'Ajoba': A film about a leopard's journey from Malshej Valley to SGNP

Leopards usually make headlines in Mumbai for attacking humans who stray into their natural home inside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP). But in 2009, Ajoba, a six-year-old leopard, made news for all the right reasons. A true survivor, this big cat travelled for 29 days across 120 km, from Malshej Valley (where he had been transported and left to fend for himself by the wildlife department) to his ‘home’ in SGNP, crossing highways, villages and rivulets on the way. Equally impressive was the news that he didn’t attack any humans or other animals during the journey, despite travelling through populated areas such as the Mumbai Agra highway, Kasara and Vasai Industrial estate.

The poster of Ajoba

Ajoba’s journey was captured for posterity, thanks to Vidya Athreya, a Pune-based ecologist with Wildlife Conservation Society-India, who tracked the leopard’s movements after putting a radio collar on him with a Global Positioning System (GPS) transmitter. Ajoba passed away in 2011. But two years down the line there is fresh excitement about the big cat. The reason: National Award-winning filmmaker Sujay Dahake has captured the story of the leopard’s historic journey in his forthcoming film Ajoba. The official trailer, which was released on You Tube on June 1, got 20,000 hits within 24 hours and has already created a buzz thanks to the hard-hitting storyline. The movie features Urmila Matondkar as Vidya Athreya while Dilip Prabhavalkar and Yashpal Sharma comprise the rest of the cast. Dahake has used shots of several leopards from a ranch in Rajasthan in his film, as Ajoba was no more by the time he started shooting the film.

Vidya Athreya
Vidya Athreya (left) with forest department officials after tranquilising Ajoba at Junnar village

How it all started
After bagging a National Award for his debut film Shala in 2011, Dahake, who is also an avid wildlife photographer, was eager to helm a movie on environment. “I wanted nature to be the protagonist in my film. When I read the news of Ajoba’s journey, I knew I had found my hero,” he tells us. He got in touch with Athreya and sought her consent to fictionalise the story. “I told her that the movie would be about Ajoba and her own character would be fictionalised. She was fine with the idea,” he recalls.

Urmila Matondkar as Vidya Athreya in the film
Urmila Matondkar as Vidya Athreya in the film

Dahake did his research by reading newspaper articles and a book on leopards penned by Athreya. The 27-year-old started writing the script in February 2012 and finished it in July last year. He then had two problems to tackle -- find an actor who could essay Athreya’s role effectively and get a producer willing to back the project. “I knew it would be tough to find a producer as it was an unconventional subject. So I wanted to add a slightly commercial angle to it,” he says.

Luckily, Urmila fit Athreya’s role perfectly. “I wanted a mature actress who was a known face and could portray Vidya’s character,” the young director explains. Thankfully, Urmila agreed to be a part of the film after reading the script. However, rather than meeting Athreya, Urmila decided to create her own vision of the character. “As this would be a fictional character, she wanted to interpret the role in her way,” he says. As for the production bit, Dahake decided to back the film himself and started shooting in November.

The groundwork
Dahake was clear he wouldn’t use stock images of leopards but shoot the animal in the wild. But that was impossible as Ajoba had passed away in 2011 after he was hit by a vehicle on Ghodbunder road. Fortunately, Athreya introduced him to Bera, a town near the Indo-Pak border in Rajasthan where four leopard families resided on a ranch. “The ranch had terrains and each area was occupied by one leopard family. Every family had three to four leopards and few cubs. My cameraman and I followed the families for six days. We have used this footage in the film,” says Dahake.

Save the leopards. Why?
But if Dahake thought that the toughest part of the shoot was over, he was wrong. When he reached Junnar village in Maharashtra where Ajoba was tranquilised in 2009, he faced stiff resistance from the locals. “It is strange. On one hand the leopard is worshipped as Waghoba and on the other hand, the villagers are against the wild cat. They don’t believe in conservation. When they heard that I was making a movie on Ajoba, they asked me why I want to save leopards. ‘They harm us.’ they told me. Luckily we used Urmila’s stardom and she played a crucial role in interacting with the villagers and neutralising them,” he recalls.

Though Dahake is happy with the rave reviews that the trailer has got, he is apprehensive about the film’s release. “It is a dichotomy. Anurag Kashyap, Ranbir Kapoor and Rani Mukerji congratulated me after seeing the trailer. But at the same time, the movie ran into censor trouble apparently because shooting leopards on film is banned in India. My whole debate with the censor board is that Ajoba is about conservation of leopards so I need to show the animal on the big screen,” he reasons.

“The censor officials meet once a month to discuss the film in Chennai. At this rate clearing the film might take ages,” he rants. Rather than procrastinating, Dahake has taken matters in his own hands and got letters from 10 Non-Government Organisations in the country who work for conservation of animals stating how Ajoba is an important film and why it should get a mainstream release. “I am also planning to write a letter to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting,” he says.

The filmmaker is hoping to release his movie by the end of this year and he intends to use innovative promotions to sell the film. “I want to create Ajoba as a brand just like Alex from the Madagascar movie series. The idea is to target kids as they are our future. If we can help them understand the importance of conservation, then half our battle is won. I also want to take my movie to international film festivals.” He admits that working on this film has been a huge learning experience. “Right from bribing forest officers to get details about how their department functions to counseling villagers, it has been an uphill task. But I’m glad that I could pull it off,” he smiles.

The Ajoba Project
vidya Athreya, a Pune-based ecologist with Wildlife Conservation Society-India, says “It was a project on human wildlife conflict that Dr Sukumar from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore had concieved in collaboration with Norwegian Institute for Nature Research. The Chief Wildlife Warden of Maharashtra wanted leopards, living in human- used landscapes, to be collared to track their movements. Using a radio collar with GPS transmitter to monitor their movements is a popular phenomenon abroad but is slowly emerging in India.

These animals who live among humans are extremely difficult to recapture unlike Africa where people can drive up to an animal and tranquilise it with a tranquiliser gun. In India you have to work secretively and I could not monitor the leopard openly because the moment people would realise there is a wild cat in the bush 20 metres in front of me, there would be a huge crowd, wanting to see the leopard! So we had to hide our receiver as soon as any farmer came towards us and pretend we were doing something else.

It was very challenging working in human-used landscapes and not a forest. I did not track Ajoba on the ground because the area where he was didn’t have good signals. As he was moving a lot there was a delay in receiving the signal. When I realised that he had crossed the Mumbai Agra highway and the Kasara station and was at Vasai Industrial estate, it sent me in a tizzy as I was worried about his safety.

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