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Meet Shekar Dattatri

Meet Shekar Dattatri

“I have set myself goals to produce a series of short films including a children’s film over the next few years on specific wildlife and conservation issues that will hopefully help them understand the practical values of our natural heritage.” Photo: Xavier Lecoultre Rolex Awards

Born in Chennai, to a supportive middle-class family, Shekar’s first tryst with nature began in his backyard. It was a tiny garden that housed a large neem tree, which attracted Rose-ringed Parakeets and a Tecoma, whose flowers lured sunbirds. Influenced by Gerald Durrell, he took to birdwatching and the study of nature at a very early age and today, he is recognised in India and overseas as a world-class wildlife and conservation filmmaker. He speaks here to Bittu Sahgal about filmmaking, the many awards he has won and saving wild nature.

You used to work with tribal communities. How do you view the widening chasm between wildlife conservationists and tribal welfare groups in India?

Frankly, with a lot of despair. The polarisation is needless. Some of the most enjoyable and illuminating moments in my life have been spent in the company of tribal people. Roaming with the Irulas of Chinglepet District during my teenage years, I learnt a great deal about the natural history of the scrublands around Chennai. I was also privileged to assist in setting up the Irula Snake Catchers’ Cooperative, a long-standing, and perhaps unique example in India of the sustainable use of a natural resource. As a filmmaker, I have spent weeks with the Kadars, camping in the shola forests of south India. I am always awed by their knowledge of the natural world and I think it is a tremendous shame that enough isn’t being done to document and harness this vanishing wisdom.

That is perhaps what the architects of the new Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2005 are saying as well. They ask that tribal communities be given title to forest lands.

I think all humans are entitled to a place they can call home, and tribal communities shouldn’t be an exception. They too have aspirations for a better life. But surely, we can find solutions that satisfy peoples’ aspirations without sacrificing our remaining forests? I’ve seen too much to share the misty-eyed romanticism of many who think that all indigenous people live in ‘harmony with nature’. Today, in India, I think only the Sentinelese, who inhabit North Sentinel Island in the Andamans, can be described as living in complete ‘equilibrium’ with their surroundings. That’s because they inhabit a ‘closed’ ecosystem with no interference by or commerce with the outside world. They live by that strict law of nature – survival of the fittest.

And elsewhere in India?

Virtually everywhere else in India, indigenous people are caught in an unfortunate cusp that straddles two worlds with market forces ranging from giant pharmaceutical firms to dealers in the wildlife trade, exploiting their knowledge of the jungle. No longer are they judiciously using the resources of the forest for their own subsistence, but are being made to indiscriminately and unsustainably collect forest products to feed a bottomless national and international market. Something needs to be done urgently to set things right and populist slogans such as “give the forests to the people and they will look after them” are not the answer.

What would you say is the answer?

We need well-considered, site-specific solutions that will treat indigenous people with dignity, respect and fairness, without imperiling what little is left of our natural wealth. As stakeholders in India’s well being, it is incumbent upon all of us to solve problems without exacerbating things. The quality of life of the children of India and their children is closely bound to our actions or inactions today. For India’s sake, let us, first and foremost, put an end to this destructive polarisation between ‘wildlife’ and ‘social’ groups and acknowledge that the welfare of the environment and of all human beings is inextricably interlinked. Let us also acknowledge that indigenous forest dwellers have been given a raw deal so far. We should think of sensible and practical ways of mitigating their suffering without slaying the goose that lays the golden eggs.

How right you are. I am not surprised at all that your ‘Wild India Project’ won you the coveted Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2004! Let’s shift focus. What do such awards mean to you?

My work, frankly, is my reward. But the recognition is tremendously useful. The awards support me to do more work. I’m always – and I mean always – scrounging for money to add to my equipment inventory and an infusion of cash is a wonderful tonic.

And what exactly is the ‘Wild India Project’?

It’s a goal I’ve set myself to produce a series of short films, including a children’s film, over the next few years on specific wildlife and conservation issues. I believe that these films will be extremely useful to a wide cross section of people, from teachers and students to decision makers and politicians. It will hopefully help them understand the practical value of our natural heritage. The money from the Rolex Award is being invested in equipment and I’m seeking other support to make the films happen.

You are a wonderful combination of passion and rationality. How did this come to be?

I was incredibly lucky not only to have ‘discovered’ nature very early in life but also the works of great naturalists. By the time I was 18, I had read every wildlife book I could get my hands on – Jim Corbett and Jane Goodall, Gerald Durrell and George Schaller. One thing that I learnt, particularly from the biologists, was that to make sense of anything as complex as nature requires years of patient observation and field experience. It makes me cringe when I see people reaching conclusions or making momentous decisions affecting the environment after a cursory examination of a complex problem or the much loved ‘flying visit’ to a location.

And what led you on the journey from books to the wide world beyond?

A trip to the Madras Snake Park at the age of 13. I was mesmerised by snakes and enrolled as a volunteer. The Snake Park became a second home and the Irula tribal snake catchers who supplied snakes and other reptiles, as well as frogs and rats to the Park, became my gurus. My involvement with the Snake Park led to trips to real jungles, where I experienced the thrill of stalking all manner of creatures, great and small, with a still camera. The film bug came later, in the early ’80s, soon after college where I studied Zoology. I met John and Louise Riber, friends of Rom Whitaker who had come to India to make a film called ‘Snakebite’. Deputed to help them, I became fascinated with filmmaking itself. While working on this project another great opportunity presented itself. Sanctuary Films began production of their ‘Project Tiger’ series of films for Doordarshan. Rom Whitaker and I were both roped in for the Periyar episode, with a Bollywood cinematographer we were supposed to direct. Three days into the shoot, the cinematographer threw a tantrum – waking up at 5.00 a.m. and rushing off to film ‘boring’ animals and birds just wasn’t his cup of tea. He went home. We took over the filming. There’s been no looking back since.

Shekar on location while filming snakes. His advice to young filmmakers: “Do your homework. Thoroughly. Treat your subjects with respect. Be passionate. Don’t wait for rewards and recognition. Your involvement is your reward.”
Photo: Xavier Lecoultre Rolex Awards

It couldn’t have been that easy!

It’s always been fun, but never easy! After ‘Snakebite’, Rom and Zai Whitaker, Revati Mukerjee and I started a small company called Eco Media to make natural history films. Our first forays were close to home and dealt with subjects such as the snake catchers’ cooperative and wasteland development. These short, low budget films helped me hone my skills, not just as a cameraman but also as a scriptwriter and film editor. Working on a film about Bandipur for Sanctuary’s Project Tiger series subsequently sealed my fate in the nicest possible way – I had found my vocation.

How did the break into international television, long dominated by westerners, take place?

In 1989, we were funded for a film on Silent Valley. This was the first time anyone was attempting a full-length documentary on a south Indian wet evergreen forest, a clear case of fools walking in where angels feared to tread. Armed with an old Bolex and some still camera lenses, we spent 18 months shooting in Kerala, and another six months putting it all together. To our delight the film – ‘Silent Valley – an Indian Rainforest’ – ended up winning two national and several international awards. We got taken seriously by wildlife film producers and broadcasters in the U.K. and the U.S. This led to more work, both as a wildlife cameraman and a producer. I found that people in the west really don’t discriminate so long as you are good at what you do and have the right equipment.

And you believe that such films actually do help wildlife conservation?

Absolutely. There are several examples of films leading to direct conservation. The advent of cable TV and wildlife programming on television has increased awareness across India tremendously.

But most of these are entertaining ‘animal’ films.

It is true that most broadcasters tend to stay away from serious issues, or hard conservation stories. And that viewers get fed with programmes depicting pristine landscapes and a super-abundance of wildlife, or films that glorify hands-on interaction with wild creatures – jumping on crocodiles and pulling snakes out of holes, for instance. The first kind beguiles the viewer into believing that all’s well with the world. And the second kind is pretty escapist. But bombarding people with stories of gloom and doom isn’t the answer either. That approach won’t work because people watch television largely to be entertained, and thanks to our opposable thumbs, the easiest thing for a human being to do is switch channels when things get boring or too heavy! The trick is to find creative, alternative ways to reach and hold audiences.

What if you had not discovered filmmaking? What would you be doing today?

I’d probably be a field biologist cocooned in some deep jungle. But I’m glad I discovered filmmaking. It enables me to indulge in my twin passions – spending time in the jungles of India watching wildlife and capturing images on film. And you can add to that, the immense satisfaction of putting all the footage together and turning it into a work that millions of people can enjoy and perhaps learn from.

And the downside?

Trying to raise money for film projects. The constant struggle for funding is quite simply the worst aspect of filmmaking for me.

This is always going to be tough and since he who pays the piper largely calls the tune, what options does a filmmaker have to networks who wish to feed their audiences on romantic or fictitious accounts of nature?

Thanks to the digital video revolution it has become possible to produce decent quality films on small budgets. As I see it, an audience of 500 or even 50 receptive and empowered people, willing to act on an issue, could mean more than a passive television audience of 50 million people. Seeing is believing, and nothing can compare with the power of a well-researched, well-made film in changing peoples’ hearts and minds.

And is that why you shot ‘Mindless Mining’, on the impact of the Kudremukh Iron Ore Co. Ltd. on the rainforests of the Western Ghats?

Yes. Or you might pick Riverbank Studio’s film on the whale shark massacre in Gujarat, which helped protect the species. Often people are ignorant of what’s going on in another part of the country. So it’s important to portray problems and, whenever possible, suggest practical solutions. If you can get decision makers to sit up and take notice and, at the same time, reach the local community with the message that what’s happening is a crime against humanity and very bad for them, then you’ve really achieved something.

Wildlife filmmaking involves long and non-glamourous hours spent in cramped hides so that the camera can record true natural behaviour and not reactions to the camera itself. Photo: Xavier Lecoultre Rolex Awards

You have had to pay a price for producing such films, right?

Yes, its an occupational hazard, and not just for filmmakers. All across India, researchers, conservationists and NGOs are facing harassment for speaking out against the destruction of our environment (see Sanctuary Vol. XXV, No. 2, April 2005, ‘Problems in Panna’). Laws meant to curb poaching and timber smuggling are misused to try and silence vocal citizens. Until the NGO community and free thinking people unite against such harassment, people within the establishment will be encouraged to misbehave this way, with impunity.

Are things changing? Will the next generation be more sensitive to ecological and wildlife concerns?

There are some signs that children are headed in the right direction, but their interest and curiosity must be nurtured and channellised. Schools will soon begin to teach Environmental Science, following the Supreme Court’s direction, but is that enough? We need innovative and fun ways of reaching children. Programmes like your ‘Kids for Tigers’ are immensely valuable.

I’d love to make a film for kids. Children are the most difficult audience to cater to. To keep their attention and get your messages across, requires a very, very high degree of skill and such films actually need larger, not smaller budgets. But it’s a challenge I would willingly take on.

Have you any advice for budding young wildlife and conservation filmmakers?

Do your homework. Thoroughly. Treat your subjects with respect. Be passionate. Don’t wait for rewards and recognition. Your involvement is your reward.

Why do you think we are trashing our planet? Will things ever really change?

I think the woes of the world stem from the fact that humans, by and large, subscribe to a foolish notion that conservation is for nature’s benefit. Nothing can be further from the truth. Nature is indifferent to our antics. If an order were passed to shoot all the tigers in India, would they care? If we destroyed all the forests and caused our rivers to go dry, would the planet give a damn? It’s like having money in the bank. Does the money care whether we spend it on education and food or gamble it all away? Nature is a fantastic gift, a precious inheritance. Mankind has a clichéd choice – we can either live off the ‘interest’ forever, or destroy nature’s ‘capital’ and take everything down the tubes with us. We are supposedly the most intelligent beings on Earth. If only we would start acting the part, things could be very different on this miraculous blue planet we call home.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXV No. 3, June 2005.


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