WILDLIFE film-making in India is already as tough as it can get. We're handicapped by equipment scarcity, limited budgets and stringent rules. Is it fair to make it any tougher, give us step-motherly treatment?" asks wildlife film-maker Mike Pandey, whose film, The Last Migration, won the Green Oscar at the Wild Screen Awards in '94, but failed to find an Indian sponsor.
Though celebrated globally as a connoisseur's art, shot on high budgets and to great public acclaim, wildlife filming in India is a pariah profession. It's given scant support by either the government or the media, and the small tribe of wildlife film-makers is treated with callous oversight. This underlying grievance has reached its flashpoint in a controversy over the closure of three lakes in Ranthambhore National Park and allegations of special privileges given by forest officials to a BBC film unit shooting there.
Ranthambhore National Park, one of the world's prime tiger-sighting areas, is also the focus of heavy tourist traffic. The closure of its best zone—the routes around Rajbagh, Padam talab and Malik talab—from March 1 to October 1 first made news as irate tourists protested the unprecedented move. But Salahuddin Ahmed, secretary, Rajasthan forest department, and P.K. Sen, director, Project Tiger, dismiss this as clamour generated by hoteliers, tour operators, guides and park drivers who all stand to lose a lot of money with the closure. "The park is not an adjunct to tourism," says Ahmed, defending the decision on the grounds that with "over use", the area has degenerated; the tigers are being disturbed, especially as the mating season is on; and that the place needs to "breathe".
What's more difficult to dismiss is the list of special privileges given by the officials to the BBC unit, amongst which Indian film-makers suspect the closure of the lake routes is one. Filming in Ranthambhore is bound by rigid rules. Like tourists, film-makers cannot enter the park except for a few hours in the morning and the evening; they must be out before sundown, though that's the best time for animal movement; they cannot take their own vehicles inside, though these are often fitted with special gadgets; they cannot shoot in the 'core' areas outside the tourist zone; and they have to deposit the entry fee—Rs 3,000 per day—each time they enter the park instead of in a lumpsum.
On the other hand, BBC, which is shooting from January 1 to June 30, has been allowed to stay inside the park throughout the day, shoot in core areas, take their own Gypsy in, pay a lumpsum in advance—and most inexplicably—shoot around the lakes undisturbed for a month from the time of closure till April 3 (about when, Valmik Thapar, member, steering committee, Project Tiger, inadvertently says, the ban was due to be lifted). "Such extreme felicitation has never been extended to me. In fact, things have been hostile," says film-maker Rupin Dang, who's been denied entry into the park twice. "Why the discriminatory treatment?" echoes Rajesh Bedi, "Could we ever block a national heritage zone in England for our purposes?" Adds Mike Pandey, "In itself, some of the privileges extended to the BBC are not wrong, but why are we treated like tourists?
When a fishing eagle flies away, it could take an hour to come back, it takes weeks to get a sequence. All film-makers should be treated like researchers and scientists. I'm glad this issue's come up. Our problems can now come to the surface. " Although these film-makers testify to instances when they've asked and been refused even small waivers in park rules, especially at Ranthambhore, Soni, chief wildlife warden, Rajasthan, is unperturbed. While denying that the closure of the lakes was done for the BBC, he admits to other special facilities extended. "After all, the BBC is the BBC," says he, "their film will give us worldwide coverage and boost tourism. I might give the same facilities to others, if I'm convinced about their theme and credibility." And, it seems, what perks they have to offer.
What's most disturbing about this controversy is the fact that the BBC seems to have earned its goodwill for the price of a Gypsy. When others haven't been allowed the privilege, why has the BBC been using its own vehicle for the shoot? "Because they've promised to donate it to the park after the the shoot," says Soni. With this as precedent, will they allow others in the future? "Yes, if they're willing to donate their vehicles," replies Soni. Ditto for Sen and Ahmed.
And what if Indian film-makers shooting on Rs 3-5 lakh budgets cannot match the generosity of million-pound BBC productions? Well then, they seem to say, that's just too bad.