“To know about an animal, you sometimes have to become one,” the character of wildlife biologist Purva Rao states in the film Ajoba, which released in theaters on Friday. The film, that talks about human-leopard conflict: an issue which has trespassed from the rural to the urban areas, makes a pertinent point of the need to understand animal behaviour.
The film starts begins with a leopard being trapped inside a well in Maharashtra's Ahmednagar district. What follows is the leopard's 120-km journey back to its own habitat over 29 days, closely watched by Dr. Rao and her team, who have placed a chip in its body before releasing it into the wild. Directed by 28 year-old Sujay Dahake, the film is inspired by the work of Vidya Athreya, with Urmila Matondkar playing Dr. Rao in her debut Marathi performance. Ajoba: meaning grandfather was the name Dr. Athreya's team gave the aging leopard.
Speaking to The Hindu on Sunday, Dr. Athreya said, “It was important to show that animals are not a nuisance, and the film has done that perfectly. Usually, the electronic media sensationalises the issue, and does not go beyond the ‘man vs wild’ conversation.”
The idea of the film came to Mr. Dahake when he heard of another leopard trapped in Junnar near Pune. It was then that he met Dr. Athreya, and her animated description of Ajoba's journey that got him excited. “I thought that the story had drama, and had to be told to the masses,” Dahake told The Hindu. “I had found a hero in Ajoba. Here, nature trying to tell you that it will not interfere with your life unless you do so first,” the director said about the protagonist.
The journey and the process of following it was not easy for Dr. Athreya, as it is not for Dr. Rao on screen. “Forest officials are helpful, but they have political limitations. I had to work with that,” she stated. “The characters in the film are an amalgamation of people who have helped me and tracked Ajoba's journey,” she said.
Another conversation that the film manages to strike is that of the role of women in unconventional careers, such as that of Dr. Rao's. She is seen living in rural areas for days together, negotiating with male forest officials and riding pillion with her assistants, all without the tag of 'being a woman'. “I am a woman. But that has nothing to do with how I work. If you're focussed, people will respect you for what you are,” Dr. Athreya stated. For Mr. Dahake, that was a conscious decision to portray the character in this way. “She smokes a beedi, and drinks whiskey. She is not apologetic about the fact that she's not married. It is what she has chosen for herself,” he states.