Photograph by Hk Rajashekar, The India Today Group, Getty Images
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Wildlife filmmaker Shekar Dattatri edits video for an upcoming documentary.

Photograph by Hk Rajashekar, The India Today Group, Getty Images

Bypassing Bollywood, a Filmmaker Focuses on Wildlife Conservation

Indian documentarian Shekar Dattatri eschews commercial projects, creating films that make a difference.

Most filmmakers want their work seen by the widest audiences possible. Shekar Dattatri is more interested in reaching influencers who can catalyze wildlife conservation in his native India.

“The films I made for broadcast television were seen by millions of people, and that definitely was an ego boost, but I’ve turned to smaller audiences, influencers, and decision-makers such as government officials and influential leaders who can make a difference and can help raise awareness,’’ says Dattatri, a Rolex Laureate who eschewed mainstream efforts with commercial potential early in his career.

To Dattatri, films aimed at 50 people with political, social, and financial influence have far more potential impact than mass-appeal projects seen by 50 million passive viewers.

“Most people watch television to be entertained,’’ Dattatri says. “Depress them too much about nature’s problems and they’ll change the channel.”

His 2010 documentary, The Truth About Tigers, provided an unflinching look at the endangered Bengal tiger and its sharp decline in the wild, raising awareness about failing conservation efforts. He’s followed that up with several independent films, including Changing Hearts and Minds Through Moving Images and 25 Years With Tigers. He’s also tailored short documentaries for the Wildlife Conservation Society India program (Making Room for Nature by Helping People) and for Indian environmental group PondyCAN (India’s Disappearing Beaches: A Wake-Up Call).

Dattatri became interested in wildlife conservation at age 10, reading books by British naturalist Gerald Durrell. As a teen, he volunteered at a local snake park. When American filmmakers came to work on a film about snakebites, he helped out, learning rudimentary camera work and editing skills.

“They knew nothing about snakes, and I knew nothing about film, so we learned from each other,’’ he says.

Dattatri began making his own small films, gaining exposure and industry contacts. But eventually, he sidestepped Bollywood’s commercialism to focus on raising environmental awareness. He’s since scripted, filmed, and produced more than 20 wildlife documentaries, many self-financed.

Mindless Mining: The Tragedy of Kudremukh played a pivotal role in the closure of a government-run iron-ore mine operating in the rain forest of south India’s Western Ghats mountain range, and The Ridley’s Last Stand led to enhanced government scrutiny of the commercial fishing operations that kill scores of olive ridley turtles off east India’s coastal waters.

Dattatri has also written conservation books aimed at children, including The Riddle of the Ridley, Lai Lai the Baby Elephant, and Ira the Little Dolphin.

While he’s unsure of his next film project, he’s leaning toward targeting kids.

“I’d like to explain why we need nature more than it needs us,’’ he says. “When they’re young, they are idealistic and want to make a difference. Perhaps that’s when you can convert them. The books that I read when I was a kid—that worked for me.”

National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnership with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.