Nature's film-maker

Print edition : December 31, 2004

Mike Pandey. - S. SUBRAMANIUM

Documentary film-maker Mike Pandey wins the prestigious `Green Oscar' award for his movie The Vanishing Giants.

"IF Sachin Tendulkar or Shah Rukh Khan loses his cell phone, the news will reach every nook and corner of the country, but the fact that iodine is essential for the human body is still not known widely," says documentary film-maker Mike Pandey. This situation is what he is striving to change. Mike Pandey won the Panda Award at Wildscreen 2004, the world's biggest festival for wildlife and environmental films, in Bristol, United Kingdom, in October, in the news category, for his six-minute-long news feature The Vanishing Giants. And he is the only Indian to have won the award - also known as the `Green Oscar' - thrice. He is now busy planning his future projects at Riverbank Studios, his film production company in Delhi, so that he can go on telling the `truth' - his mission.

The award-winning film showed how Chhattisgarh government officials captured a "problem" elephant, and how it succumbed to torture 18 days later. He had released the footage to a news channel when the incident happened, following which the Government of India suspended all capture operations in the country.

Scenes from The Vanishing Giants, which won the award.

This is not the first time that Pandey has rattled the authorities with his blunt visuals of atrocities committed on animals - some out of ignorance and some out of callousness. As he gets phone calls congratulating him on his recent achievement, he is busy with scripts, ongoing productions, and plans for a feature film. He also finds time to prescribe homoeopathy treatment to his overworked assistant.

Pandey says the award surprised him. Wildscreen had also nominated him for the Filmmakers for Conservation Award along with eminent film-makers such as Alan Root, Richard Brock, Maria Falcon and Hardy Jones (Alan Root won that award). "There were very established and prominent producers as competitors. I did not expect to win this one. But we do not make films for awards. I want to tell the truth and expose what is going on," Pandey said.

Mike Pandey tells the truth forcefully, in his films. After panning the scenic beaches and waves on the Gujarat coast, the camera eventually settles on a huge but helpless dying whale shark. Majestic elephants march ahead only to find that one of them has been chained and is being starved and beaten and its tusks cut off. There are very few "talking heads" - as Mike puts it - in his documentaries. The issue that he is addressing is there - shot in real.

Pandey spent his childhood in East Africa and was educated in the United Kingdom and the United States. His love for the environment is as strong as his passion for the making of technically fine films. His concern about the flawed systems, processes and attitudes in India has driven him to work on shoestring budgets, deal with widespread ignorance about wildlife and the environment, and work with uninspiring bureaucrats. After spending some time in the Mumbai film industry, he decided to do what he believed in and started making "not just environmental but socially relevant" documentaries.

He is a believer in the ways of nature and its far superior ways of working. The arrogance of human beings upsets him. "Man thinks he is the supreme commander of this planet and that's his biggest mistake. He is only in his infancy. He has been around for only 180,000 years. Other species have existed and evolved for much much longer - 60 or 70 million years. What a little leaf can do in photosynthesis, we may try doing using a lab of 1 sq km and spend millions, and still not perfect it," he says.

His conversations are sprinkled with references to the wonders of nature. As these analogies flow, he also mentions how stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagawad Gita have influenced him. "When the bee pollinates, it does not come back to check. It goes ahead and continues doing this incredible job." So while he has partly inculcated this principle, of continuing with his work against any odds, he would definitely appreciate some returns in the form of changes in policies and attitudes. Education and awareness will do the trick, he feels. "There is no magic key other than education. Education sensitises you and then you will not be self-consumed or selfish. There should be public information. Only education and information will improve life," he says.

For this, he wants the government to blend information and entertainment and take the task more seriously. "The Ministry of Education is not using the best vehicle it could have taken to spread information. Prasar Bharati, Doordarshan and All India Radio will reach millions and can do a good job, teaching children in villages and remote areas. But we do not have any good education programmes," he says.

There are many youngsters in his studios, learning much more than techniques: they work with him, and some have gone on to make documentaries or start their own set-ups. Shalini Ghosh, who makes films for the Internet, remembers the times spent at Riverbank Studios: "It's a good place to learn. He likes to share his experiences with young people. He lets people do whatever they want. He lets them use the equipment and learn."

When it comes to learning, it is on-field work that teaches the most. "You have to be patient and you have to work very hard. For days nothing may work out. You have to spend time with the local people, live their life. Talk like them, feel like them, smell like them. Only then you will understand real issues. You are not on a picnic when you go to the forests," he says.

From Shores of Silence.

SHORES of Silence, a film on whale sharks, took over three years to make. The big fish that he had seen as a child from a ship were nowhere to be seen along the coast when he went to shoot the film. Nobody even knew that they existed. "One day I was thinking of different words in different languages (he knows Swahili, French, English, Gujarati, Hindi and Bhojpuri). And then it occurred to me that I might be asking the wrong question. So then I asked how big was the biggest fish they had caught." In an impeccable Gujarati accent he narrates the incident, "`Very very big', the fisherman said. `Thousands of tonnes in weight. It is bari machli or barrel machli,' The next day at 4 a.m. we were at a shore where we saw half-dead whale sharks being dragged to shore. The fish was called barrel fish. The authorities there refused to acknowledge that the fish existed. And there was no law to protect our marine life," he says.

This documentary did bring about a change in the wildlife protection law, which for the first time included marine species. Though critical of the bureaucracy, Mike emphasises that in the long term, change can be effected through good governance and good use of public broadcasters.

For someone who did a programme like "Earth Matters" on Doordarshan for two years, he has many questions to ask the authorities. "There is no political will. My documentaries are screened in film festivals. International agencies screen them. They have won awards but the Ministry of Environment is yet to buy them. Why is it so? Why don't they start programmes on the environment again? If you show such programmes at 10.30 p.m., who will watch them? Rural India goes to bed by 8.30 p.m. All this information and knowledge is garbage if it does not reach the people," he says.

Kiran Pandey, coordinator of the Environment Resources Unit at the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, speaks about how film festivals and awards help in taking the message to the people. Their film on rainwater harvesting was also a finalist in the Campaign Category for the Wildscreen award. "When film festivals screen such environmental documentaries, people see them, talk about them. Then one can loan these films to different institutions for their screenings. An award is a value addition. But they should be made more popular, maybe a dedicated channel. Few people want to watch DD (Doordarshan). We should tempt the corporates to sponsor these projects, and that would improve their image also. A few festivals like `Vatavaran' have started in India, but it needs more."

Namrata Chowdhary, from Greenpeace, explains how these films are effective. "Films speak so much more eloquently because you are providing visual evidence. They are much more powerful than fact sheets. They play a very important role in bringing the catastrophe into drawing rooms. But there are few people working and even fewer quality productions," she says.

MIKE PANDEY's films are part of those few productions that have touched people's hearts and minds, and now he wants to go beyond documentaries and children's education programmes. Unlike purists, he wants all the media, including Bollywood, to come together and join the mission. "Bollywood has a major role to play. All of us carry a social responsibility. Even if the hero gives only one or two minutes in a three-hour-long film for a cause, it will have a major influence," he says.

So, is he thinking of coming back to commercial cinema? "My heart has always been in features. I am working on a children's film, titled `Hakuna matata'. The intention is to motivate children and ignite their minds. Once the seed is sown, the children will make the changes," he says animatedly.

However, it will take time, as such projects need money and producers for them are hard to find.

While the work on documentaries goes on, Riverside sustains itself by taking overseas assignments for short films, making films for Ministries, corporates and Doordarshan.

In his basement studio done up with recycled wood, work goes on. Fish in a large fish tank keep young professionals company during long days and nights. While one feels inspired and positive about all the achievements and future projects of a dedicated film-maker, the image of a boy sitting on a dead whale shark, with waves gently playing along, cannot be wiped from one's consciousness.

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