Published: 17th August 2019
Caring for nature and the environment should be everyone’s concern: Wildlife and conservation filmmaker Shekar Dattatri on why the wildlife needs our attention
His hard-hitting advocacy films have exposed the destruction of nature and helped bring about positive outcomes
Aherd of elephants trying to cross the road with the little one struggling to climb over the divider; a tiger killed by a speeding vehicle; a tiny patch of Shola forests surrounded by mines — these and many more breathtaking photographs were part of the presentation by multiple award-winning wildlife and conservation filmmaker Shekar Dattatri at Edex’s 40 Under 40, 2019 and they stayed with us long after the event concluded. We got to learn more about the conservationist, known for his documentaries like The Race to Save the Amur Falcon, Chilika — Jewel of Odisha, SOS — Save Our Sholas and more, through an insightful chat and below are the excerpts:
We did read that your tryst with nature started really early, in your own backyard in fact. Do you think that this connection with nature is absent from the childhood of today's children?
What I’ve observed is that humans can be in the midst of nature and yet be unaware of the beauty and sanctity of that moment. For example, we often see people littering and playing loud music in places of scenic beauty and serenity. These people, children and adults alike, have clearly never been sensitised to nature. I was lucky to have been exposed to books on nature from the age of ten, and this helped me understand how to appreciate nature. So the key is to inculcate good values in children so that they grow up to be responsible adults.
The way in which you described how you climbed to the top of a hill in Rajamalai near Munnar and saw a spring oozing out was really endearing. Which are two of the most fascinating places in South India that you have visited and have absolutely fascinated you?
I spent much of my teenage years wandering the outskirts of Chennai with Irula snake catchers and developed a fascination for the low, thorn scrub that stretched as far as the eye could see. This seemingly barren landscape was home to an astonishing variety of small creatures. In my late teens I fell in love with the wet evergreen forests of the Western Ghats, one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.
Caring for nature and the environment should be everyone’s concern. It is not just the responsibility of a few ‘activists’. If we don’t wake up to this reality and fail to collectively lend our voices to the good fight, our future, as well as of all life on earth, will edge closer to the precipice every day
Shekar Dattatri, Wildlife and conservation filmmaker | (Pic: Express)
Documenting wildlife requires a skill set of a different kind altogether. Though most of us are aware of the endless hours of waiting, what are some lesser-known facts that really define a good documentary?
People often think that making a documentary is all about having the right cameras and gadgets, but, in my opinion, the secret to a good documentary lies in research, a coherent structure and a really good script, besides striking imagery.
Your work — like Mindless Mining — has actually contributed to real change. But there are many out there working and are unable to ensure that their work brings about real substantial change. What would you say to them? How does one ensure that their work is finding the right eyes?
After years of making nature films for TV channels, I realised that television wasn’t the right platform for bringing about change on the ground, because most viewers don’t have the power to do anything. So I switched to making short, persuasive films aimed specifically at decision-makers, who do have the power.
A clear film that highlights an environmental issue, and suggests well-researched, practical solutions to resolve it, can be effective in persuading decision-makers to take the right actions. However, even the best film is not a magic bullet. A policy-maker may concede the truth of your message, but still not do anything because of various administrative, political or social reasons. So, in order to be effective, advocacy filmmakers need to find allies who can help reach and persuade many different people in power, both in the bureaucracy and among the political leadership. Simply putting a video on YouTube may not be enough.
Have there been instances where you have faced resistance? Please share your experiences in this regard and how did you manage to overcome them?
When you speak the truth, sometimes people find it unpalatable. There was an instance where my camera and tapes were snatched away and I was threatened with harm, and another instance where several malicious cases were filed against me. But as the saying goes, “if you can’t stand the heat, you should stay out of the kitchen”.
When you see the destruction and the hopelessness around you, how do you restrain yourself from growing bitter?
It can be hard to remain optimistic when you see so much destruction of nature and the public apathy to it. The best antidote to such despair is to remember the victories. The Silent Valley campaign in the 70s is a great example of how peoples’ action saved a priceless rainforest. Another example is the successful campaign by a few determined citizens to stop destructive iron ore mining in Kudremukh. There are many other success stories that we can take heart from, including the revival of Chilika Lake by the government of Odisha.
Moment to cherish: Dattatri presenting the citation to TA Pugalarasan | (Pic: Express)
A very scary statistic came up recently that one person is killed every month in India defending the environment. If the situation is such, how do new crusaders of the environment join the movement or stay inspired to remain loyal to their cause?
All over the world, environmental activists are facing increasing heat from powerful vested interests. While those with the courage of their convictions continue to campaign despite dire threats, it's really important for such individuals to find allies and build coalitions so that they don’t become isolated targets that are easy to silence or eliminate.
In this scenario, where raising one's voice to protect the environment has become life-threatening, and this is one question that we asked all of our 40 awardees as well, what can we, as common citizens, do to help you towards your cause?
First, it is vital to remember that those advocating for an environmental cause are also ‘common citizens’. It’s just that instead of remaining apathetic bystanders, they have chosen to speak out and act in the public interest. Their hands should be strengthened through more people joining just causes. A few activists can be silenced, but when their ranks swell, there is strength in numbers, and a better chance of victory.
For more on him, check out shekardattatri.com
(He was speaking at TNIE's 40 under 40 Eco Conclave)