On 9 November 2006, I was present for the rescue of Sultana, an 11-month-old sloth bear that was being trained to dance by two men in a small village, five hours from Hyderabad in Naxal country. I was accompanying a rescue team that reached the bear handlers’ house at 6am and spotted the cub lying outside. It was decided that I would go in first with the driver, pose as a tourist, and record on camera the evidence that a bear was being held captive by this family.
At 7.30am, I arrived at the house in a taxi and pretended to be interested in farm animals. Within minutes, with the expectation of making some money, they proposed to show me something more interesting—a dancing bear. I watched the man pulling the stick attached to the bear’s pierced nose and the animal, holding her nose and howling in pain, tried to perform some steps.
A few years ago, while on assignment in Borneo, I watched a Dutch tourist going crazy taking hundreds of pictures of the macaques, and realised that the monkey is not so unusual for me because, in India, we live with wildlife in our cities. I got thinking, and liked the idea of exploring the juxtaposition of man and animal in an urban environment. I made the transition from photography to film, and made my first documentary on the flamingos at Sewri, Mumbai. I was hooked. I spent four months last year in search of and researching sloth bears, for my film on the captive dancing bears of India.
The community that trains and attempts to earn a living off these bears are the Kalandars, who often get cubs less than a month old. These totally traumatized animals are usually tied to a pole for life. Their muzzle is pierced with a hot iron rod and a rope or brass ring passed through to control the bear. The wound inflicted by piercing never gets a chance to heal and the animals remain in extreme pain all their lives. Once the bear grows, its canines are smashed, causing immense dental problems and agony to the animal.
My first encounter with sloth bears was at a bear rescue centre in Agra run by Wildlife SOS, an NGO with which I worked to produce this film. This NGO rescues bears kept captive illegally. At the Agra centre I saw a lot of bears. One that had just been rescued looked like a mangy dog—it had lost all its hair, and was badly undernourished. But I also saw lots of happy bears and some were really quite friendly. While I’d noticed these dancing bears while driving on the Delhi–Agra road before, it wasn’t until I began making this film that I grasped the extent of cruelty underlying their lives. And so it was that I travelled through Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka to meet sloth bears, in rescue centres, national parks and as captive dancing bears. It dawned on me that making such films is what I really want to do. One hopes that at some level, this will create awareness and make people feel horror at these atrocities, which they’ve never felt before, as I did while making the film.
For a few minutes that November morning I watched the bear dance. It was really, really hard. I knew that these men were going to get caught. They were so happy that a tourist had arrived in their poor home and that they were going to make money early in the morning. On the other hand, as I watched Sultana, it was obvious how seriously traumatized and in pain she was.
Before the bear dance was done, the police swept down and arrested the men. When they left, Sultana was handed over to the Forest Department and Wildlife SOS. The operation was over and here was a tiny, sweet, rescued bear, a new passenger in the crowded vehicles.
And that’s how I came to be sitting in the back section of a Sumo with Sultana, no more than above my knees in height when standing on her hind legs. On the ride back to Hyderabad, she was like a puppy. Holding onto my forearm, she tried to chew my fingers and, later, my sneakers. The enduring image I have of little Sultana is the way I saw her when I got into the back of the Sumo: There she sat, holding her brutally pierced nose, with a stream of tears running down her face.(As told to Niloufer Venkatraman. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org)