The Sundarbans Shoot

During scripting we realized that unless we were in the Sundarbans the finer details of the film would not get locked in. So we flew to Kolkata and got into the Sundarbans from the Indian side. With only 20% of the Sundarbans under the Indian control the government has always been very skeptical to opening up tourism. Huge efforts are being made to protect this fragile environment and its local inhabitants, be it man or beast. We quickly realized that filming here would involve procedures with a lot of red tape. We were apprehensive of crossing over to the Bangladesh side but our doubts were put to ease as the government and the local handlers extended unconditional support. During our recce trips we tested many routes to get into the core territory of the Sundarbans as quickly as possible knowing that we would be transporting a huge crew and tons of equipment. The only route that seemed feasible was to cross over to Bangladesh by road and drive straight to a port called Mongla to board our ships. This procedure in itself posed various challenges as the boarder security had never before have the opportunity to process and expedite the movement of a film unit of such size and that too with an array of weapons, which were being used for our film.

"There are two mistakes one can make along the road ...not going all the way, and not starting." Buddha

We got our unit of 150 on board 4 outdated and ill-equipped ships. These were the best ones available at that point in time. Tied to the stern of our ships was a fleet of 18 boats. These were used to get into the narrow and shallow canals. Some were converted into mobile pantries and the rest divided between production, forest personal and actual character boats. Trailing our armada was a water barge carrying a million liters of water for domestic needs. We had hired 2 of these barges so we never ran out of water as every time one had to be refilled. But the most important boat in our fleet was the one that was assigned for only garbage clearance. This was an aspect that was of supreme importance to us. We had made a pact among ourselves that we would not leave our footprint behind in the Sundarbans. Every evening after wrap the entire unit would pick up every piece of garbage, be it apiece of tape or an empty bottle.

Of Weather, Time Zone and Connectivity
The Sundarbans is one of the most humid places in the world. In the 4 recce trips we made over a period of time at different times of the year we realized that the best month to film would be November – December. The temperature would be comfortable and we wouldn’t face many make-up drip issues. But this region was known for its un-seasonal cyclones, which in the past have devastated the land and its settlements. It was also a season where some early mornings could have the entire mangrove covered with mist that would linger on for a couple of hours, which would cause havoc in our scheduling. But the on weighing the pros and cons the decision to film in November was locked. The repercussion of our decision was reflected in our insurance premium but it was well worth it.

On the first day of filming in the Sundarbans which started post lunch, the sun set by 4.30 pm. Oops! This aspect was never taken into consideration at all. So we came up with a Machiavelli plan. We changed the time on all the clocks and wrist watches to mark the sunset at 7.30 pm. effecting the time at sunrise to 8.30 AM. Now, a cup of tea after wrap in the evening followed by a bath then dinner severed at 9.30 pm seemed like an acceptable working and living schedule as in opposed to 3 hours earlier. Even a wakeup call at 7 was a comfortable hour in the morning to start the day.

All these little factors played a huge roll in the psychological stability and of our crew and their work output, considering we were living on 4 ships for over 5 weeks. All our filming was in the Core territory of the Sundarbans. We shot on locations where no man has ever stepped on. We had a complete detailed chart of the canals and discovered some new ones as well. The closest village we could connect to was an 18-hour journey by ship. Being disconnected from the world lead to a better connection with one’s inner self.

Our evenings were spent on decks witnessing the divine transitions from day to night. But this serenity was not for all souls. For a long stint during our shoot we were anchored in a territory called Kotka, which opened up into the Bay of Bengal. During high tide the short anchors of our ships would loose their grip on the silt, leading to a drift. This happed with such regularity that we had to search for a new area to park and so discovered a shallow region in the bay near an old rickety jetty that was connected to a landmass, which had a tower emitting low frequency signals. This tower was eventually responsible for a lot of joy and much discussion over dinners. It all started when one of our over zealous lighting technician had figured out that if one were to hang facing west, on a rung of the ladder going up the mast and rotate a phone anti-clockwise for a few seconds they would get enough signal to call home.

Till date it is wondered what made him perform this gymnastic act to figure out a solution for connectivity, but then again one wonders of all the various experiment someone somewhere performed with various types of plants to have discovered the medicinal properties of Marijuana. Soon most of the crew was hanging and swaying on various parts of their respective ships in search of cellular phone signal. It would have been a thoughtful moment for our creator looking from above, wondering what this film crew is up to? All in all, our young Einstein was well rewarded for his discovery as it had put us in connect with our production office in Mumbai which was very important as a lot of our international crew movement was then coordinated with a some ease.

The Challenges
Directly affected by the lunar cycle, the tide on the rise is high enough to submerge the jungle and on the ebb the canals drain out leaving knee-deep thick silt to trudge in. This tidal movement takes place every 6 hours. Getting a unit into the jungle, which was only accessible through these canals, floating on multiple boats with all kind of equipment was routine. It required common sense, logic and planning. A virtue not required to have the entire team infected with, just the HODs. The real danger was complacency. At every given opportunity the crew was reminded of the volatile nature of the marshlands. We designed a system where every crewmember was checked upon by at least 2 of his mates. We were certain we wanted to return to our cities with the same number of people we went with. Our locations were in the core territory of the tigers. And they didn’t earn the reputation of the fiercest man-eaters by chance. On most locations we would find pugmarks that were as recent as minutes old. It was easy to assess the timing of the pugmarks because when the tide comes in every 6 hours, it wipes out all traces and impressions. So the oldest pugmark we spotted was only a few hours old. We had a ring of forest rangers that moved along with us with their weapons primed only to scare any uninvited beast and not to kill, not even in defense.

The Sundarbans is certainly not a place for someone suffering from Ophidiophobia. Every time we were filming in the silt we had snakes moving around and in between our legs. Fortunately these were the smaller and the less aggressive species that is what we were told! But sightings of the cobras were a frequent occurrence and it was a blessing that we didn't come across as creatures posing a threat.
And lets not forget the estuarine crocodiles. We saw only a couple of them but to our bad luck it was a few days before we were filming a sequences where some of our actors were in the water in one of the deeper canal, an ideal place for the reptiles to wander. Those were some tense moments during the Sundarbans shoot.