Please tell us about yourself

Shekar Dattatri was one of those kids who loved wildlife from childhood. Like most of his generation, he grew up in a book-loving middle-class family in Chennai. Unlike most of his peers, his parents gave him the gift of indulging his interests rather than obsessing over school marks.

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When Dattatri was 10, his sister gave him a Gerald Durrell book called Rosie is my Relative, about an elephant. Soon, Dattatri borrowed his sister’s library card and began reading up other nature books in the British Council Library. By age 12, he graduated to books by Jane Goodall, George Schaller, Konrad Lorenz, Jim Corbett, Salim Ali, E.P. Gee, and many other wildlife writers. Dattatri had his life planned out. He would study wildlife biology all the way to a PhD and spend his life working with animals.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

At age 13, Dattatri walked into Chennai’s famous Snake Park and “ambushed” Romulus Whitaker, the founder. “I don’t know where I got the confidence but I said, ‘Mr Whitaker, I know how to handle snakes and I want to be a volunteer here.’ If it had been anyone else, they might have said, ‘Little boy, go away, come back when you are 21 with a letter from your parents.’ But Rom said, ‘Sure, okay, don’t do anything dangerous.’

Dattatri was studying at Chennai’s P.S. High School then. He began volunteering on weekends at the Snake Park, first as an errand boy for the keepers, then accompanying them while cleaning the reptile enclosures, then taking tourists around the park, and then announcing tours and information over the public system. The Snake Park published a cyclostyled magazine at that time. “Rom showed me how to develop negatives. I went to the British Council library and read up on photography.” An older friend loaned him a prized Nikon camera. Pretty soon, Dattatri was spending day after day in the Snake Park dark room developing, fixing and glazing photographs. His school attendance suffered. He began spending two days a week, then three and then four days a week at the Snake Park. Being a back bencher, his classmates covered for him. “Somehow I got through from one class to another. I would get 33 marks, my teachers probably gave me 2 grace marks and promote me to the next grade,” says Dattatri.

What did you study?

Right in school, Dattatri decided that he would not get married. He wanted to be a “free bird” doing exactly what he wanted to do. Sometimes though, life would intervene. After spending his twelve years of schooling pretty much around snakes and animals, Dattatri realized that he had no college admission. Worse, the application deadline had passed. The only option open to him was Loyola College, which was autonomous. Dattatri applied to Loyola. On the same day, he also posted an “impassioned letter” to the principal stating why he had to give the lad admission even though he had poor grades and virtually no attendance in school. The principal called him for an interview and regarded the lad with a twinkle in his eye. Dattatri got into Loyola for a BSc (Zoology) and continued his usual pattern of absenteeism. “At Loyola, all the students would quake when they were to enter the principal’s office because he was a stickler for attendance,” says Dattatri. “But Father Kuriakose would see me and say, ‘Ah, snake boy, what have you been up to?’ with a big smile.”

Tell us about your career path

He began working with a graduate student named J. Vijaya (now deceased). They did local expeditions with the Irula tribal folks from Chingelput district. Dattatri describes them as “amazing bush people.” Dattatri would accompany Viji and the Irulas into the scrubby, thorny wastelands outside Chennai. “You and I may see nothing, but an Irula can spot say, 15 species of snakes, 13 amphibians, mongoose, hares, monitor lizards, jackals,” says Dattatri. “Irulas are incredible at finding wildlife. They know which season to go where, and which ponds to go to in order to find fresh water turtles.” Dattatri photographed them all.

In the early eighties, American filmmakers, John and Louise Riber came to Chennai to do a film on snake bite. Since Whitaker was in and out of the country, he deputed young Dattatri to stand in for him. For close to two years, he followed the Ribers around, watching, listening and asking questions about framing shots, and developing content for wildlife films. This experience caused him to jettison his dreams for a PhD in wildlife biology and turn instead to photography and filmmaking. Whitaker, Dattatri and a couple of others formed a film making company called Eco Media.

An early assignment was for Sanctuary Asia with editor Bittu Sahgal as the producer. Sahgal sent a professional Bollywood cameraman to film at the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala. Problems began almost immediately. The cameraman had no interest in filming otters and elephants. He wanted action and starlets. When the Bollywood cameraman upped and left the tiger reserve (leaving his equipment and assistant behind thankfully), Dattatri, knowledgeable about wildlife took over the filming. “Shekar is extraordinary because he is an entirely self-taught naturalist, social scientist and film maker,” says Karanth. “In his ability to communicate complex conservation stories effectively and aesthetically, he has few peers globally.”

Soon National Geographic and Discovery came calling. Dattatri made films for them for a decade. Alongside he did freelance camera work for Animal Planet, BBC and others. One about Nagarhole shows not just the elephants, tigers and frogs that inhabit the reserve but also ends with an unabashed plea for conservation: “For what is at stake here is not just the preservation of a legacy but the safeguarding of India’s very identity as the land of the tiger and the elephant.”

By the year 2000, Dattatri was well established as a wildlife filmmaker. “Work was always looking for me but I felt hollow inside,” he said. “I was at the top of my game, earning money, winning awards and yet, I was feeling depressed because I was making these beautiful films ignoring the problems all around them—the problems of conservation.”

How does your work benefit the community?

He decided gradually to become a “barefoot filmmaker.” He consciously turned his back on television, refusing new projects and bought a smaller ‘prosumer’ camera to make the kind of films he wanted. It was in this phase that he made some of his most compelling films. SOS: Save Our Sholas, for instance, offers a poetic yet realistic glimpse into the amazing Western Ghats. Narrated by Valmik Thapar, the film is both an introduction to these shola forests and a call to action—a theme that will suffuse all of Dattatri’s later work. It was at this time that he met some friends in Bengaluru who were campaigning to close down mining operations in Kudremukh, an important biodiversity hotspot. Wildlife First, an advocacy group co-founded by Bengaluru-based Praveen Bhargav had been campaigning since 1996 to stop iron ore mining at Kudremukh. The group filed a public interest litigation and lobbied local politicians. Dattatri suggested a documentary film that encapsulated all the issues. The result was a 11-minute film called Mindless Mining: the tragedy of Kudremukh, narrated in English and Kannada. “I don’t think anyone in the advocacy groups initially realized its use or impact. They looked at it and said, ‘This is nice and maybe we will get something out of it,’” says Dattatri.

Wildlife First showed the film widely: to MLAs and at farmers’ meetings. The film, available on the Conservation India portal is a snapshot of the problem and the solution. “Shekar is one filmmaker who has sacrificed his otherwise lucrative career in making nice films for National Geographic and other channels and instead, put a huge amount of his time to help change decisions in the highest level,” says Bhargav. “His film holds the unique record of being filed in the Supreme Court as an annexure to support the petition which ultimately led to a landmark judgment which was to close down an iron ore mining in the heart of Kudremukh National Park.”

On December 31, 2005, the Supreme Court’s judgment stopped mining in Kudremukh. “It was hugely motivating for me because it showed that I could make these other kinds of films,” says Dattatri.