‘The jungle came alive and became an intimidating adversary’ (IANS Interview)

It’s a teen versus wild memoir and a survival adventure “that has stood the test of time for me, but if you scratch the surface, it is many other things too,” says filmmaker-author Nidhie Sharma, who, as a 13-year-old, led a group of six children out of the treacherous jungles of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh after an ill-advised shortcut to a picnic spot went horribly wrong and has now penned the saga in “Invictus – The Jungle That Made Me” (Pan).

“I have written about the transformative power of our choices — specially bad ones, about lessons that the wilderness teaches us, about finding courage in the face of death, about being born, raised and transferred (along with her Army officer father) and most importantly about not giving up in the most inhospitable of terrains, despite all odds.

“Now more than ever, I believe we need to hear stories of resilience and survival. The book also has a host of emotional, psychological lessons that you learn from the wild and how those lessons can prepare you for life,” Sharma, now in her 30s, who studied filmmaking and screenwriting at New York University and New York Film Academy, told IANS in an interview.

Sometimes an experience is so powerful and transformative that it finds its way out when you’re good and ready, she said, adding the account of survival in the wild at the Sino-Indian border was in the making for a long time.

“I held onto the memories for the longest, never letting them go because it takes time, sometimes years to truly process how a childhood adventure can impact you. Those mountainous jungles in Tawang taught me my greatest lessons and this book is about sharing them while taking the readers into the stunningly beautiful yet treacherous terrain of Tawang,” Sharma said.

She admitted that writing a memoir is particularly challenging because you remember the experiences that you’ve lived through, but it’s a whole different matter to make it a compelling read.

“The experience of the jungle was so overpowering for me back then that while penning the account the jungle came alive and became an intimidating adversary out to trick and kill us. I paid special attention to paint as visual a picture of it as possible so the readers see as vivid a picture as I.

“I also paid very close attention to structuring the narrative for pace and drama — making conscious choices with regard to metre and rhythm and used the stream of consciousness narrative style to move back and forth between timelines. While the central thrust was to give a blow by blow account of what happened that day, I’ve shared connected events and anecdotes from before and after that day and so in that sense ‘Invictus’ is also an origin story which explains why I made choices that put us in harms’ way,” Sharma explained.

Her academic background in literature and film organically found its way into the telling.

“For example, our never-ending search for the picnic spot is compared to Vladimir and Estragon’s futile search for Godot from Samuel Beckett’s classic ‘Waiting for Godot’ and the jungle often compared with Loki, the primary God of mischief,” she said, adding: “I really think ‘Invictus’ has allowed me to explore my voice as an author.”

What is also remarkable is that Sharma has managed to blend humour into what is primarily a gruelling account of human survival.

“I wrote with carefree abandon and have found that I have the ability to laugh at myself, even in prose, and believe the readers will connect with the humour as much as the thrill of being taken on a roller coaster ride. If you find sections that are humorous in this otherwise tense account, it is because that is my true voice.

“Genre blending is all about tonality and I think tonality has a lot to do with authenticity. Over the years I have learnt to laugh at myself and not take things too seriously,” Sharma explained.

How did she find her calling as a writer-filmmaker?

“I have been writing for as far back as I can remember, my closet was always filled with journals. Filmmaking sort of came naturally as my mother is an artist so I picked up colour, composition, framing and visual language from her paintings. My foray into it formally started with film direction training from New York.

“My first directorial gig right after film school was for Climate Change activist Al Gore’s Current TV. I got commissioned to direct three documentaries for them and the first one was called ‘Kids Bank of India’ about children who picked rags on the streets of New Delhi and saved that money in a bank they ran in their own night shelter. It was the most watched documentary on Current TV,” Sharma elaborated.

She also directed a fiction film ‘Mask in the Mirror’ which was about two New York women hiding behind a mask of quiet desperation. It got a special mention for being thought-provoking and beautifully shot. It played at the India International Women’s Film Festival.

Then, right after “Dancing with Demons”, her debut novel and the first boxing fiction in India, she was approached to be a part of the Indian adaptation on the second season of action thriller “24”, in a directorial capacity.

“I had written a detailed script and planned to travel to Tawang to shoot the trailer. Unfortunately, the second wave of the pandemic took us all by storm and those plans had to be canned so I identified and sourced the best stock shots which could authentically recreate the event and stick to the tonality, found the right voice-over artist and got my post-producer and editing team to make a 75-second cut. We worked remotely and often edited live via Zoom calls. Several edits were made before we cut the final version,” she said.

The challenging part was shooting her own bytes for the trailer. A proper location was identified along with a team. However, her apartment complex was sealed the night of the shoot.

“We were now in a mini-containment zone for at least two weeks. With no option left, I filmed my bytes on my own phone with the only equipment I had at home, which was not a lot. I had to handle lighting, shot taking, professional sound recording while also keeping an eye on if I was narrating the story correctly.

“Being a filmmaker came in handy but it was a lot to do all by myself and took me back to my film school days. The final trailer has been very well received and I’m told it spotlights the theme and mood of the adventure,” Sharma said.

What next? What’s her next book/film/project?

“My next outing is as a screenwriter on the third season of the International Emmy awards nominated sports drama ‘Inside Edge’. The cricket based series will be released on a leading OTT platform. I am also developing a very exciting and entertaining web series. It is exhilarating to be wearing multiple hats and challenge pre-existing definitions of what a storyteller should do,” Sharma concluded.

(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at vishnu.makhijani@ians.in)

–IANS

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