By Cara Tejpal
Goaded by the endless stream of “lockdown productivity” on display on my Instagram feed, I too threw myself into a challenge of my own making. I decided to invest my time in watching the shorter works of India’s wildlife filmmakers. The guidelines I concocted for my project were simple: I would watch a documentary a day for 10 days.
If I were cruel enough to be ranking the films in order of my preference, three of them would be vying for top spot. Saravanakumar’s ‘A Dream of Trees’ proved to be an exquisite exploration of the re-wilding work of the Nature Conservation Foundation’s scientists, T.R. Shankar Raman and Divya Mudappa, in the Anamalai Hills of the Western Ghats. The sweeping shots, beautiful vistas, story of resurrection, and even the slightly wooden voiceovers by the protagonists fit together seamlessly – a happy marriage of art and science.
Ajay and Vijay, the second generation Bedi brothers, have done justice to their legacy with ‘The Secret Life of Frogs’. Shot over a period of three years in the Western Ghats, this is a delightful, juicy watch. The sequences dedicated to the elusive, endemic and endangered purple frog are particularly jaw-dropping and a breakthrough in our understanding of this species. My one critique would be of the Canadian-accented English narration. It’s a mismatch for the script that is narrated from Vijay’s point of view. Minor gripes aside, it’s a spectacular film that I intend to watch again.
The wild card entry into my top three selection is rookie Gunjan Menon’s ‘The Firefox Guardian’. Barely a quarter of an hour long, the film is set in the eastern Himalayan wilderness of Nepal where Menuka, a young Nepali woman, protects community forests inhabited by red pandas. Another filmmaker may have tried to capitalise on Menuka’s charm or the ‘star quality’ of the fire fox, but Menon allows for the film to unfold gently and organically. Menon tells a succinct, moving story, and testament to her success is the fact that I was left wet-eyed by the film. ‘The Firefox Guardian’ is available to watch on Vimeo, but you’ll have to ask Gunjan for the password. Find her on Instagram.
Having glimpsed the challenges to nature documentary filmmaking in India, I’m disinclined to be overly critical of any such film. Natural history and conservation storytelling are crucial to both documentation and public awareness, and I have immense respect for those who follow this path. So take this less as a review, and more as my personal musings.
Each of the films I watched had much merit. Munmun Dhalaria’s ‘The Jujurana’s Kingdom’ was a lovely sortie into the life and status of the stunning Western Tragopan. Rita Banerji’s ‘Gaur in my Garden’, while not a patch on her award-winning ‘The Wildmeat Trail’, is a rustic analysis of human-gaur interactions in Kotagiri. Shekar Dattatri’s ‘Chilika: Jewel of Odisha’ and ‘The Race to Save the Amur Falcon’ are brimming with information and neatly delivered. The latter in particular will be of interest to birders and those looking for an inspirational success story.
I’m a little more conflicted about the remaining three films on my list. Do you remember being bundled into your school’s AV room to watch an “informative documentary”? I do. I also remember recognising the value of these films, while simultaneously getting fidgety, and that’s the feeling I got while watching ‘Eastern Himalaya’ by Sandesh Kadur and Dr. Kamaljit Bawa for ATREE, ‘Where the Sarus Sings’ by Divya Bhardwaj for WTI, and ‘Himachal’s Avian Paradise’ by Mike Pandey for the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department. I suspect that some of these filmmakers’ skills may have been undermined by their commissioning organisations. I must not be too off the mark, because a crew member associated with one of them sent me a message saying: “Watching this? It’s a lesson on how bureaucrats can destroy films”.
I contend that a steady diet of foreign natural history films has dulled our palate as viewers. To diversify, to taste nuance, to actually delve into local conservation issues will require us to dive into the ever-growing pool of home-grown talent. If you do, like me you’ll discover meaningful, well-crafted stories at par with any other in the world.
Cara Tejpal leads conservation initiatives for Sanctuary Nature Foundation and is a commissioning editor for Sanctuary Asia magazine.