India Insight

Mike Pandey hits bureaucratic hurdle for film on tigers

May 10, 2013

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of Reuters)

For more than 30 years, Mike Pandey has been a man with a mission. In its special issue on Heroes of the Environment in 2009, Time magazine credited the maker of wildlife documentaries with efforts to protect “everything from whale sharks to elephants, vultures to medicinal plants.”

In 1994, Pandey became the first Asian film-maker to win the Wildscreen Panda Award, better known as the Green Oscar, for his film on the capture of wild elephants. He also won the award twice in the next decade.

In April this year, Pandey was honoured at an event to mark 100 years of Indian cinema. His latest film, a docudrama on India’s dwindling tiger numbers, has a Bollywood connection – and features Amitabh Bachchan and John Abraham.

Pandey spoke to Reuters India Online on making documentaries, why he stayed away from Bollywood cinema all this while and how his latest effort “The Return of the Tiger” hit a stumbling block in Madhya Pradesh. Excerpts from the interview.

Q: You started out as a documentary film-maker in the 1970s when nobody was aware of conservation in India. How tough was it back then?

A: I think it was very, very difficult because there was no funding or support available. Even bureaucratic support was missing because if there are no whales in their record books, they said then what am I talking about (about conserving them)? There could be no funding. I am glad that I was here at the right time and the right place. We were stubborn, we did not give up. It was frustrating at times because many times there was a red tape wall between you and your subjects.

Q: Why did you choose and actively pursue documentary film-making when Bollywood was an option?

A: I am a student of serious cinema and that was missing in Bollywood. People were looking for box-office masala hits and fantasies and song and drama. I think I would have preferred to make films that were closer to life rather than selling dreams and fantasies with people running around trees and playing Mickey Mouse … Documentaries offered me that platform where I could make films of substance. Films are really a perception of a director’s perception of life and they need to be thought-provoking. So I wanted to make films like the Guru Dutts and Bimal Roys. They were the giants who were making films that I would have liked to make.

Q: Being unpredictable, does nature allow a perfect film to be made?

A: I think making a feature film is very easy because if you miss a shot, you can reshoot it; there can be 50 retakes. But when you are making a documentary like “The Last Migration”, there are wild elephants being captured and the camera is on your shoulder, there is no tripod, there are no rehearsals. You don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s when your experience pays off. If an elephant comes tumbling down crushing through the undergrowth … and if you haven’t got the shot, you can’t ask the elephant to go back and do a retake. You have lost it. So if you aren’t there on your toes and you can’t pre-empt and you don’t know enough about jungle craft or behaviour of animals, then you can’t make a wildlife film.

Q: What is your take on the stand-off between various ministries and the environment ministry on the development and conservation debate?

A: Development cannot be at the cost of environment. We all, whether it is the prime minister or a farmer, we need the environment to survive. We are not going to eat iron ore or diamonds all the time, we need food and water. For too long, the world has been moving on at a mindless speed. There has to be a scientific approach to development.

Q: Where have you seen climate and wildlife being affected by development activities?

A: Look at Goa, Karnataka – the mining activity there has left thousands of villages without water. If you look at Himachal Pradesh, thousands of farmers have moved to higher altitudes because their crops don’t grow at lower altitudes any more (because of climate change). Leopards and tigers have been killed in jungles because of which monkeys and wild boar population has grown, creating trouble for farmers … These are all indicators that we are abusing and not using (nature).

Q: Why isn’t the documentary format more popular in India?

A: Films need their distribution system. Documentaries are value-based, meaningful tools that can help inform and empower but, just like education, they may not be entertaining. There was a system in India where documentaries used to be shown before every film show by the Films Division but there were a lot of protests. Lots of people just wanted to see dance and dramas and even film-makers wanted that time for advertisements. Even the state broadcaster has become a revenue-generating channel. Why can’t the concerned ministries like health, culture, etc. support the channel so that it can run and carry information to people where it is required. There is a need for political will and corporate support like in other countries.

Q: Now you are making “Return of the Tiger” with Bollywood stars Amitabh Bachchan and John Abraham. Tell us about this project.

A: John Abraham is a dear friend of mine; he loves animals. We have been working for elephants in Maharashtra. One day, we were talking and thought that the tiger has been dying … despite it being a criminal offence to kill the tiger. So we thought the best thing to do is to inform people why it is important to save the tiger. “The Return of the Tiger” would be a 90-minute docudrama which John is producing. Amitabh Bachchan offered his services and support saying he would like to be involved in whichever capacity, that he would lend his voice, chase poachers in a jeep if required. So his voice will be there and John will be an anchor and a link.

The unfortunate part is we have been trying for 2-1/2 years to get permission to shoot in Madhya Pradesh and the government, despite the fact that we are an NGO and have a track record like no other in the world, wants to charge us 45,000 rupees (about $825) per camera, which makes it 85,000 rupees (about $1560) per day in filming fees. The paradox is the government itself is not doing anything to protect or conserve or speak out for the tiger. When I am trying to do something positive which will benefit my country and planet, stumbling blocks are being created. Of all the projects that I have worked upon, I think “Return of the Tiger” is the toughest because I have to deal with humans.

Q: As a film-maker how do you look at the journey of movies as Bollywood completes 100 years this year?

A: We started making films almost along with the Western world but with the British Raj being there, there were limitations of equipment etc. and post-independence equipment was not so easily available. But today we are at par with the best, we have come far. Even with sub-standard equipment, we have churned out lots of films which are powerful. Today we are the largest film industry in the world, producing almost 3000 films a year. Times have changed, technology has revolutionised everything. We can see our people winning the Oscars. In the next 10 years, we will see a sea change with a new generation of films being made. I feel very optimistic with the new crop of filmmakers.

(Follow Shashank on Twitter @shashankchouhan )

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