I’ve always had a sense of adventure and, had I been born a hundred years ago, I’m sure I would have been a big game hunter. Fortunately, I’ve been able to spend my life hunting with a camera instead. Wildlife photography and filmmaking require the same kind of cunning and ‘bush craft’ that a hunter must possess in order to outwit acutely alert wild animals. But unlike the hunter, who only needs to ‘fool’ an animal for the instant it takes to press the trigger, the wildlife filmmaker needs to remain ‘invisible’ for as long as possible, to record the secret lives of wild creatures, some of which can be incredibly shy. Patience, perseverance, the ability to put up with discomfort for hours, days or weeks to get a single shot, and the temperament to enjoy doing this over and over again, are prerequisites for the job. Above all, one needs to treat the work as its own reward and everything else – money and awards, for instance – as a bonus. I’ve had a great time roaming the wilds of India, and, through these pages, I’m happy to share some of these experiences with you.
Discovering the thrill of nature within the city
I was fascinated with nature even as a child. Our house in the heart of Chennai city (formerly Madras) had only a tiny garden, but it was home to a variety of creatures, such as garden lizards, skinks, palm squirrels, rose ringed parakeets, sunbirds and, occasionally, golden orioles. There were also colonies of big black ants, and I used to spend hours watching the trials and tribulations of their lives. I still clearly remember a bloody battle I once witnessed between ants from two colonies. When the fight was over, the ‘battlefield’ was strewn with dead and maimed ants. Very probably, one colony had raided the other to take slaves. Which side won, I have no idea.
Before I learned how much fun it is to simply watch animals, I used to roam the neighborhood with a catapult, and felled a few birds, which I then ministered to and kept in cages. One day, when I was about 10 years old, I killed a purple sunbird without really meaning to. When I picked up the tiny carcass in my hand, I was completely stricken by remorse and decided never to use a catapult again. I did however, continue to have fun trapping squirrels, by placing a box propped up by a stick under the neem tree in the garden. I would create a food trail from the base of the tree, leading right under the box. From my hiding place some metres away, I would wait patiently for a squirrel to come under the box. And when it did, I would pull the string that was tied around the stick, and the box would drop around the squirrel, trapping it inside. Of course, I let it go afterwards, but the ‘hunt’ was always a thrill. The squirrels didn’t seem too traumatized by this experience, because they kept coming back!
I’ve been making natural history films since the mid 1980s, and count myself immensely lucky to be doing the one thing that I most love. However, wildlife filmmaking wasn’t a childhood ambition, because, when I was growing up, I didn’t even know that such a field existed. Television came to Chennai when I was about 10 years old, and there were no wildlife programmes on the single, government-run television channel back then. When I was 13, I visited the Snake Park in Madras with a friend, and instantly fell in love with reptiles. A few weeks later, I enrolled at the park as a student-volunteer, and it soon became my second home. Gradually, trips to school became more infrequent and, on the days that I did go, I sat in the back rows and read wildlife books through all the classes. In this way I got a great education!
During my time at the snake park, I discovered the joys of photography. An elderly friend generously lent me his Nikon, and I began photographing the wildlife around Madras, especially during field trips with the Irula tribals who supplied the park with snakes. The snake park had a small darkroom and I enjoyed pottering around in it, developing and printing black and white pictures.
In the early 80s, John and Louise Riber, friends of Snake Park Director, Rom Whitaker, came to India to make a film on snakebite, and roped me in to assist them. By the time they left Madras two years later, I realised that I’d picked up the rudiments of filmmaking. Soon, Rom and I, and a couple of other friends, formed a company to make wildlife documentaries. My vocation had found me.
In the mid-80s, Sanctuary Asia magazine embarked on a series of short films on Project Tiger Reserves in India. Rom Whitaker and I were asked to direct a couple of episodes, the first one on the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Bittu Sahgal, the Producer of the series, (and Editor of the magazine), sent a ‘Bollywood’ cameraman and his assistant with all the equipment needed, and we were to spend a month filming in this incredibly beautiful sanctuary.
The Forest Department provided us with a small boat, and we had booked the Department guest house behind the erstwhile Maharaja’s Lake Palace at Edapalayam for our stay. The filming was from dawn to dusk everyday, with breakfast on the boat and a quick lunch back at the rest house. For me, the job was a dream come true. For the cameraman, it was his worst nightmare! This was a far cry from filming nubile starlets, and, on the third day of the shoot, he threw a tantrum. He’d had enough of filming “boring” elephants and otters and wanted to go home.
A frantic call to Bittu followed, as we had to come up with a plan to salvage the shoot. It was decided that the cameraman would leave his equipment and assistant behind and I would complete the filming. For me, being promoted to wildlife cameraman in this manner was like winning the jackpot! So we gave the cameraman a warm send off and spent the next three and a half weeks filming elephants, otters, darters and a variety of other creatures, great and small.
The cameraman’s assistant was a really nice guy who taught me how to operate the 16mm movie camera, an old Arri BL. It was a great learning experience and, with this new-found confidence under my belt, I shot another episode for Sanctuary, in Bandipur, before embarking on other projects.
Silent Valley and beyond
In 1988 Rom and I, and our two other colleagues in Eco Media, embarked on a film on Silent Valley, the famous rainforest in Kerala. It was perhaps a case of “fools venturing where angels fear to tread”, for rainforests are notoriously difficult to film in. They are dark, wet, full of leeches, and most of the wildlife lives up in the trees, which can reach over 50 metres into the sky! Armed with a second hand Bolex camera, an old tripod, motorcycle batteries and a few still camera lenses, we spent about 18 months gathering footage.
The resulting 53 minute film, ‘Silent Valley – An Indian Rainforest’ was the first to showcase south India’s marvellous shola-grassland ecosystem. It was a hit wherever we screened it, and soon started picking up awards, both in India and overseas. The film became my stepping stone to a career as a professional wildlife filmmaker, and opened the doors to international channels.
In 1991, I received an Inlaks Scholarship, which enabled me to spend eight months working with Oxford Scientific Films (OSF), then one of the leading companies producing natural history and science programs for television. Working under the guidance of veterans like Sean Morris, I learnt techniques that I probably would not have on my own. I also made contacts in the wildlife broadcast business, which led to work coming my way after my return to India. From then, I began shooting and, sometimes also producing, sequences and films for leading production companies and broadcasters, including National Geographic, Discovery, the BBC Natural History Unit and Natural History New Zealand.
In 2000 I decided to stop working on television documentaries and concentrate instead on working with conservation NGOs in India to produce short films that could be of help in solving conservation problems. Since then, I’ve worked with organizations like Wildlife First, Wildlife Society of Orissa and the Wildlife Conservation Society – India Program, and have produced films on iron ore mining in the shola-grasslands of Kudremukh in Karnataka, the conservation problems of olive ridley sea turtles in Orissa and voluntary relocation of people marooned inside Protected Areas. It gives me an immense sense of satisfaction to be able to contribute to conservation in this way.