It is not for the first time that a documentary film has attempted to showcase Karnataka’s natural heritage in all its variety and vividness, but it is perhaps the sheer scale of its ambition that sets Wild Karnataka apart from previous efforts. With ample budgets, cutting-edge technology, untrammelled access to the remotest corners of the state, unprecedented logistical support from the forest department, and world-class post-production resources, Wild Karnataka is in a league of its own. Further, it is possibly the first Indian wildlife documentary commercially released to cinema screens, with the public paying to watch. So it is entirely reasonable that one must expect a lot from such a film.
On several counts, the film delivers creditably. The cinematic quality of the film’s visual spectacle is breathtaking. It celebrates the commonest and the humblest of nature’s creations, just as joyously as it does the rare and majestic. Rather than in the staple fare of tigers and elephants, the film’s high points are in the fascinating natural history moments it pulls together: the riveting standoff between a cobra and a young jungle cat, the Malabar pied hornbills gorging on fruits from the poisonous strychnine tree, the fast-paced foraging by countless crabs in the intertidal flats, and the family of peeved otters evicting a tiger soaking in their pool.
It also makes an admirable effort to show how it is not just Karnataka’s forests that pulse with wildlife, but also its reefs, mudflats and even its bare, rocky hills of the Deccan.
I was struck however, by the film’s framing of Karnataka’s wild places for us: our gaze is often gently averted from what is actually being shown on screen. The film opens to the claim that Karnataka is “one of the last places where big, wild animals can roam in safety”as a majestic tusker strides the backwaters of a dam that drowned several thousand acres of its forested habitat, possibly within that elephant’s own lifetime. There is shot after shot of vast swathes of forest parted by large dam reservoirs, with otters and terns fishing and herbivores grazing on the dam’s backwaters without even passing mention of what these locations really are. Later in the film, a once-forested hilltop, now a bare, marooned island in the middle of a reservoir, is blandly called a “temporary sandbar”.
Shortly after a tiger cub retreats into a wall of the invasive and destructive weed lantana, we see drone footage of a stream choked with the same plant while the commentary celebrates “the thickness of these jungles”. Later, there is the incredible and dramatic footage of flying draco lizards, mentioned as living in the lower slopes of the Western Ghats, but filmed entirely within an arecanut plantation, of course, without any mention of that fact. In effect, what the film does is to quietly nudge its viewers away from every evidence of human influence that the film itself puts out.
If the dissonance between what is being shown and what is being said left me uneasy, what the film chose to entirely omit, was, to say the least, disturbing. For starters, the film systematically constructs a wilderness that has neither adversity nor challenge. In this utopia, there are no fires, no invasive plants, no tourists, no highways, no dams, no mines, no forest department, no local communities – and no conflict. Just wildlife doing its thing. That this is narrated in the authoritative, voice-of-god delivery by David Attenborough heightens our belief in the existence of this distant paradise. And yet, Karnataka has the largest share of the world’s most densely populated Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot.
To even acknowledge this would mean having to lead the viewer out of a sanitised, make-believe bubble of an unpeopled wild Karnataka, right into the complex and noisy world of the real wild Karnataka: a place rife with standoffs between wildlife, local people, governments and corporates.
Am I imposing my own expectations here on a film whose aim or approach may have been entirely different? Speaking about what drove them to make the film, Amoghavarsha, one of the producers, says in an interview that they were driven by a “huge sense of responsibility” to share with people what they had seen of wild Karnataka. He goes on to say, “In India, wildlife does not live in a separate sort of enclosure; it lives with people. And there is a lot of coexistence. And we wanted to bring that out and make that accessible.” Against that stated motivation – which I totally dig – I think it only fair to call out the film for not having even a glancing mention of people or coexistence.
But does it dilute the ‘blue chip’ value of a wildlife documentary to present a more real picture of wild Karnataka? In response, I am reminded of two recent, world-class documentaries from the same state – one on wild dogs, and another on wolves – by the venerable duo, Krupakar-Senani. Both films sensitively and skilfully weave in the pervasive human elements, and the dilemmas of confronting conservation challenges, without diluting their firm natural history focus.
Certainly, it can still be argued that it is the filmmakers’ prerogative to choose their narrative – in this case, of a pristine, unpeopled wild Karnataka free of problem and challenge. Equally, the viewer may examine what may have prompted such a choice.
The film is the outcome of a collaboration between the filmmakers, the forest department, and a bunch of mining and tourism corporations, who funded the venture (through cash and kind). The forest department is responsible for protecting wild species and wild lands, but its record, both within Karnataka and elsewhere, is mixed at best. One may be permitted then, to look askance at the film for creating a very particular public image of Karnataka’s wildlife and habitats as entirely untouched and untarnished.
Further, some of the biggest and most difficult threats to the species and habitats in the film, come from extractive industry, like mining. In its very nature, the goals of mining are incompatible with the goals of wildlife protection. That the film chooses not to mention such conservation problems is itself quite striking, but that it does so while using funds from mining companies is deeply troubling. It is a little like making a film on the earth’s climate with funding from fossil fuel companies and somehow forgetting to mention climate change. When the producers’ professed aim for the film is to evoke not only wonder and love for the state’s wildlife but also to inspire people to “care for it”, one is forced to wonder whether their omissions, and their editorial stance of erasing conservation are themselves not forms of self-censorship.
The reason it is relevant to question the coming together of state and capital to show Karnataka’s wildlife in a certain light, is that in the same state, officials of the forest department and mining companies colluded and heavily undermined wildlife for years, before their activities were exposed in the Bellary mining scam.
I fear the day is not far when talented but apolitical wildlife filmmakers start working under a new, generously-funded business model. In this model, films eulogising a wild Chhattisgarh, Odisha or Gujarat will be made by waltzing in step with the coal or bauxite or oil companies that are laying these very wilds to waste in collusion with officials and politicians. And that would be a travesty of art and of conservation we could certainly do without.
Instead, if through the moving image, we wish to create inspired spokespersons for nature, we may be better off doing so through honest, fearless and independent storytelling, rather than by crafting pretty and sanitised mythologies of nature underwritten by those with direct conflicts of interest.
M.D. Madhusudan is an independent researcher who has worked on ecological research and wildlife conservation projects in Karnataka for nearly three decades. He co-founded the Nature Conservation Foundation and worked there for 23 years.