Snowboarding and skiing were the perfect combination for my visual art. After meeting over a cup of coffee on a cold winter evening, we decided to leave the next day because a snowstorm had been predicted for the next few days. Our ride, a Bolero Camper 4×4, was booked. Essential supplies were gathered. We headed for the hunt.
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The target was locked. We were to shoot the project in Sethan village, 16 kms off Manali. We had hardly covered 4 kms when the Camper abruptly halted in the middle of nowhere. The guys told us that the road was under the authority of the hydropower dam that is built on Jobri stream. Only the locals were allowed to pass through the barricade after twilight. So we needed to circumvent via a gully through a village and meet the the rest of the crew there. Five young men with beards and heavy backpacks moving stealthily across the village in the dark – it’s not surprising that the villagers were watching us suspiciously. Fortunately, Rajat was guiding us through the way, interacting with the villagers and making them comfortable. We reached the car and continued on our prowl. After a bumpy ride, sitting in the open rear of the truck with the cold breeze hitting against our faces, we reached our spot. There was a deafening silence around us. The whole village was abandoned at that time of the season. Thankfully, there was a homestay that operated and catered to the infrequent visitors. We rented a room for a night. Well, an attic to be precise. After a hot and delicious thukpa, it was time to call it a day and sleep tight to embrace the next day’s tedious filming.
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The sun rose, but I have no idea when. It’s hard to say on a cloudy day. Just as we finished our breakfast, it started to snow. Lucky us! We were going to shoot while some fresh cotton blanketed the landscape. Fresh powder is always good news for ski/snowboard enthusiasts and maybe filmmakers too. Or that’s what I thought. We trekked for some two and a half kms and the snowfall kept on increasing. We had to hike to an elevation of 11,500 ft. from where the skiers had to cruise down. It isn’t too hard a feat, but not when you are carrying camera equipment over a 5 feet pile of fresh snow, wearing innumerable layers of clothes. Temperature was below freezing point, but you do sweat on these hikes, which makes it even more grueling. You perspire a lot, and if you stay in one place, you freeze. The unfathomable biomechanics!
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By the time we reached the spot it was almost whiteout. Probably not the best condition to ski or snowboard. If we had come that far, it was better to try at least. How unprepared we felt for this project! We did not have any shelter to shoot. Even a poly sheet canopy as roofing would have done the trick. Nevertheless, we setup the cameras beneath a tree. Our friend and mountain guide, Praveen Ghanghas, advised us not to stay still as we could experience frostbites. So we started circling the tree. What a funny sight that was! Making us look like shamans praying to the tree: “O heavenly floral deity, we thank you for the shelter in this cold”. I am guessing the tree’s mystical powers must’ve awakened that day.
Now it was time for the final chase. The shoot started. Go-pros mounted on the skiers’ chests.
Our camera focused on them. Action!
They slid down. Fell once. Got up and then passed us. Cut!
“So how was the slide?”
“Not great”, was the answer.
They couldn’t see anything. Hardly a minute’s footage was captured when it was decided we call it a day. It was easy for the athletes to descend. Just ski downwards. But for our team, things weren’t so easy after all. The trail had vanished under fresh snowfall.
We headed towards our stay. The heated up tandoor. A view of the snow falling through the window. It was all pleasant once we were inside. No worries.
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We contemplated and then decided to start afresh the next day, over the fresh powder that had just fallen. Then came the skiers with the news. A snow blizzard was just around the corner. The roads were soon going to be blocked and we were going to get stuck for a couple of weeks if we didn’t act with haste. But we had just started. The skiers were leaving as well so there was no point staying on. Fortunately, the driver that got us up there, hadn’t left. He was still unloading the rations he had brought with him. With tiresome and disappointed faces, we left.
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The Cheetah could not hunt. We could not pounce upon the situation at once. But then, it’s tough to beat the probability of a success rate. That doesn’t mean we will lie down in despair. For where there is hunger, there will be a hunt underway. It won’t be long before we capture something with our cameras, and yes it will be on display as well.
Yes mom, you will watch it. But this time you won’t be hiding behind that dupatta.