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Far From The Jungle
A handful of talented and determined men and women with their DigiCams may well help India's wildlife escape a beastly predicament. Such as the agony of Kerala's glamorous gold-decorated elephants, whose soles turn into plate-sized burns after dutifully standing in the blazing sun for gods and kings. Also, a wild tiger whose leg was amputated after being caught in a poacher's trap in Nagarhole National Park, now confined to a hobbling three-legged existence in a zoo; and Raju, a collared and chained langur taken around Delhi on a bicycle to capture feral monkeys on the loose in the city.
With the announcement of nominations for the UK's '04 Wildscreen Awards, these moving images are now making for good news. Five Indian documentaries have been nominated for the awards, dubbed the "Green Oscars" and among the most prestigious in wildlife filmmaking.
These include: Mike Pandey's documentary on elephants, The Vanishing Giants; NDTV's news short Tiger Poaching; Nandita Das' Rainwater Harvesting; Ajay and Vijay Bedi's The Policing Langur; and P. Balan's The 18th Elephant, powerfully narrated by Malayalam poet Balachandran Chullikkad in the voice of a tusker. The films will be screened at the awards festival in Bristol, over October 10-15, with legendary naturalists Sir David Attenborough, Jane Goodall and Richard Leakey in attendance.
Mike Pandey, one of India's most accomplished nature filmmakers, is a finalist in the esteemed Filmmaker for Conservation Award category. The director behind DD's Earth Matters series, he is aware that his film Shores of Silence has made a life-saving difference. He says: "It helped bring about a world-wide ban on the mindless killing of whale sharks."
New names have also catapulted to fame. Says 24-year-old Vijay Bedi: "We're proud that The Policing Langur, funded by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), is a Newcomer finalist. Though we've assisted our father in the past (Naresh Bedi, one half of the Bedi brothers acclaimed for their wildlife photography and films), we've faced great difficulties...the police confiscated our camera. Wildlife is the hardest genre."
As managing trustee of PSBT, Rajiv Mehrotra accepts that the organisation's Rs 4 lakh funding for natural history films is measly. Yet, he says our directors are outstanding: "Their passion compensates for the lack of money."
Channels like Discovery, National Geographic (NGC) and Animal Planet are active in India, but this hasn't helped much. Says Dilshad Master, senior vice-president, NGC: "We commission 10-15 India-related shows per year, I wish more filmmakers would approach us."
But the nature of wildlife programming is changing. 'Interactivity' is now king. Macho naturalists rule, like Animal Planet's tattooed Bruce George who wraps boa constrictors round his neck.
Still, production house Miditech, a Panda Award recipient, has thrice been commissioned by NGC. Says Miditech's vice-president Pria Somiah, "We're glad NGC premiered Leopards of Bollywood on July 8 after the attacks in Mumbai."
At PSBT, Mehrotra believes DD as a public broadcaster must represent more independent programming that isn't commercial or state-sponsored. He describes this space as "crucial for democracy".
Former adman Saumya Sen and actress Nandita Das have staked a claim for this space with their film, Rainwater Harvesting, funded by the Centre for Science and Environment. This artistic b&w film went to the environmental film festival Vatavaran '03 in Delhi, where it was declared the best documentary. Now, it's a Wildscreen Campaign finalist.
But are awards enough? P. Balan is cash-strapped, even though The 18th Elephant has already won three major awards. He says, "I'll have to find funds to travel to England, and for two DigiBeta copies of my film.