From here began a fascinating journey in film making. Having won the Green Oscars thrice over for his documentary films, The Last Migration, Vanishing Giants and Shores of Silence, Pandey has become a name to reckon with in the area of ‘wildlife film-making’. He was at his eloquent best when he talked to the livemint team in his Riverbank studios in New Delhi. We present here excerpts from the interview:
How did your childhood fascination for wildlife and nature turn into a full-fledged profession?
I am on a constant holiday. I don’t think I work. I get paid for being on a holiday, for doing what I like best. But I think the period between 3-8 years in anyone’s life are the most formative. Values that I got then from my parents, siblings and relatives played a great role in moulding my life, thought process, principles and values. One thing that I inculcated from them was reverence for all life on earth. My father used to take me and my brother to the jungle since I was 4 or 5 and we used to spend hours discussing, clicking snaps and imitating animals. This was the foundation that brought me upfront and face-to-face with nature.
Now I am grown up. I believe in having affairs. And having an affair with nature is, I guess, the most exciting thing. You discover something new and mysterious each time you come in contact with her. Nature is so creative and re-generative and can never be destructive.
How do you explain disasters and natural calamities when you say that nature is never destructive?
When nature wants to bring a semblance or moderation it takes recourse to means that might appear destructive to man. Natural phenomena has its own cyclical process. For example, it is only when we try to drill deep in the ocean to pull out oil and change the dynamics of underground pressure do earthquakes happen. So, disasters are mostly man-made. Earth is a living organism and to survive, it will do anything; it may even retaliate, which is what we need to be guarded against.
Tell us something about how your work evolved in all these years.
I started working with tigers in India in 1975-76. Soon I was working with elephants and whale sharks. Everybody wondered what now and then came the horse-shoe crab. We have gone into the oceans now and are making some of the first in-depth films about oceans and its secrets. We have made six films on forests of the ocean, corals and wave energy. We are also looking at jelly fish, octopus and other marine creatures. One thing leads to another and you see a wonderous magic gradually unfold.
What made you return to India, leaving behind Africa which is so diverse and rich in wildlife?
I go where the wind takes me. Again, I think it is instinct and destiny. I am glad I came here and that was persistent and stubborn. When nobody in India believed that whale sharks exist in Indian waters, I went with my motely crew of three or four people to make a documentary on whale sharks. We managed without any assistance to do something which the government should have done. Back then they did not even listen to me.
When the film was made, it was not only a discovery that whale sharks exist in Indian waters but was also a revelation that we are slaughtering and selling them for Rs1 a quick kilo. The film was instrumental in bringing the first ever legislation on marine species in India. It was a landmark film because it got the Gujarat government and the Central government to act fast, resulting in a total ban in killing of the whale shark.
What possibilities do documentaries have in disseminating information and creating awareness on environment and wildlife issues?
Earlier there used to be books but times have changed now. Attention span of people has grown smaller and they do not have time to read and ruminate. Visual communication has become the most powerful medium and we must realize that much of future education will find expression through visual communication. It leaves a lasting imprint and is more acceptable to the present generation.
At the same time, it is challenging because in a limited time span you have to hold attention and deliver content. Documentaries were dying but now there has been a revival. However, one must not lose focus of the fact that thorough research is integral to the making of a documentary but at the same time the final product must be simple enough for the message to be absorbed by the audience. Good information can be pure garbage if it fails to reach people. There is immense need to market it properly.
What has your association with Doordarshan been and how successful have the DD series been?
Doordarshan reaches some 800 million people in over 200 countries. This is a vehicle that can carry public information films and educational content to the remotest areas in one click.
I was very happy when I got the series called ‘Earth Matters’ which is the only well researched and serious series on TV. We get 1200 to 1300 letters a week from the remotest areas from different age groups. We cover diverse topics ranging from AIDS, Encephalitis, stem cells, tigers, lions, crocodiles and oceans; simplifying them and taking the mystery and the fear out of them. It has been heartening to see that the approach works.
From the kind of response we are getting, it is evident that the programme is making people realize that they have a great deal of responsibility towards their environment and that government alone can do nothing.
Nonetheless, the government can play a major role. There is a need for various ministries -- health ministry, education ministry and information and broadcasting ministry -- to come together and work towards informing and sensitizing people in an interesting manner and in the right way. This is how education can come from the government.
You have often mentioned that spreading awareness is most effective among children and young adults. How do you propose to ‘catch them young’?
Films that I make are mostly targeted at children; they are our larger audience. Lots of children write in to me, telling me what they feel about these issues, what they would like to watch and know more about. In fact, there is a tremendous amount of respect, pressure and demand from their side. We at ‘Earth Matters’ try and fulfil their desires. It keeps us going.
We have also set up a foundation called ‘Earth Matters Foundation’ and have involved schools from all over the country, who have set up ‘Earth Matters Foundation’ clubs. Children from these schools do all kinds of work from planting trees to cleaning up their surroundings. They remain in constant touch with me directly through letters and I make it a point to answer each one of them. I also go to schools and engage them through talks, lectures and demonstrations. I show them my films and share my experiences for this keeps them motivated and interested enough to puruse their interest in wildlife and environment further.
There are people who may feel strongly about wildlife but are dissuaded from pursuing wildlife film-making as a profession. What is your take on this?
Wildlife or environmental film-making is a specialization, needing vast experience and patience. The struggle sometimes can be hard and trying. We were pioneers in this field in India and have braved tough periods when support, donors and patrons were missing. We did not know where to sell our films.
Ironically, while such films in the US and UK cost about half a million dollars to make, in India we mop up barely a few lakhs and that too with great difficulty. Unfortunately, wildlife and environment continues to be given low priority.
Do you think the picture is so grim?
Tigers are still dying, trees are still being cut at an alarming rate and there is little that is being done to stop it. It is only when our own interests are threatened that we wake up but even then we refuse to see reason. If things do not change, in 10 years time, Delhi will have to be evacuated; there will be an exodus. We make huge glass mansions that are like ovens. Then we spend 70% of our energy to cool them. If Delhi expands five times as a megalopolis where will the energy come from? You are asking for disaster. Why create a giant that you cannot feed? It will collapse one day.
How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with government policies in India for wildlife and environment?
When the government of Kenya got serious about poaching, they gave orders to shoot defaulters at sight. I am happy that the Assam government has given similar orders. The government has to get stern enough in terms of laws and rules if it wants to protect endangered species before it gets too late. Having said that, laws alone cannot bring about change. It is the attitude of the people that matters and this can be built up only through the right kind of education.
You have been around for almost 30 years now. Have you seen some positive changes?
In recent times I have seen a see change in the attitudes of our youngsters. They have become more conscious and responsible. Small gestures like a mother buying five plants for her kid as a birthday gift are indicative of a more sensitive approach towards our environment.
In a far-flung area like Ambikapur a Union leader, inspired by ‘Earth Matters’, took a pledge on Labour Day (1 May) to plant 12,000 trees. He asked the labourers to plant two trees each and look after them for one year. This is the kind of change that we have been striving for.
How supportive has your family been in all your endeavours? Do they share your interests?
Sometimes nature gives you a gift and my family is a gift for me. They walk with me and share my passions and idiosyncrasies. They have been supportive always, holding forth where needed – right from my brother, friends, wife, nephews and son. And they do share my interests.
Last year, my son made a film, Timeless Traveller, which went on to win the national award. I had shot some stuff on the horse-shoe crab and tried to make some versions of it with which I was not very happy. He came equipped with 3-D animation and re-invented the entire film using various new techniques.
How important are awards to you? How did the Green Oscars help you in furthering your cause?
Awards are important, in that they draw the attention of people. They are an honour and an indication that you are going in the right direction and that you are being recognized. The film itself gets respected and is seen by many more people. And when they manage to win an international award of such a stature, it becomes an achievement for the country as a whole. It shows how we in India have come of age in this field and have made a mark. Other than this the pandas, as you see, have just been collecting dust.
Finally, what influences have contributed in making you so passionate about the cause you have taken up?
It is perhaps instinct more than anything else – the instinct of love – that dictates your interests and passion. It begins with compassion and gradually into deeper understanding and empathy, allowing you to become one with the subject that you are dealing with. It is like being the tree that is being cut. When force and power are infused in the subject, you can see yourself going beyond the call of duty and taking that great leap forward.