Mumbai: In 2009, a thirsty leopard fell into a well in Parner in Ahmednagar district. In 2011, the leopard’s maimed body was found on the highway.

Mapping the journey between these two incidents is Ajoba. The Marathi movie, by Sujay Dahake, dramatizes the tensions between the near-endangered spotted cat and human beings in Maharashtra.

Ajoba, which opens on 9 May in 100 theatres, comes smack in the middle of warnings of a water shortage in several parts of the state (scarcity usually pushes the big cat out of its habitat), reports of leopard attacks across the country, and concerns of humans preying on the predators by encroaching on their habitat and hunting them down without provocation.

In April 2011, the environment ministry was moved to issue guidelines that were a response to an increase in incidences of leopards straying into settlements causing human casualties, and the retaliatory killing of leopards by the public, and a recognition of doubts being raised about the efficacy of and translocation of leopards from conflict areas as a mitigation measure.

One of the experts consulted for this is Vidya Athreya, a wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society India (WCSI) and the inspiration behind Ajoba’s protagonist, Purva Rao, played by Urmila Matondkar. Rao tags Ajoba after he is captured in a well, tracks his movements after he is released, and realises that he is trying to make his way home, even if that home may be on the edge of Mumbai, which doesn’t have enough space for humans, let along animals.

Ajoba’s 28-year-old director, who made an estimable debut with the Emergency-era set Shala (School) in 2011, originally wanted to make a documentary, but he realised the drama and humour of the operation after meeting Athreya.

“I thought that a documentary wouldn’t reach as many people," Dahake said in an interview from Pune, where he lives. “For this issue, in particular, I felt I should go the popular way and make a feature. As she narrated the events, automatically, things started falling into place. There was a protagonist, a sidekick (a farmer who helps Rao), and the antagonist, which is, of course, society."

Ajoba is constructed like a thriller around the leopard’s 29-day journey over 120km, which involves a fair amount of drama, including his disappearance from the tracking radar, parallel attacks on human beings that increases pressures on Rao’s operation, and his death in a road mishap several months later.

Athreya shared her research, videos and photographs with Dahake and screenplay writer Gauri Bapat. Rao’s character might be inspired by her, but several incidents in the movie have been fictionalized and dramatized, she said. “The movie is not a cut-and-paste job, and some characters are composites of many real people," said Athreya in an interview from Pune, where she lives. The photographs in the beginning of the movie, which show a terrified-looking leopard staring into the faces of several curious humans, were taken by her team.

Matondkar’s character wears shorts and knee-length boots in a couple of scenes, not necessarily something Athreya might do. “I thought that if I had worn that, I would have gotten a lot more done," she joked. “Actually, I don’t care as long as people come and watch the movie and get the message. There is no way I could have done this on my own."

Ajoba’s theme—that leopard behaviour needs to be patiently studied and understood—acknowledges that farming and rural communities might be doing a better job of dealing with the problem than urban residents. The media has needlessly sensationalized the encounters between humans and animals, says Athreya.

“India is perhaps the only country that has had wildlife living in human-use landscapes forever," she pointed out. “Of course, there is habitat loss and encroachment, but traditionally, India has been very different. People focus so much on conflict, but when I go down to the field I see more tolerance than conflict. The negative interactions have been there ever since we started agriculture and keeping livestock."

One issue about which there is no debate is the leopard’s vanishing habitat. Dahake uses satellite imagery as a leitmotif to depict the diverse terrain crossed by Ajoba. As the leopard travels from the place of his release back to the city, the top-angle views of the landscape change from dusty amber hills and scattered patches of vegetation to residential towers and office complexes. A recurring image, created by the visual effects department, is of the silhouetted leopard perched on a slope, silently watching the urban sprawl below.

Computer-generated imagery (CGI) played a large part in aiding the leopard’s screen depiction. One of the biggest challenges for Dahake was to make a leopard movie without violating rules set down by the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) under the environment ministry.

Six animals may not be exhibited or trained as performing animals—bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers, lions and bulls. A go-ahead from AWBI, a statutory advisory organisation, is mandatory for producers of commercials, television serials and movies featuring all manner of non-humans.

Animal-themed movies are few and far between, and filmmakers prefer to artificially create animals or birds rather than undergo the lengthy procedure of getting no-objection certificates. Recent movies like Aadukalam and Fandry, which feature cock-fighting and swine-herding respectively, used CGI to compensate for the actual use of roosters or pigs. Of Ajoba’s roughly 4 crore budget, 35 lakh have been spent on CGI.

Ajoba combines a computer-generated leopard with the real one—or rather ones. Dahake accompanied wildlife documentary filmmakers on shoots across the country, and was also present at a leopard capture. “The pressure during the leopard capture was that I had to finish 3-4 scenes during 40 minutes, which is for how long they can tranquilize the leopard," he said. Endorsements from various wildlife organizations, including Athreya’s WCSI, helped him secure AWBI’s nod, as must have a passionate letter Dahake dashed off to Union information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari.

Ajoba’s journey home took him under a month, while Dahake has taken close to two-and-a-half years to complete his mission. Slowly, but patiently, he has brought his project to the screen—a bit like the leopard, whose name means grandfather in Marathi. The big cat was named by Athreya and her team, who were charmed by his gentleness and gradual but steady progress, during which he didn’t harm a single human being.

“Had we named the leopard T1 or some such thing, nobody would have made a film about him," she said. “He was an older animal, and so peaceful."