If there’s one man who is envied by the whole world, it is Santhosh George Kulangara, the Malayali globetrotter who has been, for the past two decades, bringing the world to our living rooms. Sancharam, his video travelogue noted for its unique presentation style, which began in October, 1997, from Nepal, has now reached Peru, covering 20 years and nearly 120 countries. Multi-tasker is another word that defines this man who has been singlehandedly doing the shooting, direction, scripting, presentation, editing and telecast of his programme. “Sancharam is not a solo journey for me. Wherever I go, all my viewers are with me. It’s their prayers, wishes and genuine love that keep me going. I get letters, concerned calls and even temple offerings from people. Their sincerity and affection makes me responsible and prompts me to travel the world for them. If not for them, Sancharam would have halted long ago. This is now more of a responsibility for me,” begins Santhosh.
His first-ever journey was as a three-year-old, with his parents to Malayatoor Church. “My only memory is that I puked all the way and also a wide view from a bridge — of country boats in the Periyar,” he says. With him, grew his dreams of TV journalism. When India’s first private Malayalam TV channel, Asianet, came into existence, he joined the team. “I tried my hands at documentaries, but couldn’t make an impact. Then I thought, why not a programme with my signature, something no one has attempted,” he recalls. An avid admirer of S.K. Pottekkad and his travelogues, Santhosh thought of a video travelogue. “I was recreating Pottekkad; what he did using the medium of those times — writing, I am doing with videos, the current medium,” he says. Remembering the first Sancharam, he jokes, “everyone would have taken a flight to their first international destination. But my first foreign trip was on foot!” He travelled to Gorakhpur by train and took a bus to Sunauli from where he walked all the way across the border to Nepal, from where began the programme that scripted history.
When huge travel channels use 50-60-member crew to shoot a place after securing prior permissions with the help of PR agencies, Santhosh travels alone across continents, meets people, experiences numerous cultures, garners knowledge no university can ever teach and shares every sight he enjoys with his audience. It isn’t easy being a one-man army. “People only see the visuals. A lot of processes go behind each episode. I say ‘action’ and ‘cut’ in my mind; no one hears it. There’s no travelogue without people or busy streets. At times, I shoot standing in queues and in buses, trams, and trucks. Sometimes, people shout at me. I don’t let the audience feel any of it. I go on a weekly trip every month and return with content for a month’s episodes,” he says.
Solo journeys have their perks — he travels light as all his stuff fits into his camera bag. But there have been moments of insecurity too. Once, he was surrounded by a gang of thugs in Cape Town. It was a woman in purdah, a government official, who saved him from them. Another time, he had to shoot in a very dangerous area of Nairobi, where an Indian official in Kenya appointed two Black Cat-like guards with AK-47s for his security. “Thanks to my well-wishes, I have been able to survive all odds and bring good visuals from all those places,” he says.
Around 100 countries are awaiting Santhosh and his Sancharam. “That includes our neighbouring countries Pakistan and Bangladesh. I haven’t still gone to Iran and Afghanistan. An in-depth exploration of Africa is also on the cards,” he explains. But the most-awaited journey is to the Space. All set to become India’s first Space tourist, Santhosh has completed three stages of training at the Kennedy Space Centre, NASA. “Hit by fund crunch, the project has been delayed since 2015. Now that Saudi Arabia has agreed to assist the Space tour, it will happen soon,” he hopes. Santhosh’s TV channel Safari, which airs Sancharam, has been running successfully without even a single advertisement and with huge TRP ratings. How does he manage to do that?
“Because I am a good businessman,” he laughs, adding, “I know what all cameras and equipment are used in Safari. As a person who handles eight departments of a programme and puts in eight times the effort of a person, I can manage things very well. I myself handle four programmes in the channel and I perfectly know how to do it in a cost-effective manner. With the sale of my books and DVDs of Sancharam, I can maintain any additional cost incurred. I am proud to say that I have a thorough knowledge about my job.”
Is he even human must be the question that pops into one’s head. But he brushes it off, saying, “I can prove that anyone can do this. Keep aside Rs 100 every day and by the end of the year, I can take you on a three-day foreign trip. You can pay me the money that remains unused at the end of the journey!” Ask what his idea of travel is, he asks you another question. “Do you know why God has sent us to the Earth? It’s to travel and experience his creations. But instead, you stay in the bus stop where he dropped you, eat, drink, earn money, cry and die there and finally take the return bus from the same stop. I have walked from my stop. I will go everywhere, see everything and when my bus comes, I will go back and appreciate him for what he has created. I will be the only one who has done justice to my birth.” He has plans for others too. “I know that people, even though they watched my travelogues, are disappointed for not being able to travel like me. My next initiative, Safari Addict, is for them. Through the platform, I will inspire them and make provisions to enable journeys with less money and share with them travel tips.” Because Sancharam, he says, is a lot more than a journey.