Completely covered in a plastic mosquito-net, sitting on a tree-machan at forty-five degrees of baking heat and not a leaf moving for want of breeze- I swore! Sweat bees buzzing all around me, waiting to crawl onto my skin, it seemed all of madness.
I stared down into a tiny pool of water and watched a small group of langurs drink. They were very nervous, hardly drinking and ever vigilant. They had every reason to be alert. I was waiting here since morning to film a tigress bringing her four little cubs to water. And this little pool of water was her favorite. A tigress with cubs is wary and suspicious, if she even sensed that there was a fidgety cameraman waiting on top of a tree for her, she might not even show up.
Our film was set in the magnificent deciduous forests of Tadoba; a wildlife park with breath-taking landscapes and a very visible tiger population. In 2009, National Geographic had approached our production company (Icon films, a company based in Bristol with whom I have a long association) showing interest in a 3 part series on Indian wildlife. They wanted one of the episodes to be on the tiger. After carefully weighing our options about filming elsewhere in central India, we decided to go with Tadoba. This was the first time a film was being shot there, so we were walking into an unknown entity. To the credit of the forest department, the park was well managed and its systems were in place. This we could tell by the way the animals reacted to the presence of people. They were completely calm and undisturbed which was so essential when trying to film natural behaviour.
We had two brilliant field staff to help us. Nanavre ‘saab’ was a forest guard deputed to us to facilitate our filming. He was a quiet man with a winning smile. His knowledge of the park and the ability to navigate through the ever-present tourist traffic was invaluable to us. Neelkant was our tiger man. He spotted tigers where we only saw rocks and his anticipation of tiger movements was sublime. Every time I finished shooting a sequence I couldn’t help shaking his hands in awe as he would have predicted to the nth level which route the animal would take, where it will rest and what was the best time to be there. It was an extraordinary experience.
We landed in Tadoba tiger reserve in early summer to start our 50-day filming schedule. We were a team of three. I was the cameraman and my job description was plain and simple; spend as much time in the forest, always get into the right camera position and shoot till you drop. My two friends Kalyan Varma and Mandana were the ones who made sure that I could actually translate this simple watchword into action. To do a film at this level requires enormous amounts of logistic planning, coordination, negotiations and day-to-day problem solving. They did that to perfection and more. They are both great photographers. So besides helping me with the shoot they had the job of taking stunning pictures as well.
The prime area in Tadoba was a huge reservoir called `Telia’ with enough water to see through the worst of summers. This was patrolled by a massive male tiger we called `scar face’. He was a middle aged male, big to the point of looking obese. His face was all torn from the numerous battles and his right eyelid was so damaged that it looked like he had just one eye. He wasn’t the handsome tiger one would imagine a dominant male to be but he was unquestionably the king with an easy way with the females.
Over the time that we followed him, we observed many traits that gave him a character. For instance, every time he entered water he would bare his canines and snarl, just like we would shrivel when cold water hits us for the first time during a bath. I found this so intriguing, so human like. He also liked to get into the water backside first (other tigers do that too). He had his favorite sleeping spots and our first routine of the day was to drive around checking all his places to get his location.
Tigers are strange. In spite of having access to many large water bodies in Tadoba, they always chose to cool themselves in small forest pools; most of them no bigger than a bath tub. The quality of water didn’t matter either. In most cases it was dirty, brown with silt and full of dead leaves. They loved the coolness and privacy these pools offered over the luxury of large clean water bodies. As the summer progressed and water became more and more scarce, we started observing a pattern. Every pool of water that was suitable was claimed by a tiger and suddenly their movements and sightings became predictable. We knew where we could locate a specific tiger at a specific set of places. This made life a lot easier. The next step was of course to wait for them to show up.
Making films about ecosystems is always a challenge. It’s an eternal debate between what to show and what to leave out. It is the responsibility of filmmakers to showcase what happens in nature, as accurately as possible and as comprehensively as time will allow. However there is also the dilemma of audience attention span when it comes to television programming. As much as education is important, an interesting film makes for better viewing. So besides tigers, we were filming everything else that we could spot and spend time with. Tadoba has a very healthy wild dog (dhole) population. We were following a courting pair through the film. We were also lucky to film a massive pack of 17 animals cooling off in a waterhole. Then there were gaur, sambar deer, spotted deer, birds and many insects including the cicada (which probably produces the loudest sound in the world).
As the summer moved on, we began to see how beautifully adapted the animals were to beating the heat. Frogs began to dig into the soft wet mud to escape drying out. Wild boars did a daily slush-bath ritual, covering themselves with wet clay which when dried kept them cool and acted as sunscreen. But there was also death that followed the rising heat. As water holes began to dry up, fish had no means of escaping. What was a pool buzzing with life became a dry pan the next week. Pond herons and other water birds feasted as they moved from one pool to the next, picking off fish stuck in the mud. With water holes drying, there was also increased intolerance when animals came together to drink. There were conflicts between members of the same species, jostling for the best drinking positions or chasing away other species from precious water.
I was awoken from my tree top trance by the alarm call of a spotted deer. The drinking langurs scooted and took to their safe perches. They also began to alarm call. Within a few minutes two little eyes peered out from behind the bamboo. After a quick check the first cub plodded out and went straight to the water. It was as big as a Labrador pup, its oversized paws kicking up dust from the dry sand. Warily it put its first leg into the water. Happy with everything, it slid in completely. Then the second cub came and then the third. Finally the mother and the last cub. The mother looked up and saw me. It was the moment I dreaded. What was she going to do? She stared for a second and walked on and got into the water with her four little cubs.
To lock eyes with a tiger is a moment in time that freezes. I couldn’t help myself as my hand shivered, I was groping for the camera switch. What I saw in front of me and filmed that day will stay with me forever. The tigress and her cubs playing in the water, relaxed in the knowledge I was there, left me feeling privileged. They had let me into their lives for that moment and to me that was a gift. After spending two hard months in the blistering heat of central India, to come away with such a memory somehow justified all our moments of hardship.