Photo: 4Play
Photo: 4Play

Jumping with a camera: The rise of adventure films in India

A handful of entrepreneurs and adventure sports enthusiasts in India are hard at work bringing their experiences to a wider audience

It was meant to be a routine jump over a narrow crevasse for Ashish Sharma, en route to Koa Rang II peak in the Himachal Pradesh’s Lahaul valley. His partner, Aditya Puri, stood by, camera in hand. 

Sharma took the leap, only to find the ice had give way when he landed on what appeared to be the other side. The next moment, he found himself wedged in the gap, thanks to the two backpacks he was carrying—one in front and the other behind. Otherwise he would have dropped 40 feet down onto hard rock and perhaps solid, dormant ice. 

The two men weren’t out on a recreational hike during a summer break, or on an exploration trip. They were at work, shooting a film for Mishmi Takin, a manufacturer of outdoor gear. 

Sharma and Puri represent a young breed of videographers who are thriving in the outdoors. Navigating a flooded ravine, walking in waist-deep snow in freezing temperatures, and hiking up a cliff are all routine parts of their job. At the heart of their pursuit is a love of nature, a passion for adventure and a desire to showcase the wonder that is India. 

Ashish Sharma during the Koa Rang II expedition. Photo: Upslope Production
Ashish Sharma during the Koa Rang II expedition. Photo: Upslope Production

One of the country’s earliest films of a similar genre was shot during the Everest expedition of 1965, which put the first Indians on top of the highest mountain peak in the world. This was made was under the Films Division (ministry of information and broadcasting) banner, produced by Arun Chaudhuri and directed by N.S. Thapa. Shankar and Jaikishan composed an original score for the film. 

But the footage was left completely to the expedition members to organize. So, in addition to climbing in some trying conditions, there was also the challenge of dealing with filming equipment at high altitude. 

Avtar Singh Cheema, the first Indian to climb Everest alongside Nawang Gombu, writes in M.S. Kohli’s Nine Atop Everest, about his frustration on the summit: 

“We planted the ice-axe on the summit. I took a few photographs of the ice-axe with the flags. I tried to take a few movie shots too but my camera wouldn’t work. I thought there was something wrong with the magazine and replaced it with a new one but the camera still didn’t work." 

Those days are long gone, given the improved technology, technical literacy and superior equipment these days. 

Gen-next shooters 

Sharma and Puri had just finished a course in photography at the Light & Life Academy in Ooty in 2010 when, for their next assignment, they thought of shooting an adventure. The self-supported, cycling expedition from Manali to Leh in August they undertook the following year became both the inspiration and foundation for their company Upslope Productions

“It’s simpler to communicate with an audience through videos," says Puri. “Our formal education was in still photography. Through trial and error, we figured out videos. It was only later that we invested in more equipment." 

Since that first video, Upslope Productions has collaborated with events such as the Tour of Nilgiris, a cycling race of about 900km, and La Ultra-The High, an ultra-marathon in Ladakh. With an eye on revenues, they’ve also expanded into shooting promotional videos. They take a pen, for instance, and subject it to an outdoor themed shoot. 

“We try and show how the pen would function while writing notes in a tent in the mountains. That’s how we try and work with clients who are open to such ideas," Puri says. 

Like Upslope, most production companies have similar beginnings: Start with self-generated funds, beg and borrow from anyone who shares their vision. While some approach the market with a certain formal structure, with a feasibility study for instance, for most it is a passion-driven approach. 

“Since we are consumers ourselves, we did not have any doubts on how to serve this content to the Indian audience. We started with about Rs5 lakh—a combination of our own money and loans from family and friends. Today, we have a bunch of angel investors from private businesses on board as stakeholders," says Sukrit Gupta, founder of 4Play, which is based out of Manali. 

Gupta, alongside Anuj Khurana and Kshitij Gupta, started 4Play in the latter half of 2015 as a dedicated online channel for extreme and action sports. Today, the 15-member team is an eclectic bunch of athletes, filmmakers, illustrators, musicians and marketers linked by their love for the outdoors. 

The idea germinated at the Gupta brothers’ home in Nainital, when Khurana visited them after completing a 110-day trip across five states, with no money in his pockets. 

“Even before this trip, I used to keep shooting videos when I travelled. It just so happened that this one went viral, and I was called to many institutions to share my experience. For me, it was a progression of what I was doing at the time—travelling and shooting," Khurana says. 

For their first project, they used a personal contact to approach Rishi Rana, an up and coming kayaker based in Rishikesh. The idea was to get a feel of shooting outside of their home base, in a remote outdoor setting with an athlete who had never faced a camera before. Then, there was the task of ironing out technicalities to better their final product. 

“It was a basic shoot. Rana had a GoPro on him and the rest of the time we followed him on a raft or shot from the banks," Gupta explains. 

“Back then, we never thought of making money. Now we try to make a business out of the subjects we like to shoot," Khurana adds. 

Most projects are driven by collaborations with athletes, and working with local talent only makes it cheaper. 4Play’s latest offering, Bawli Booch, was the brainchild of Khurana, and shows downhill-mountain biking in the vibrant environs of Manali, featuring a local rider Raj Kaushal. 

“We didn’t have to pay him anything. He’s my neighbour, you know," Khurana says, laughing. 

It took the team 20 days of end-to-end production and Rs30,000 to come up with an eclectic video set to a song with the same name from the movie, Laal Rang. In addition, a few members of the team at 4Play too featured in the four-and-a-half-minute film, exhibiting their skills such as slack-lining, bouldering, painting and riding a motorcycle. 

“We had a storyboard in place and had planned 70% of the film. A lot of ideas evolved during the shoot. For the action sequences, we needed a few retakes. Raj is a budding athlete, who didn’t mind taking another fall if we didn’t get the right shot. Following or leading him on a bike can be quite a challenge," Khurana says. 

The video became quite a hit. In just a few weeks cycle brands started calling in at the 4Play office and the team is currently close to sealing deals with a few of them for similar projects. 

Upslope Productions too roped in ultra-runner Kieren D’Souza after meeting him at La Ultra, and shot with him in Spiti last year. This year, they want to explore options with climber Akash Jindal. 

“It’s our attempt to get Indians to realize that these events are possible and encourage them to take up these sports," Puri says. 

Difficult task 

Given the nature of these sports, challenges are aplenty when it comes to shooting in difficult weather conditions. While filming Curry Pow, a film on skiing and snowboarding, Rohan Thakur of TheVibe remembers a week of snowstorms in Gulmarg that made shooting an ordeal. 

“When the snow starts to slap your face in high winds, it’s like a thousand BB gun pellets being fired at the same time. Forget taking out your camera, you can’t see what’s next to you and you lose all sense of direction. It’s fun for us but not for the equipment," Thakur says. 

When the production crew at 4Play was stuck in a similar situation, they simply took the day off to ski. But despite good conditions, operational hazards are a part of the business. 

At 4Play, cinematography lead Shivam Aher took a fall from his longboard while going downhill at over 70 kilometres an hour. Operations lead Ashray Misra fractured his ankle while filming the Suru Boulder Fest—a climbing festival at 12,000 feet in Ladakh. 

Then again, it could just be a freak incident as experienced by Vineet Abraham, the production assistant at TheVibe, who shattered his knee when an out of control child rammed into him while skiing down a slope. 

Often filming and production crews need to be somewhere on par with the athletes they’re working with. Thus many of them are ardent sportspersons themselves. Often, they say, this helps get both perspectives: that of the athlete and the audience. 

Thakur has been skiing since he was a child and calls adventure sports “an avid part of the school curriculum" while growing up in Manali. 

“Every kid from Manali has a monkey inside. It comes naturally when you grow up in the mountains," he says. 

Puri and Sharma have started training for their next expedition that takes them to high altitudes. Others like Gupta pull off multi-day treks in a single day as part of the training routine. In October 2015, he took on a run on the Pindari glacier trail—an 80km route that rises from 5,135 feet to 12,300 feet in Uttarakhand. 

He also had to use navigational and mountaineering skills to get to his destination. In addition, there was the challenge of filming while on the move. What normally takes four to five days of hiking was pulled off in 30 hours (16 hours and a 14-hour bivouac due to rain), which is also the subject of his film, Whistle in the Dark. 

When Urban Fakir Films’ Akash Dixit first met Aishwarya Yadav, who is one of India’s top skydivers, it took little time to get cracking—Dixit decided to film a day in the life of a sky diver. The brainstorming led to RIP 1980-20?? RISE IN PEACE, a short film on India’s first cliff BASE jump. (BASE stands for building, antenna, span and earth, or cliff—the four types of structures you can perform a BASE jump off.)

Dixit and Yadav first went on a recce trip before they narrowed down on Konkan Kada near Harishchandragad in Maharashtra. Ten days later, they were back, getting devoured at the base by “mosquitos that can bite through your jeans", a night before the jump. The next morning, Dixit hauled his equipment and followed Yadav up some 80 degree inclines and three hours later, stood at the top. 

“It was tricky climbing with all the equipment. Yet, it was just the beginning of our challenges. You see, there was no medical help on hand, no ground crew to support. He (Yadav) had to figure out where to land as well," Dixit says. 

“I was shaking. But then again I couldn’t afford to, for it meant the camera would shake! Once through with the jump, I had to go through the entire route again, this time downhill!" he adds. 

Since then, the two have collaborated on two other jumps, all of them self-funded. 

Making it work 

Some believe the market for such offerings are opening up, and it’s just about approaching the right buyer to make it lucrative. Asad Abid produced Curry Pow and spent close to Rs15 lakh on it. 

“The making of Curry Pow was a part of a larger design—TheVibe, which is an authentic lifestyle content/talent and experiences brand. We are in the process of building a community around alternate lifestyle culture for and of urban India," Abid says. 

“The film has generated interest with both linear (traditional TV channels) and SVod (Subscriber Video on Demand) and will recoup its amount over time from licensing and distribution deals, both domestically and internationally," he says. 

For the first time last season, Upslope Productions made an annual profit. The money goes right back into equipment and on independent projects such as Impossible, which was shot over two editions of La Ultra, and releases on 24 July. 

A majority of these auteurs currently work with a short film format. But a few have made documentary-length films. Upslope Productions recently shot a series for Discovery, which featured an 88-day, stand-up paddling expedition down the Ganga. 

Then there is the scope of going beyond the filming and collaborating with musicians or making their own music, as Thakur did on Curry Pow. 

“You want your audience to feel what you feel, and music is the best way to convey that feeling. It’s the music that sets the vibe," Thakur says. 

In February, at the first Indian Mountaineering Foundation Mountain Film Festival in New Delhi, most of the films that were screened were shot and produced domestically. So while the audience has oohed and aahed at international offerings in the past such as Danny MacAskill’s bicycle tricks in The Ridge or held their breath at the drama unfold on the mountains in Meru, going by the aspirations of these like-minded souls, the day isn’t far when we soak in top-notch content from India. 

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer who dreams of the mountains and lives for long road journeys.

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