An Academy Award nomination and a National Award haven't made things easy for Ashvin Kumar. He talks about his chequered journey and his debut film, ‘ The Forest'.

The pride we take in toasting the success of an independent film and affirming that things haven't been this bright for independent filmmakers seem misplaced when you learn how Paan Singh Tomar had to wait for two years to release or how Ranveer Shorey's Fatso is still awaiting release. The harsh reality gets underlined even more when we speak to Ashvin Kumar.

For those who aren't tuned into short films or independent cinema, Ashvin Kumar made an endearing short, Little Terrorist, which won him an Academy Award Nomination for the Best Short Film in 2005. The nomination, he hoped, would make things easier for him in the Hindi film industry ruled by film families and corporate houses. It did, to the extent of helping him get funding (through individual investors) to make his debut feature film, The Forest. After making the film, he had to run from pillar to post since no one was willing to back it for a commercial release. He then took the film to international festivals (see below) in 2009. The Forest will finally release in India on May 4.

This reality check after the high of an Academy Award nomination was a learning phase, says Ashvin. “Time and again, it's been proven that there's an audience for different cinema. But what does one say about the feudal system in our industry? If you don't come from a film family, you at least need to have had a 10-12 year association with someone big to get your film released. The system is changing, but slowly. Even Anurag Kashyap hasn't managed to release all his films,” he laments.

If Ashvin remains optimistic, it's because of the faith in his script-driven film, The Forest, which he calls an ecological thriller. With Jaaved Jaaferi, Nandana Sen, Ankur Vikal and Salim as the principal characters, the film will take viewers to the heart of a jungle and explore what happens when nature strikes back at man, who has exploited the ecosystem for decades.

“I was 10 or 11 when I visited a forest with my parents (Ashvin's mother is fashion designer Ritu Kumar). Since then, I've travelled to many forests and national parks in India and abroad. As a child, I remember that with some difficulty, it was possible to spot a tiger or a leopard. These days, forests greet you with a deathly silence. Poachers have made the forests their hunting ground. Nature is going to hit back some time or the other. I've explored this idea through a thriller,” he says.

So you have a couple that's on a holiday in a forest trying to sort out their differences and an ex-lover who happen to meet them. Danger arrives in the form of a man-eating leopard. Jaaved Jafferi, says Ashvin, “is one of the underrated actors we have today. He has come up with an award-winning performance. I believe that any actor who is terrific in comedy can excel in any genre. Nandana is apt for the part of a beautiful, fragile urban woman. I was impressed with Salim's performance in Little Terrorist and specially wrote a part for him,” says Ashvin.

As The Forest gears up for release, one would expect Ashvin to breathe easy. Not quite. He is still working against odds to release his other films, Inshallah Football and Inshallah Kashmir (see box).

Was Ashvin never tempted to make a film that would please the box office? “I want my films to make money, of course. But I make films driven by passion for cinema than for money. I can make money through business and it would be less risky,” he affirms.

Courting trouble

Inshallah Football tells the story of a young Kashmiri football player who had to wait for two years to get his passport to go to Brazil, since his father was an ex-militant. The film bagged the National Award for Best Film on Social Issues this year but the Censor Board refused to certify it for months. “This technically means the film was banned, since you cannot release it without obtaining a certificate. Then they gave it an A-certificate. It's appalling because the film has no sex or violence. They objected to a reference made to torturing by the Army,” says Ashvin.

Inshallah Kashmir shows how civilians suffer the most in a strife-torn state. Ashvin made the film available on the internet and will now apply for certification from the Censor Board for a wider release.

Inside the woods

The Forest premiered at Cinequest Film Festival, San Jose, in February 2009 and was featured as part of Cannes Market 2009. It also featured in the official competition section of Montreal Film Festival, Canada, and at the Sitges International Film Festival, Spain.

For the film, trainer Thierry le Portier (who worked for Gladiator and Two Brothers) flew in leopards from Paris. Since permissions to shoot in India were hard to come by, the crew shot the scenes involving the leopards in Thailand.

The behaviour of the leopard was inspired by stories of Jim Corbett, in particular The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag.