When Naresh Bedi was growing up in the Himalayan foothills of India, he regularly saw wild elephants and tigers. So, while his classmates in film school were hoping to become Bollywood directors, he set his sights on producing wildlife films.
Thirty years later, he and his brother Rajesh have had a good run. In the 1980s, backed by the U.K.’s Channel 4, they produced such award-winning films as: Saving the Tiger; Elephant: Lord of the Jungle and Sadhus: India’s Holy Men. But when C4 cut back its wildlife programming around ’94, the Bedi brothers lost their main outlet. Now, as the market for NH docs is rapidly changing, the Bedi brothers, and other Indian filmmakers, are scrambling to find a foothold.
Meanwhile, international broadcasters have begun to eye the Indian market. Until ten years ago, most Indians could only receive one channel, the state-owned Doordarshan. Now cable and satellite have opened the floodgates for multiple 24-hour networks, including Discovery Asia and National Geographic Asia.
But, says Naresh Bedi, ‘if [broadcasters] want the Indian market, they have to make more on Indian subjects.’ Attempting to address that need, his New Delhi-based company is currently producing a 12 x 30-minute series titled Call of the Jungle. Co-funded by Star TV and the WWF, each episode costs under US$100,000. The series, narrated in Hindi, follows the brothers and their teenage children as they track animals. Bedi Films hopes to debut the early episodes at the Wildscreen Festival in October.
‘Residing in India is like living in the backwaters of this industry,’ says filmmaker Ashish Chandola from Chennai. His past shows, such as The Tigers Next Door and Great Indian Rhino, were initiated with his own funds, then picked up by Norwich, U.K.-based prodco Survival Anglia. ‘Very recently, I was offered less than US$2,000 for a half-hour show from a local Indian TV channel – not surprising when wildlife docs find themselves competing with game shows and Bollywood music countdowns.’
Indian filmmakers hope the increasing presence of international networks will create new opportunities. This past year, National Geographic opened an office in New Delhi, helping to expand its viewership to eight million people, says the channel’s Asia programmer Marcia Goh. The channel broadcasts seven hours a day in Hindi, the rest in English and has just finished a 6 x 30-minute series called India Diaries about Indian sub-cultures, produced by Flat Dog in the U.K. Now Goh is seeking programs on Indian science and technology. She hopes to find Indian producers for the shows and her channel already has relationships with several.
Draco Films, based near Chennai, produced King Cobra for the network in 1996. It is currently working on a one-hour doc about mugger crocodiles in Sri Lanka. Producer Skekar Dattari, also from Chennai, produced The Good Snake for National Geographic.
Finding money isn’t the only trouble for Indian filmmakers. As Naresh Bedi explains, the wildlife itself is changing as much as the TV market. ‘When I first started making films about tigers 30 years ago, you could get killed. Now tigers have lived so long on reserves – they’ve lost their natural instincts . . . When I started making films about tigers, it was very difficult – you had this fear. It’s a thrill that is no longer there.’