"Not Just Films": Exploring Conservation with Riverbank Studios

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 40 No. 5, May 2020

In 1973, Mike Pandey established Riverbank Studios and went on to create some of the most iconic wildlife documentaries to come out of India. Forty seven years later, Riverbank Studios continues to produce award-winning conservation films. Cara Tejpal chats with the production house’s writer/director Doel Trivedy (DT) and director/cameraman Gautam Pandey (GP) on their life philosophies, field experiences, and filmmaking.  

Let's start with origins. Where were your childhoods spent and how much did those years influence your career paths?

GP: I grew up in Delhi, with many trips and long slow summer holidays spent in the mountains, wildlife sanctuaries, and exploring what felt like completely wild jungles. Though now that I think about it, it was probably just abandoned land where the forest was slowly coming back.

I also got to be on location for films, both fiction and wildlife, with my father. I would hang around in the gigantic equipment room which had a ‘train” (it was basically a dolly with tracks). Making films just looked like fun to me. Everyone always seemed charged up and happy.

DT: My world growing up was our backyard and the lanes around our residential colony in Delhi. I tended to the little garden with my father on almost a daily basis. The neem tree which still stands tall served as our cycle stand and snack corner. It was my father who filled my life with books and made me crave experiencing the world and sharing stories. Our summer trips to the mountains were unforgettable. Always somewhere new, far and quiet -  these were times of adventure and reflection. I wanted to write. Making films was really quite by accident. But both are, in the end, just tools to tell stories.

Riverbank Studio's Founder Mike Pandey pauses while filming a rescued leopard cub in the Buxa Tiger Reserve. A 14-year-old Gautam Pandey can be seen distracted in the background. Photo courtesy: Riverbank Studios.

Do either of you have a formal education in wildlife filmmaking?

GP: I got caught cheating for the second time in my life during a GK exam for art school! I did history for three years, and then worked as an illustrator, animator, and assisted on films. After a few years, I started directing as well. Jumpcut to eight years later… that’s when I  went to film school with Doel - to Sheridan University in 2005 in Canada. It was an advanced course in film and visual effects, and overall it helped a lot. Many things I had learnt instinctively or on the job were given a foundation.

DT: Filmmaking is filmmaking - wildlife or otherwise. It was great fun to learn how to tell stories with friends at Sheridan. There were no broadcasters with deadlines and no producers with creative inputs. Pure joy. The language of storytelling and the discipline of working in a team that you learn at film school takes a long time to learn just on the job. I highly recommend film school to all aspiring filmmakers.

Which were the first nature documentaries that you worked on, and what do you remember from those experiences?

GP: ‘Honey Hunters of the Blue Mountains’. This was shot in the Nilgiris, and I was part of the second unit, shooting supplemental footage for the B-roll, assisting and generally helping with production. The film was about the Kurumbas who harvest wild honey. They really are the children of the forest, with a strong philosophy and bond with nature.

What was memorable about the experience? Wow, I guess it has to be being surrounded by about 90,000 pissed off bees! I was at the bottom of a cliff and thought the bees would mostly hover at the top… well… I was wrong. Within minutes a cloud of bees descended. I wrapped myself up with my shirt. Pulled off my socks and wore them like gloves. And tried to get as many shots possible without moving too much. Somehow I didn’t get stung! When we got back to base, my shirt had giant holes burnt into it. What I didn't notice at the time was that the leaf smoker that was hanging from the honey gatherer was raining down smouldering leaves that landed on me as well!

DT: I started my film career with Mike. He’s a tough mentor and minces no words. He taught me to be brave, to say what needs to be said, and to use fewer words, which I still have trouble with! I helped him write ‘Timeless Traveller’ - a film on horseshoe crabs in India, which aren’t the most glamourous subject. This was in 2002, and we filmed in Odisha and Goa. Gautam was directing and we went on to use the film to call for the conservation of the horseshoe crab.

At the time, the species was not listed under Schedule IV of India’s Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Our team at Riverbanks worked with scientists to lobby for its protection. I think the coin dropped early on - this was not just filmmaking - it was a real responsibility to look beyond the film.  

Doel films one of the largest daytime mass nestings of olive Ridley turtles in Rushikulya, Odisha. Photo courtesy: Riverbank Studios.

Gautam, as the son of one of India's most celebrated natural history filmmakers, you've had a ringside view of the nature documentary industry in India since you were a tot. Beyond equipment, which has ofcourse evolved by leaps and bounds, what are some of the key changes that you see in this field?

GP: There are now many, many more people who are part of this growing tribe of nature filmmakers. I think there’s a lot more communication within the fraternity and support for each other because of that.

Today the entertainment factor in films/content is expected to be high, and somehow the individual seems to come before the work. It’s all become more presenter-led. Maybe it’s just how the audience has evolved, and we’ve had to change with it.

I feel a lot of the mystery of the planet is now gone. We know many things as facts. Whales fighting off orcas, polar bears hunting, penguins sliding about… While there will always be people who this is new to, I think overall this is the reason that many shows and films are pushing harder for ‘never-before-seen’ sequences. Those are great and I love watching them as well, but I feel that the larger and, very often, more important aspects of the story aren’t given enough screen time. Attention spans are much shorter and we are just feeding into it. I think a shorter format is going to go a long way in reaching the audience, keeping them engaged, and working within budgets which have only dropped over the years.

Riverbank Studios has produced dozens of films since it was established in 1973. Which are your personal favourites amongst these, and why?

GP: ‘Honey Hunters of the Blue Mountains’ of course. I got to be in the Nilgiris and it was amazing to spend time with the Kurumbas. What a great sense of humor... The man in charge of cooking for our group was nicknamed ‘pressure cooker’  and I got nicknamed ‘kudrai val’ by them. Literally ‘horse tail’ because of my long hair.

‘Last Migration’ and ‘Shores of Silence’ are also special films. I saw the positive impact a film can make, when they triggered action and policy change. We also did a Gujarati version of ‘Shores of Silence’, where the issue was explained in a way the fishing community could relate to. We said that whale sharks were like women coming back to their mother’s home  to have their babies. This really hit home and there was a change of heart within the fishing community. It hit home with me too. I realised that for conservation films, making an impact is crucial and the real work only begins once the films are done.

‘Timeless Traveller’ is a favourite because that’s when I met Doel. Plus we got to film in the National Institute of Oceanography and see many amazing things

‘In Search of the Tragopan’!  This was an expedition… no, a quest! We started by calling the film ‘The Secret Life of the Tragopan’. After a year of pursuit with zero shots to show for it, we renamed the film. It took two years, and a chunk of my sanity before we managed to get the first video footage of a tragopan in the wild, which was important for the Forest Department to prove that this was a healthy habitat that needed protection.

We met great people along the way and made great memories. It was all worth it because we made a film which helped lobby for the UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the Great Himalayan National Park.

‘Into the Himalayas’ has been a dream that I still haven't fully woken up from. It took three years to pitch it and to be able to invest in the gear we needed to make it happen. This is our first cinematic 360 stereoscopic VR film. There are three films that cover the Himalayan habitats of wetlands, grasslands, and mountains. 360 is such a fun way to tell a story. I’ve taken the film around Ladakh and shown it to people with a VR headset, and their reactions have been humbling. An old lady was stunned into silence after she experienced standing in the middle of a landfill, and one man started crying after he witnessed wild snow leopards next to him. This is what I love about this format. You feel like you are there.

We also managed to film what we thought would be impossible - wild snow leopards in 360 VR. There were huge challenges, but with a strong crew and our friends from HabitatXR we pulled it off on literally the last day of the shoot with fading light, a dying battery, and an erratic connection with our remote camera. Pure, old school luck was, of course, a gigantic part of this.

A gorgeous snow leopard cub, seconds before it licks the lens! This is the first-ever footage of wild snow leopards in 360, and is a still from Riverbank Studio's upcoming VR film series 'Into the Himalayas'. Photo courtesy: Riverbank Studios.

How do you describe a 'conservation film'? Do you believe your work is done once the story you set out to unravel has been told? Or do you feel an obligation to 'do more'?

DT: A film that speaks for the ecosystem and the people who depend on it. A film that can place the localised subject at hand into the larger perspective and connect these for the viewer. The aim is to move the viewer to act, to speak out like the film did, to be educated.

There is an existing trend in the industry which only wants to see the unseen natural world, forgetting how closely it is all linked to us humans. Conservation films are not complete without all angles covered. A single aspect, usually the beauty of the natural world, does not make it a conservation film.

The work is never done. It is our responsibility as filmmakers, or for that matter as any artist, to continuously speak for the subject. Through the films and using any other tool and platform available. We need to support people who are doing the real work on the ground. Films can and should be a voice for them.

We also did a Gujarati version of ‘Shores of Silence’, where the issue was explained in a way the fishing community could relate to. We said that whale sharks were like women coming back to their mother’s home  to have their babies. This really hit home and there was a change of heart within the fishing community. It hit home with me too. I realised that for conservation films, making an impact is crucial and the real work only begins once the films are done.

- Gautam Pandey

Conservation is difficult on the best of days, and being in the field often reiterates how complex and entangled issues are. Can you share some of your most poignant moments from the field?

DT: This one is tough as there are so many. The most recent one was filming on the Loktak Lake in Manipur. On one hand the ecosystem needs to be protected from human intervention for the critically endangered sangai to breed to a viable population. On the other hand, the people who depend on the lake are so marginalised that asking them to give up fishing to protect a deer sounds almost ridiculous.

In Arunachal Pradesh, an entire village of farmers has given up farming and is looking for an alternate livelihood because of fear of raiding elephants. Poverty is an everyday reality. How do you ask someone to not hate the elephant which just raided the crop that they spent months tending to and was the only source of income for the rest of the year for their family? How do you tell someone to not poison a wild cat which just killed half of their livestock in a single night?

This is where protecting the lives and livelihood of the communities becomes crucial. Making them partners becomes imperative. Supporting the youth from local communities becomes critical. Conservation has to have its funds and efforts focussed more on the communities that depend on the ecosystems that we want to protect. They naturally become the voice for these wildernesses - a frontline, protective force of their own home.

It is easy to forget the reason we make films in the first place. What is the point of it all? These moments remind me why. It's not about me, or my work, at all. I am there merely to make a noise and build it into a clamour. As filmmakers we have to strive to tell stories from the perspective of the people and leave the outsider's gaze far behind.

GP: That really is a tough one, and like most of the issues that we’ve worked on recently it’s down to a fight for space and then safety. Whether its a cobra that gets killed or a tiger that gets beaten to death, people will always come first. I think that’s something that I’ve tried to understand more deeply over the years.

About five years ago, I was trying to film Himalayan brown bears and was exploring areas in Himachal and Ladakh, with little or no luck. Sightings in the wild were rare and difficult to film, but then I went to the Wildlife Institute of India and found out there was a huge conflict issue building up. At that time it was mostly around Keylong and the Lahaul valley, but it wasn’t until I went to Drass about three years ago that I realised how bad the conflict is. The combination of a large human population, no waste disposal and a big predator is a recipe for conflict. It’s easy to prescribe solutions from a laptop but on ground realities are complicated and need a lot of funding, public will, and most of all empathy to succeed.

Doel Trivedy takes a break in the boot of a car while the crew fixes cameras to the windscreen and prepares to drive to India's only floating protected area - Keibul Lamjao National Park in Manipur. Photo courtesy: Riverbank Studios.

As the parents of a young daughter, I'm interested to know your take on the jarring realities of the climate crisis, and the clarion call for conservation optimism…

DT: I am hopeful. I have to be. The future looks grim, no doubt. The present is difficult already. Water wars have begun. Food is scarce. The air is polluted. But, there are people who are using science to come up with short and long-term solutions.

There is no going back to how the world was 100 years ago. Capitalism took care of that and is still not stopping. But rivers and forests can come back. We have living examples of natural systems bouncing back across the planet. Let's tell those stories. Louder than ever before.

GP: I’m torn between being realistic, cynical and imagining a planet where there are still pockets of wilderness without scars to bear. Or maybe I should just accept this as yet another chapter of the earth's story… see there I go being cynical again.

Poverty is an everyday reality. How do you ask someone to not hate the elephant which just raided the crop that they spent months tending to and was the only source of income for the rest of the year for their family?

- Doel Trivedy

As wildlife filmmakers you travel across the country and meet every type of stakeholder in the game. You're insiders with the privilege of an outsider's perspective. Where do you think India's conservation community has faltered? Where do you find that it has succeeded?

DT: I think, anyone in conservation already has their eye on the right path. Wherever we may have faltered, people doing the groundwork, activist work and policy work, have used it as a lesson to move forward.

As for success, there have been many. I think we have really succeeded in bringing communities and vulnerable ecosystems together, as partners. Or at least in realising that in India we cannot work for ecosystems without involving the people. At the policy level, we have some incredible people who are fighting the hard fight, keeping an eye on government policies and laws. Scientists are innovating, and innovative citizens are finding solutions on a daily basis at the local level.

From the outside, the situation might look frightening and overwhelming but I like to keep my eye on the ground and on the people who are working against all odds. When you meet the people on the ground doing the work, you realise that there is so much hope! People are rebuilding forests, giving up hunting, coming up with entrepreneurial solutions to social and ecological problems, fighting and lobbying.

GP: Conservation at the grassroots has really breathed life into some areas where many had all but lost hope. Having said that, it is complicated work with many moving parts, with often no single correct answer to anything. I think ‘mistakes’ are part of the process but the work must continue and needs all the support it can get.


Clad in hot pink fins, Gautam films reef damage along the Karnataka coastline. Photo Courtesy: Riverbank Studios.

There's no doubt that filmmaking is a powerful, artistic medium. Can you name some of the veteran Indian filmmakers whose work you admire, and a few novice filmmakers whose work you're excited to see in the future?

DT: To have decided to tell these stories when no one even knew what conservation was in India is in itself admirable. The veteran filmmakers had the courage to tell conservation stories from India when we lacked resources and opportunities. They had the added disadvantage of competing with outsiders who came here to tell our stories from their own perspective - which always lacked any perspective on the real issues and mostly focussed on the misplaced glamour of wildlife.

I am very excited to see the new crop of filmmakers telling stories from their own communities. A great example are the alumni from the Green Hub Fellowship in Tezpur, Assam. Young, passionate and ready to speak out for their forests and ecosystems.

GP: I think growing up there weren't too many wildlife films by Indians that I saw. The work of Rajesh and Naresh Bedi, Shekhar Dattatri and by default my father had a deep impact on me.

It’s great to see an inspired new generation of filmmakers coming up! The audience has changed drastically and I’m excited to see the work of people who aren't trained in film and have stories to tell. We need to reinvent storytelling and really pull conservation and wildlife into the mainstream. There’s something really interesting a musician I love said - "I want to watch and learn from someone who has never held a bass guitar, because they don’t have any baggage or preconceived ideas to play from. A child playing air-guitar plays no wrong notes."

I really believe storytelling, especially for conservation and wildlife films, need reinvention. Someone who can break the standard format of presenters and the big male lion, or the hungry mother leopard who hasn’t eaten in days. I think audiences are done with this style and if we want them to hear our stories… we need to keep up!

...The larger and, very often, more important aspects of the story aren’t given enough screen time. Attention spans are much shorter and we are just feeding into it. I think a shorter format is going to go a long way in reaching the audience, keeping them engaged, and working within budgets which have only dropped over the years.

- Gautam Pandey

Much of wildlife filmmaking is controlled by budgets that are often reserved for 'sexy' species? Have you found a way to work around this? Which are the stories you're itching to tell but haven't got a chance to?

DT: The simple answer is - no. The traditional market still wants sexy species doing sexy things. They are stuck in their own trap. But non-traditional media is expanding and the scene is changing with online platforms becoming the larger part of the market. The line between pure documentary and entertainment is blurring - in a good way. Entertaining documentaries can bring in newer audiences to care about conservation. We want people who think 'Tiger King' is a conservation film to click on an actual conservation film and feel as disgusted, entertained and moved to act.

At Riverbanks, we have found a way to create content that remains relevant, educational and entertaining. We tried that with ‘Looking for Sultan’ and ‘Gyamo - the Queen of the Mountains’. I have to commend Animal Planet for taking the risk of putting a conservation-heavy film on air, which hadn't been done before. Our next project for UNDP is also exciting. We have used completely new technology, but we’re still talking conservation. It will allow audiences to immerse themselves in a landscape that not many can visit easily.

I want to tell the story of the Indian Elephant. This is a work in progress and very close to my heart. For me, the story of the Indian elephant really reflects the entire history of the sub-continent - the changing landscapes, forests, rivers and the people. Some day! Soon.

GP: Yeah, this is unfortunately truer than I’d like to admit. Even with the sexy species (barring the sexiest… which are ofcourse tigers) it depends on the broadcaster and what they think will sell. Cute, ferocious, cuddly, with lots of action and ‘never-before-seen’ footage works everytime.

I would love to tell stories from the macro world and the ‘larger’ stories of human-wildlife conflict which is at an all-time high. I’m often told that the footage of the animals looks great, just cut down the human angle. By the end of it, what’s left is just entertainment. But I’m confident that there is a way of delivering both. The old saying is we have to first love nature to want to protect it. While that is true, it’s been decades of loving nature content! I think audiences need to be informed of what the realities are.


Poster of the film 'Gyamo', the story of a snow leopard and her two cubs which was co-directed by Doel and Gautam. Poster courtesy: Riverbank Studios.

Name the top five online resources you would recommend to budding wildlife filmmakers?

GP: It’s good to watch other people’s work and learn from it. It’s even better to create your own, make mistakes and learn from that. There is so much content out there that it’s easy to just keep watching and not making. I love watching behind the scenes material, and follow filmmakers on Instagram and blogs. I also try and breakdown the construction of a scene or script if something really moves or inspires me. It doesn’t always have to be wildlife-related because a good story is a good story. Here are my top picks:

  • www.nofilmschool.com
  • Inside the Edit on Vimeo
  • www.dpreview.com
  • Youtube for video essays and scene breakdowns
  • Search results beyond page one on Google!

DT: I would say to budding filmmakers - read, read, read. Spend time reading about new innovations, research, technology. Not just wildlife but about how the world does business, how art is made, how new technology is helping conservation, who makes decisions that impact the course of history. Knowing more about the world helps find stories that are important to tell. And observe with attention the world around you.

Avoid social media noise or reserve it for a dead time. And then go out and start making stuff. On repeat.


Cara Tejpal leads conservation initiatives for Sanctuary Nature Foundation and is a commissioning editor for Sanctuary Asia magazine.


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