Our 2017 Travel Film Scholarship winner hones his filmmaking skills and learns about a new, sustainable approach to tourism in Kerala.

Jigar's assignment was to film the story of the sustainable tour operator, Kabani Tour, and learn how its programs are benefiting local communities.

Where the Dreamrocket Launched

Isolated from electricity, and engulfed by the omnipresence of Mother Nature in the deep Amazon rainforest, I received an email from World Nomads telling me that my film Kiwi: The Untold Story had been shortlisted for the 2017 Travel Film Scholarship. I found out how many applications I was up against – 1,200 total applications from around the world – and 20 short-listed films!

It wasn’t until a few days later when I reached Iquitos, the world’s largest city, inaccessible by road, that I had sufficient internet connection for the next stage of the selection process, a Skype interview.

I was swinging in my hammock, beside the Rio Amazonas, humbled by the metamorphic river landscape. I began visualizing who I wanted to be as a filmmaker, and how my life would change if I won the mentorship opportunity. Wolrd Nomads called me and, after asking a few questions, I was told there was one more question one last thing to ask. My adrenaline spiked.

“Jigar - we have one last question for you.”

“Yes... sure thing?” I said.

“Would you like to go on a two-week, all-expenses-paid film scholarship to India?”

“YYYEEEEESSSSS! Hahahaha!” I jumped in ecstasy, and hugged everyone around me. I had won the scholarship!

Brian mentoring Jigar
Brian mentoring Jigar. Photo credit: Emily Willis

Day One in India

My ride from the airport was filled with sights of coastal coconut trees and mustachioed men in their lunghis. That's when it kicked in, I’m in the South of India!

When I met my mentor Brian on the first day, I knew I was in for a serious crash course in professional travel filmmaking. As Brian began flattening the color profiles on my camera, and geeking out about the awesome microphones RØDE Microphones had sponsored us with, we were interrupted by the sounds of people rallying outside. I ran down to test my new mic amongst the chaotic campaigning. The rallyers began posing for me and shouting their slogans to my camera. Brian began to photograph me filming, while Emily, our producer, was posting a story of me to the World Nomads’ Instagram profile. I won’t lie...I felt a bit like a celebrity at this point and began realizing how lucky I was to get this opportunity.

The rally in Kerala
The rally in Kerala. Photo credit: Emily Willis

The Gandhi of Tourism

During the trip, not only did I become an intrepid filmmaker, through Brian, but I also learned a lot about sustainable development from Sumesh.

Sumesh Mangalasseri, an intellectual villager and founder of Kabani Tour, is a man of no ego. Dressed in a typical Keralan lunghi with a sustainably sewn betel-nut shirt, every conversation with him was enlightening. His decentralized organization is pioneering sustainable tourism in Kerala. In particular, it has helped farmers struck by a devastating agrarian crisis, to diversify their income and become more resilient to climate change. It's also helped empower housewives through cross-cultural exchange and exposure to other realities. His organization is not formed by tourism experts, but rather by local visionary activists who are transforming the status quo of destructive travel in Kerala.

Jigar walking with Sumesh and other Kabani staff member
Jigar walking with Sumesh and another Kabani staff member. Photo credit: Emily Willis

God's Own Country

I did not expect to connect on such a deep level with the gorgeous people of Kerala. Mary, one of our homestay providers, welcomed us with her angelic smile and mouth-watering food. One morning at 5am, I went to do yoga with her, along with all the other villagers, at the bamboo structure in the center of the village. By the time we opened our eyes after meditation, the sun had risen. Daniel, the teacher, found out that I taught yoga too, and invited me to show everyone a couple of asanas. I really felt the love from everybody as they paid attention to what I had to share. On my second week, I remember laying on the pristine backwater beach, stargazing with Sumesh and Binu, while singing old Bollywood songs. It was all too magical for words… I guess that’s why they call it God’s own country.

Jigar with Kabani and World Nomads teams
Jigar with Kabani Tour and World Nomads teams. Photo credit: Binusha JB

Taking It to the Next Level, Man

I learned a great deal just being around Brian; not just the technical and theoretical stuff, but also practical things that I would never have learned otherwise. The biggest lesson he taught me was to elicit an enthusiastic response from the subject I was interviewing in an uncontrived way. This skill has helped me off camera too – to become more empathetic to the people I talk to. In many ways, filmmaking is a spiritual process. An alchemy involving a personal transformation through breaking limits and expanding my creativity.

The scholarship didn’t end after the two weeks. Coming back home, there were over 25 edits going back and forth between Brian and me, before the final product. There were many days I tore my hair out finding ways to make the story more concise, and feeling that I was a terrible filmmaker. However, in the end, my tenacity on Brian’s feedback, and persistence on trying to make this the best scholarship film, paid off.

I was forced to detach myself from my own perspective and see my work through a stranger's eyes. This was the most important skill I learned during the editing process, and I believe it’s what’s needed to be a good filmmaker. These invaluable lessons would have otherwise taken me years to learn, even if I had chosen to go to film school. So if you’re reading this, thanks a tonne Brian, World Nomads, Kabani Tour, and all the sponsors of the film, for jump-starting my career and equipping me with what I need in the next steps of my journey.

I write this in a guest house 7,500ft (2,300m) up in the Himalayas, embarking on my next filmmaking journey to a Buddhist monastery in Northern India.

Watch Jigar's Film:

Sustainable Tourism in Kerala, India

Could you be our 2019 Travel Film Scholarship winner? Learn more about the opportunity.