Oscar-winning hustler: Guneet Monga carves her presence with win for ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ 

Express News Service

Hustler. Disruptor. Parallel Queen. Chevaliers de l’ Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Guneet Monga is known by many names in the trade circles of Indian cinema, but ‘Academy Award-winner’ does have a special ring to it. She hustled to first reach the Top 5 at the Oscars in 2010 for Kavi (Best Live Short Film) and got the President of India to fund her trip to the awards by sending repeated emails, asserting her importance in the cinema landscape. Guneet then found a place on the stage in 2019 for Period. End of Sentence, which won the Best Documentary Short. Finally, this past Monday, she reached the zenith, after a decade-long hustle.

illustration: sourav roy

As The Elephant Whisperers was announced the winner of the Best Documentary Feature, a smiling Guneet, draped in a pink saree, fist-bumped the air, while gracing the stage to receive her ‘first-ever’ Oscar gold. Of course, Period. End of Sentence, the film that she served as an executive producer, won in the same category a couple of years back, but The Elephant Whisperers marks the first time she receives the actual statuette. Even before the Oscar accolade came her way, Guneet Monga had become a brand that connects Indian cinema to the world. Her Monsoon Shootout and The Lunchbox became global films that did the rounds in the international film festival circuit, including at the Cannes. Also, these were co-productions between India, France, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, and the USA. In speaking about bridging this gap between India and the movers and shakers of cinema in other parts of the world, Guneet has been reported saying, “People are interested in India, but they don’t know its dynamics.” Well, thanks to Guneet, now they know more about it.

From working with Anurag Kashyap’s AKFPL to branching out on her own, Guneet has been playing the long game of becoming a global filmmaker from India. Having realised early that the idea of Indian cinema being ‘Bollywood’ has to be broken, Guneet constantly collaborated with talents that were changing its landscape. Be it Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), Neeraj Ghaywan (Masaan), Shlok Sharma (Haraamkhor), or Sudha Kongara (Soorarai Pottru), Guneet has made her presence felt slowly but steadily in Indian cinema. She has found various avenues to take her films to, irrespective of the scale of the medium. Finding an audience at Cannes seems as important to her as finding an audience at a nondescript college in India, or through television sets in Sweden. Her debut production, Say Salaam India, for instance, was taken to schools and colleges across India for screenings. Guneet found a niche avenue called ‘shipping rights’ where films get screened on oil rigs; she went on to find a place in the video-in-demand services in Sweden as well. “There is an audience for every film. You just need to find it,” she has said, and it is in pursuit of this wide variety of audiences that Guneet finds herself becoming ever so valuable.

Winning an Oscar is a watershed moment not just in her journey, but in India’s journey at the Academy as well. The win for The Elephant Whisperers, directed by Kartiki Gonsalves, has given India a rare homegrown Oscar. After Kartiki delivered an impassioned acceptance speech, Guneet stepped up to the mic only for her words to be drowned by the Oscar orchestra, on account of lack of time. Naturally, this was met with criticism from all quarters as netizens pointed out a lack of sensitivity on the part of the Academy. In a media interaction, Guneet responded that it was India’s moment taken away from her.
In the early years of her career, when she had just begun her hustle, Guneet apparently used to dye her hair grey to be taken seriously. “I just had to fake it — that I know my s**t.” Now, being at the centre of a tectonic shift in the way Indian cinema, especially the field of documentaries, is being perceived globally, she has more responsibilities. And with an Oscar win, and her many recent successes in mainstream and not-so-mainstream Indian cinema, she doesn’t really have to dye her hair grey anymore.

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