December 11, 2019
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An Outsider Within

A wanderlust-struck duo see and show the hidden India

An Outsider Within
The two are a study in contrast, constantly acting as a foil to one another. The shy, self-effacing Aditya Patankar plays off against a gregarious, outgoing Mark Shand. And the chemistry works. It's this buddy spirit which has taken the duo on to the small screen. Shand and Patankar are shooting with the National Geographic crew these days on a series of six half-hour films called India Diaries.

Shand, a best-selling author and conservationist, is well-known for his work with the Indian elephant. He has been the recipient of the British Book Awards, Travel Writer of the Year award for 1992 for his work, Travels On my Elephant. He is a life fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and alongside Sir David Attenborough, he is a vice-president of the oldest conservation society in the world - Flora and Fauna International. Patankar - who was the photographer for Shand's Travels On My Elephant and Queens of the Elephant - is a passionate individual and an inveterate traveller. He hitch-hiked all the way from Kabul to London in 1970. He was specially commissioned to shoot the pictures for writer Charles Allen's best-seller, Lives of the Indian Princes, and his work also features in a book on Indian royal costumes to be published by Christie's later this year.

In 1998 the duo undertook a journey down the Brahmaputra river through India and Bangladesh. To put it succinctly, Patankar is at the core of Shand's India experience. "India Diaries will be an opportunity for us to revisit some of the people and places we have been to, but with a fresh eye," says Shand with obvious excitement.

These two big names together are generating excitement for the couch potatoes. Patrick A. Mark, the producer-director, is extra careful not to call them "presenters". "They are on-camera people who talk to each other and not to the camera," he says. It's the unique narrative approach which sets the film apart. "It's very natural and unstructured," says Shand. The film is as much about India as about two middle-aged, male travelling companions, their unique friendship and their humorous relationship.

The idea is to catch the eye of both the Indians and the Westerners. Therefore, the constant play between two points of view. As a result of his extensive travel within the subcontinent, Patankar is an invaluable fund of knowledge on India. He provides us with the insider's perspective which is elegantly balanced by the objectivity of outsider Shand.

The choice of subjects is dictated by the urge to show an India where tradition and modernity co-exist. Some of the episodes take the viewer off the beaten tracks to places which even Indians didn't know exist. The first episode deals with the nautanki at the Sonepur animal fair in Bihar. It makes Shand and Patankar travel with the Shobha Theatre Company all the way into the midst of an enthusiastic, unruly crowd of Dhanbad coalminers. It attempts to look at how the travelling theatre faces up to the new forms of entertainment. Explains Shand: "The idea is not to make a comment but initiate a discussion on these practices."

The episode closest to Shand's heart is, quite obviously, the elephant depredation in the tea gardens of North Bengal, where the forest squads have to do the difficult, balancing act in the battle between rampaging elephants and terrified villagers.

At the end of the day the thrust of the series is on Indian people. Shand is even thinking of doing a film on the software manufacturers in Bangalore or the gossip mongers in the Mumbai film industry. But that will have to wait till he is through with writing a book tracing the entire length of the Tsangpo/Brahmaputra river from its source to the sea. That indeed will be a very long journey.

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