Guneet Monga on The Elephant Whisperers' Oscar nom: 'Wanted to do everything to nurture this film'
In an interview with Hindustan Times, producer Guneet Monga shares her feelings about the Oscar nomination for the documentary short The Elephant Whisperers and collaborating with Netflix to take the film to the world.
After backing Rayka Zehtabchi's Period. End of Sentence, Guneet Monga finds herself once again heading to the Oscars. In 2019, Period. End of Sentence won the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) and now the producer's latest project The Elephant Whisperers is competing in the same category at the 95th Academy Awards. (Also read: Guneet Monga and Sunny Kapoor tie the knot as per Sikh rituals, twin in blue. See pics)
Guneet, who is also a member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) in the producers' branch, spoke to Hindustan Times about the incredible honour and working with Karthiki Gonsalves, the first-time filmmaker behind the documentary short. She also gave a run-down on the busy month and a half ahead as she works to make sure that voters get to watch the film ahead of the final voting period from March 2 - 7. The awards ceremony will be held in Los Angeles on March 12. Excerpts below:
Congratulations on the Oscar nomination. Now that you have had time to process it, what does this second nomination mean?
It's absolutely surreal. Just so grateful, more than anything else. I actually got married and booked my honeymoon in places where I had no network. I was actually eight hours delayed to even find out that we were even shortlisted. First the shortlist came to me as a beautiful, gorgeous surprise. I'm so grateful to be nominated and be amongst the top five in the world. Let's see if we make it to the top.
Additionally, this year India has two other nominations as well with All That Breathes and RRR. Is this a hopeful sign going forward for Indian filmmaking?
I think this is our diversity at its best. It's really a display of our strengths in cinema. With RRR, it is the epitome of a commercial film and also in the Telugu language. And then there is this documentary in Kattuanayakan made by a Tamil woman, first-time female filmmaker and me, who is Hindi-based. And then there is All That Breathes. It's just a whole spectrum of who we are.
How did this project first come to your notice and how did you get on board as producer?
Kartiki, my director, discovered the story about the spiritual bond [between man and animal] and shot there for a while, and made a trailer. [She] took that trailer to the Netflix team. The documentary team at that time was the Singapore team and from there, the Netflix team brought it to me, if I would consider producing it as I was on the journey of Period. End of Sentence. It was amazing to collaborate again with Netflix. When I met Kartiki, it was incredible to see a female filmmaker with such ideas and so driven. I wanted to do everything to support her and nurture this film. And once I came on board, the film officially got greenlight.
When the rushes of the film started to come to you, what were you noticing about the story?
Vérité documentary is difficult. We had 450 hours of footage. Every day shooting in the wild, there's definitely a certain schedule. Vérité is just that you're following real life people. Over the years, you really discover the story. It can't happen overnight, so I'm so grateful to be on this journey with a studio like Netflix that has the global experience that allowed this breathing space for this film to unfold. I mean, who knew Raghu would be taken away? Or Ammu would come in? We could put together this story and their life like that.
I really think it's like putting a hoarding on the moon. So people are experiencing The Elephant Whisperers, talking about it, and writing to us. There's DMs on Instagram and mails coming to us directly. It's really heartening that people are discovering the film. I think I'm at a stage in life where I really want to have beautiful journeys together with filmmakers. That means a lot to me. And I've had the most incredible time collaborating with Kartiki.
Regarding Oscar campaigns, you've been doing this now for a few years also as you've taken other films to the Academy. What have you learnt and what are your plans for The Elephant Whisperers?
When we got shortlisted, the only [requirement] is that you submit your film to a certain festival. Certain festivals are Oscar-qualifying festivals. After that, you get a qualification tag, you submit to the Academy and then hopefully you get shortlisted. Post the shortlist, only the documentary film branch voters can vote for a nomination. So now that the nomination has happened, my plan is to get to LA and start working closely with the US team of Netflix and do the campaign. We will do a bunch of screenings, interviews, conversations, spreading the word of The Elephant Whisperers because now in this round, the whole Academy votes.
So it's more than 9,000 people voting globally. How do you reach them? How do you make sure they've seen your film? Netflix is a huge boom in that journey because people have Netflix and it's easy to watch. There's also the Academy Screening Room. But the next one month and a half is just outreach, press and making sure more voters experience the film. Everything adds up and if they are curious, they read about the film and that's when they get to know some of our journey. Hopefully, vote for it and hopefully we win.
In the last couple of years, Indian documentaries, both short and feature, have managed to make a mark for themselves at film festivals and amongst international critics. To what do you attribute this welcome growth for documentaries?
They need more support, more funding, more structure. I feel like as a format, it's starting... It's more like a testimony of some incredible filmmakers that we have in our country. With international platforms coming in and actually opening up the market for documentaries to be consumed also by regular people who are so used to fiction storytelling, I think it is just the start of an incredible time ahead.