Why did you choose Bomman and Bellie’s story and their relationship with the elephants as a focus for The Elephant Whisperers?
It’s simple—I fell in love with Raghu (the elephant). Bomman and Bellie are Kattunayakans, a forest tribe of the Western Ghats who are found in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. Originally hunter-gatherers, they now specialise in collecting honey and taking care of elephants. Bomman, like his father, is an elephant caregiver. While his new wife, Bellie, has less knowledge of the forests and a deep fear of wild animals, she develops a close bond with the elephants in her care. The Asian elephant is losing its habitat rapidly due to encroachment and climate change. Now, there are about 40,000 Asian elephants left. However, despite the grim reality, I wanted to show a hopeful story. In Bomman and Bellie’s unusual family dynamic, I found that. While I wanted to show people how intelligent elephants are, I also wanted to highlight the role of indigenous people in the conservation and care of these gentle giants.
How does your documentary shed light on the indigenous communities involved in conserving wildlife?
Most films focus on humans being cured by a bond with an animal, or being harmed by them, or these animals suffering due to human expansion into their territory. Amidst this, The Elephant Whisperers lets viewers understand the elephants and their carers with minimal external interpretation. It portrays the dignity of the magnificent elephants and the indigenous people who have lived with them and cared for them for centuries. Indigenous people have in-depth ancient knowledge, and respect for the land they live on. There’s so much to learn from them when it comes to conserving the environment—their respect for the land and only taking enough from it to exist. The documentary offers hope of mutual respect and cooperation, and a way forward through coexistence.
Throughout your body of work, nature occupies a central position. Tell us how it inspires and informs your work.
I was introduced to nature before I could walk. My family and I would explore the forests, streams, beaches, mountains, zoos, natural history museums and aquariums. My mother was especially interested in animals; my father was a photographer; my grandmother was an amateur naturalist guiding school children through local nature reserves. So I had a lot of information on nature and how to photograph it, and a lot of animal behaviour knowledge. As an avid explorer, my work has two foci. One is environment, nature and wildlife, where I seek to raise awareness about the marvellous diversity of nature and wildlife, and the importance of conservation. The other is cultures, communities and their connections. I believe that strong imagery has the unique power to change minds. So, my work infuses my passion for adventure to bring new perspectives and a deeper public understanding of environmental and humanitarian issues.
You have travelled extensively, capturing natural beauty through photographs and films. What has been your most memorable experience?
I have been in love with the black and white whale called the orca. They’re known as the wildlife spectacle of the Pacific Northwest, the fastest mammal in the seas, and the most intelligent predator on earth. In June 2007, at 20, I enrolled in a kayaking expedition along Canada’s Pacific coast to see these magnificent orcas in the wild. The expedition traverses a section of Vancouver Island’s protected North-eastern waters. I was weaving through the tiny islets of the Broughton Archipelago by day, and camping on desolate beaches near the white-shell middens of some of the continent’s first human inhabitants by night. I have to admit that I didn’t see any orcas the first time, but the area’s beauty brought me a lot of joy. However, the desire to see the orcas in the wild increased. So, in July 2016, I headed to Cowichan Bay, a small seaside village in British Columbia. I realised that seeing them in the wild meant watching them and photographing them entirely on their terms, even if that meant confronting all the hazards that accompanied kayaking the Northwest coast. I woke up anxious that morning. But I was ready for the moment I had been waiting for. I got my camera ready as we headed out to the sea. It took us a while to get out to sea, and I was wondering whether I would even see them. But my intuition told me I was going to be lucky. As the captain slowed down, I constantly listened and looked for the whales. Then suddenly, these tall dorsal fins came slicing out of the water so gracefully–just how I had always imagined. I was so overwhelmed by their beauty. Seven orcas were gliding through the water and straight at our boat. A big male came about a foot away, took a deep breath and went under our boat, followed by the five others. I was in disbelief. I looked into the water and saw their beautiful black and white bodies under the water’s surface right under the boat. We followed them for a while in the boat, and by that time, I was ready to pick up my camera and start photographing them.