Interview with filmmaker Gaurav Jani - Documenting motorcycle adventures in India

India on an Enfield. A dream for many motorcycle travellers. Indian filmmaker Gaurav Jani does it like no other, pushing the 1950's technology far beyond where it was intended to go - recording his own progress on the way. Gaurav travels to such far-flung locations of the Indian Himalayas that even he is viewed as a foreigner. Gaurav's painstaking do-it-yourself style has inspired many, but nobody does it quite like Gaurav. He's really something different!

"While the world media has shifted towards drama, hype, scandal, lifestyle and oomph, we have consciously moved away from the mainstream to the dirt track, churning out films that inspire, motivate, enrich and at the same time mirror life.
Our main focus is to make films and documentaries on remote regions of the World. This gives us a chance not only to explore new subjects but also to explore ourselves by interacting with the people."

Gaurav Jani - Dirt Track Productions

Top o' the world  - Photos copyright Gaurav Jani

Anthony: So Gaurav, where in India are you from? How long have you been riding?

Gaurav: In India, I live in Bombay and have been riding long distance for almost 10 years now.

I see a lot of fantastic motorcycle adventures from India, I've seen great rides from people from Bangalore, Pondicherry, Mumbai, Delhi - Chanderjeet is an ADVrider rockstar. but on the 60kph club website it says:
"Social structure in India doesn't encourage Adventure biking or cross country biking, hence the community was formed where in like minded bikers could interact and get enough encouragement to live life the way they wanted to, on the ROAD."

60kph was formed in 2002, so that quote from the website is quite old and things have changed drastically in India in these nine years. When we started the club, that quote was very relevant - but with the booming economy, better roads and better medical facilities on the highways, a lot of people are now starting to travel on motorcycles.




In India, is it still considered quite rebellious to run off on a motorcycle, leaving your family for weeks at a time?
I remember your friend Nicky had to miss her brothers wedding to join One Crazy Ride, and that's a BIG DEAL, especially in India!


Yes, it is still not considered normal behavior to go on motorcycle rides and Nicky skipping her brother's wedding to join us on a trip to northeast India, I think would be a big deal in any culture. God knows how she managed to pull it off!



You ride your motorcycle to very remote parts of India, places that outsiders do not visit. But have you had a chance to go on a motorcycle trip outside of India?

I love traveling to the remote parts of India. Most places are thickly populated, a sea of people everywhere, sometimes it will exhaust your idea of space, so I love going to places where I would find very few people and India still has many unexplored areas.


The route of One Crazy Ride

Unfortunately I have only been able to do small rides in USA and Europe, none of them a proper long ride. The rides I was able to do there were all small one day rides.

So where would you like to ride and film if you could go anywhere in the world?


I would love to start with Tibet and Mongolia, actually any place that offers wilderness, remotness and rich culture.



Riding Solo to the Top of the World was the first film you made. I remember that you mentioned you had never used a professional camera before. Did you learn about filmmaking while you were working on film sets before your travels?

Before making Riding solo I used-to work as an assistant director on film sets. So I knew about the craft of directing a film, but the filming and camerawork was done by qualified cinematographers. So handling a professional camera for the first time was a challenge. It took some doing to get the exact thing which I had in mind on the camera. But the most difficult part was facing the camera!


I love the sound of the Royal Enfield Bullet, I could listen to the steady thup, thup thup of the engine all day!
You ride Lona, your Bullet 350, what is it that makes the Enfield special?

Actually the name of my motorcycle is Loner. In India, we simply do not have a choice of motorcycles for touring. Enfield is the only company which makes 350cc and 500cc motorcycles. All the others are making 100 to 200cc motorcycles which are not fit for touring. So we don't have any other choice but to ride on Enfields, which are very costly to maintain and prone to breakdowns.

Sobby's Bullet won't kick-over. Vinod is convinced it's a valve issue. - From One Crazy Ride

Haha! OK, so maybe India on an Enfield isn't quite the romantic ideal that we like to think it is!

 Gaurav and Sanju watch Vinod and Sobby perform some roadside wrenching

But you do manage to get that Einfeld through some tough terrain -  and some of the world's highest roads - at one point the air was too thin to run the engine!
Did you have to make adjustments to the carburetor as you changed altitude?

Yes, I did increase the air intake in the carburetor and removed the air filter completely, but the bike still struggled. But it is natural, the oxygen level at 18,000 is very low and on top of that I had a lot of luggage and the quality of fuel you get in the remote parts is not good.



I thought that was great how you included the extra footage at the lake, where you were having difficulty completing your dialog, 'cause you couldn't concentrate in the extreme altitude. Did the high altitude make riding the motorcycle difficult as well?

The footage at the lake was included in the film at the very last stage, as we wanted to include the difficulties on working at high altitude. Watching that scene even now takes me back to those days. High altitude indeed does make riding difficult especially the first couple of days when it is hard to concentrate in general. But once the body is well acclimatized to low oxygen, riding becomes normal.


I think you shot everything with one video camera, I know you used it hand-held, on a tripod, even one-handed while riding! What kind of video camera were you using?

I used the Panasonic DVX-100 for both riding solo and One Crazy Ride.

Oh, cool - I learned to shoot video on the same camera, love it. 
The DVX recorded standard definition on Mini DV tapes, but now I have moved to Panasonic HMC 150, which records in High definition on to SD cards. I prefer the Panasonic brand over other cameras for the Leica lens they come with. I love the sharpness of the lens, so always go for Panasonic.
 Yeah that's a cool partnership they've got going on. Same deal with their still cameras too. Panasonic makes a great camera and Leica makes a great lens to go with it.

In India, if one hires (rents) a camera there will be two attendants who come with it to take care of the equipment. 


Really? It's required  to have two people attending the rental? I mean it's not exactly a huge, complicated camera!  

Yes, so getting the camera for Riding Solo... Was a big challenge. We used our contacts in the industry and asked a company to send the camera without an attendant to "test" the equipment. They had no idea that they would get it back after two months of testing.
As soon as I got the camera, I left Bombay and started the journey and learned how to use the camera by reading the manual. The guys at the camera hire company were very upset when we returned the equipment - but tempers cooled down after I showed them the film and the concept of riding alone without any back-up or film crew.

Ha! That's the way to do it! Cool man.

I really like your use of quick cuts and multiple camera angles - when crossing a bridge - in markets - during interviews.
Is this just a matter of setting-up the tripod, moving it often and shooting lots of short clips? 

I take shots according to what inspires me in a landscape or in a situation. Separate shots are to underline and highlight the different aspects involved, and once those shots are combined on the editing table, my personal perspective becomes universal. Multiple shots are a result of my training as a film director, where a film or story has to flow through images and not by narration. And sometimes multiple shots, changing the magnification of the image, close-ups long shots are necessary to emphasis and justify a landscape, conversation or any other situation.

I'll bet the batteries must have been one of the biggest problems. You were able to charge them at some military checkpoints, but electricity was not always easy to find. How did you manage the battery problem?

Camera batteries indeed was a big problem, especially in the high altitude regions with sub zero temperatures where the batteries would discharge very fast. The military camps had generators which would run for four hours in the evening from 6 pm to 10 pm. Four hours is not enough to charge the big Panasonic battery, especially in cold. So I had to be very precise about the shots I wanted. Midway in the journey, I had to stop referring to the LCD monitor of the camera while filming, as it drains out the battery really quick I also had to ride in extreme cold conditions in the evening and night to leave and fetch the batteries back from the Army camp.


Your sound recording was good too. Did you record audio directly to the camera? Did you use a special microphone?

All the sound was directly recorded onto the camera. Another aspect of Panasonic which i love, it records great audio from the inbuilt camera microphone.

OK, cool - I remember that's a decent stereo microphone built in to the top.

In One Crazy Ride, you had the great camaraderie and individual personalities of Sobby Vinod, Nicky and Sanju.
With Riding Solo to the Top of the World you had more time to be introspective and to meet and learn about the local people. Do you prefer filming solo or or while travelling with a group?

Filming solo is any day better because of the sheer luxury of time you get to set up camera shots or wait for the light to be perfect. 
Having said that, I loved filming the group in One Crazy Ride. A group ride will always have a lot of energy, interaction and the film maker will always be on his toes. Plus I have known Vinod, Sanju, Sobby and Nicky for years, so filming this group ride was relatively easy because I know their personalities well.



One Crazy Gang - Gaurav, Sobby, Nicky, Vinod & Sanju

Yeah what a cast of characters! Great group of friends, it looks like you all had a blast!

In my opinion, I think your greatest skill as a filmmaker is your ability to connect and earn the trust of the people you meet. This is not something you can learn in an instruction manual!
I mean, I like how you get really involved with people - connecting over the 1000 year-old tent design and the nomadic life. I thought it was cool how you mentioned that you are sharing both cultures rather than studying the locals.
What do you do to to make friends with people you've known for such a short time?

I think the biggest ice-breaker is the motorcycle. The initial conversations start with curiosity. Questions about what I am doing out there and on how I can manage with such limited stuff. It also helps that not many outsiders have visited and stayed with these indigenous people in remote regions. So curiosities from both sides about each others life increases the interaction. The interaction becomes richer over time, as I prefer to stay at their campsites or villages for a few days.

The design of the nomadic tents has not changed in 1000 years

You travel to parts of India that are so remote that you - even as an Indian - are considered a foreigner. Between Hindi and English you seem to be able to communicate well. Would it be worthwhile for a westerner to learn Hindi if they were planning to ride in India? I understand there are many differences and dialects depending on where you are.

I don't think so learning Hindi is a must for foreigners traveling here. Survival has it's own language and I think one can manage just fine. And once one is on a long journey here, he will pick up the language and gestures which will help him a great deal.

Chang Pa nomads in the Himalayas

I won't be complaining about a cold night's camping anytime soon

Do people react differently to a group of motorcyclists than a solo motorcyclist?
It was cool to see Nicky talking with the local women, she has a great and adventurous personality. Do you think it made it easier to win the trust with the tribal people because you had Nicky along?

People do react differently on seeing a group of motorcycles making a lot of noise. Some will even get intimidated in remote parts, as Enfields are mostly used by the police or the army. But if one is solo, most often people around would be curious. Yes, it really helped having Nicky with us in One Crazy Ride, as the village women were comfortable interacting with her.

Nicky chats with the women of one of the tribes

There was great progress in filmmaking quality from Riding Solo to One Crazy Ride.
And right now you are in Leh town - right on the edge of the Himalayas - to film a new movie. What can you tell me about this latest film?

I am actually in middle of it, my third film; Motorcycle Chang Pa. The film is about a one-year journey in the Himalayas. Today I complete seven months away from home and have another five months to go. I am in Leh to renew my permits as most of the filming is happening near the India- China border and one needs special permit to travel and film in these restricted areas.


View Larger Map

Motorcycle Chang Pa is again a travelogue and the main objective is to capture the life and the landscape in the Himalayan winter, which is hardly filmed or witnessed. For this film, apart from traveling on a motorcycle, I am traversing the terrain in winter by long treks with luggage on horses. The temperature in the winter here went down to -37 degree Celcius and I am so glad that the peak winter is now behind us.



There is some images from the film's progress at our Dirt Track Productions Facebook page

Hey, looking at those photos it looks like you've made an upgrade from your old tent, what is that new one? 

Yes that's a Nemo Tenshi, nothing like it. I don't say this because they have supplied camping equipment, but their Tenshi tent in my opinion is the best tent for high altitude and sub-zero temperatures. And the sleeping pads they make are the best I've used to insulate from the cold ground.

One last question that I just can't resist asking: I LOVE Indian food, what is your favourite dish?

Favorite dish would be dal makhani and roti - with lots of onions and lemon on the side!
I am dying to have this as soon as the summer arrives, because for the past four months we only have had dry meat and rice for all our meals!

Dal Makhani
Photo - Charles Haynes via Flickr - Creative Commons Attribution License 


Riding Solo to the Top of the World and One Crazy Ride are available on DVD and digital download at DirtTrackProductions.com

  

5 Response to "Interview with filmmaker Gaurav Jani - Documenting motorcycle adventures in India"

  1. Chris Luhman Says:

    So cool that you were able to interview him. I really enjoyed both of his films and just watched his first film again last night! Watching it always makes me want to get out and ride for a few thousand miles. Looking forward to his next film!

  2. Mark Hammond Says:

    Fantastic! Great report and great story. :)

  3. Anthony - Motojournalism Says:

    Thanks guys, I was lucky to be able to catch him when I did! I think he must have gone back into the Himalayas by now...

  4. ElRoho Says:

    I am looking forward to the 3rd movie. The 2 first were fantastic!

  5. rishabh kaushik Says:

    great to read such a beautiful and resourceful interview! Jani has made me realize the true beauty and purpose of life. thanks a ton

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