The Wire: The Jungle in Our Living Rooms

The Wire

The Jungle in Our Living Rooms

Late last year, a video of a polar bear starving in the Canadian tundra left millions of viewers devastated. Whether it was a gritty reminder of the reality of climate disruption or – as others have written – a sign of disease, it was certainly proof of how images can stir us much more than lifeless data. But the viral video was also unusual. It is more common for nature videos to lift our spirits with magnificent sights than to try and shake us out of our complacency about the state of the environment.

Nature documentaries have been bringing the wild into our living rooms since the 1960s. They take us to remote regions of the planet, and imprint in our minds an idea of the state of the natural world. At a time of environmental crisis, they continue to show images of unspoilt natural splendour. It can be said that this will make urban men and women love and want to protect it and sensitise them to environmental degradation. Yet it may be that the jungle in our living rooms only gives us a false impression of nature as an abundant resource, and deepens our environmental ignorance.

We have come a long way from Disney’s 1958 Wild Wilderness documentary, where filmmakers drove scores of lemmings off a cliff to prove the legend that they committed mass suicide (and the film won an Oscar). The huge success of the big budget blue chip format started with Disney’s True Life Adventure films (1948-1960). It led the BBC Natural History Unit, which incorporated a scrupulous scientific approach, to bring us marvellous and inspiring visions of the natural world. It gave us a peek into the lives in the wild and into the dizzying diversity of nature. The darker issue of environmental degradation, however, stayed on the fringe.

Chris Palmer has produced more than 300 hours of nature programming. In 2011, he published a book, Shooting in the Wild, that described how commonly wildlife films use fakery – using animals from game farms, inserting fraudulent sound, shooting small animals and birds on sets, using computer graphics and more. “And if you see a bear feeding on a deer carcass in a film,” Palmer writes, “it is almost certainly a tame bear searching for hidden jellybeans in the entrails of the deer’s stomach.” Many films use ‘wildlife casting agencies’, like the company Animals of Montana, whose website lists National Geographic, IMAX, Animal Planet and the BBC Natural History Unit among its clients.

Even BBC, with its high standards of filmmaking, has been accused of routinely faking footage and using studio sets and sound effects to portray animals in the wild. In 2011, the media in Britain was scandalised to learn about scenes faked for David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet. A polar bear, shown as giving birth in the wild, was actually a bear in fake snow inside a Dutch zoo. The Mirror fumed over how Attenborough defended the footage by comparing documentaries to movies: “The dodgy footage was the most touching scene in Episode Five of Frozen Planet.”

Way back in 1997, the award-winning filmmaker Steven Mills lamented that “the loss of wilderness is a truth so sad, so overwhelming that, to reflect reality, it would need to be the subject of every wildlife film. That, of course, would be neither entertaining nor ultimately dramatic. So it seems that as filmmakers we are doomed either to fail our audience or fail our cause.”

There is no doubt that most wildlife and nature documentary makers feel passionately for nature. For those of us who have been in forests know how difficult it is to see an animal, let aside see it in action. And then not just the patience but the budgets start running out, too. “If someone wants to make a film on breeding birds of Keoladeo National Park, two to three months will be sufficient,” says Asad Rahmani, a former director of the Bombay Natural History Society. “But if you are making a film on a rare species or a species that does not show up quickly or is very shy, it will take years.” Shooting wildlife documentaries is a lot of hard work and genuine wildlife action shots are hard earned.

Nature – most abundant on TV

This contradiction between what was on screen and what was in reality didn’t get much attention until the turn of the new century. The change in approach came about when the media as a whole began to acknowledge and address the environmental crisis. Attenborough’s The State of the Planet marked a new awareness on the BBC. In place of blue-chip, green-chip programming made its presence felt with films like The Truth About Climate Change (2006), Saving Planet Earth (2007) and Last Chance to See (2009).

Discovery, which had partnered with BBC to produce Frozen Planet, is said to have objected to Attenborough’s warnings about the dangers of climate change, since a large part of the US population is in denial about climate change. (It had also objected to his reference to contraception in The Life of Mammals (2002), as it did not want to not ruffle conservative audiences in the US). The BBC and Sir David eventually prevailed. Attenborough, unshackled by the will of producers, expressed his thoughts on Radio Times in 2013: “We are a plague on the earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde.”

On nature channels we still watch with awe the endless, untouched expanse of the rainforests; expensive footage of a parallel universe of unspoilt and profuse ecosystems, with wild animals aplenty, roaming free and undisturbed. It is a false image. It doesn’t show us the inconvenient pictures of the deteriorating environment. Today, where nature is most abundant is television.

Flatter and destroy

In reality, we are facing the sixth age of extinction on this planet – the last one was the dinosaurs – and the single largest cause is human activity. Nature programming feeds a utopian delusion that pristine nature still exists in abundance – and contributes to our apathy. Huge budgets and clever editing hide the inconvenient picture of threatened wild species and degraded ecosystems. They make it easier for governments and businesses to paint environmental activism as misplaced and anti-development.

An honest representation of the issues and the condition of ecosystems does not mean films can’t offer inspiration and give hope as well. Mike Pandey’s new documentary, Gyamo: Queen of the Mountains, confronts viewers with the destruction of the habitat of one of the most endangered cats, the snow leopard. It is an excellent example of how spectacular footage from the Himalayas can be balanced with unsettling images of heaps of plastic debris left by tourists in one of Earth’s most pristine biomes.


Yet television and broadcasting technology largely continues to be an aide to masking the unprecedented scale of environmental destruction of the last half-century. It has done that by cinematically evading a reality of nature headed into ruin. We experience the ‘virtual’ wild in our living rooms, surrounded by rapid urbanisation and unrestricted consumption – our real links with the wild forgotten.

Adityavikram is an entrepreneur, nature lover and photographer currently based in Sri Lanka. Arefa Tehsin is a columnist and author of fiction and non-fiction books on wildlife. She is the ex-hon. wildlife warden of Udaipur.


Outlook Money: Singapore & Beyond



Singapore and Beyond

The perfect post-summer retreat for the travelling soullarge_Ub1lQ2017_10_12_10_19_35

By Arefa Tehsin

Snaps by: Adityavikram More 

Oh yes, most things are high about Singapore. Its glittering high rises, hi-tech amusement parks, high-end shopping streets, the 541-feet high Singapore Flyer, the dizzyingly high Marina Bay Hotel’s swimming pool and the highest indoor waterfall in the world at Gardens by the Bay. Highly artificial though it might be, Singapore still has character, unlike the green desert of Dubai. Night Safari, River Safari, Clark Quay, Little India and not so little malls, the round-the-clock open Mustafa choking on electronics and the Sentosa Island with its nightly star attraction—a surreal light, sound and water show on the sea. There is something to do for every age group, the island country attracts tourists in drones.

Having been there and having done all that a couple of times, the Lion City does not dazzle me anymore. But this time the highlight of the trip was a cruise from Singapore to Penang Island and back. Before that, however, Universal Studios beckoned. If you have a family group 29-people-strong and you do all the rides together, Universal can be universally fun. From being a part of the Transformers’ mission to save the world to being inside a boathouse in a stormy New York City to being tossed like a tropical salad in a roller coaster, the theme park has the makings to give you either a hell of a good time or a panic attack.

Colourful Cycle Rickshaws in Georgetown

After the usual sightseeing (posing before the Universal Globe, the Merlion, the Marina Bay Hotel etc. posted by 50 other Facebook friends), we boarded the giant Ovation of the Seas, a cruise liner of the Royal Caribbean that falls in the Quantum Class—the second largest class of passenger ships. So what do you feel like today? Wind surfing? Pixels show with robotic screens? Rock climbing? A country pub? Live music? Gambling in a casino? Robots making you a cocktail? Japanese food? Mediterranean? A Las Vegas style show? Bumper cars? Jacuzzi? Football? Viewing the ship 300ft up in a capsule? Basketball? A massage in the spa? Nah… none of these. What if you just feel like flying in air? No big deal, you can do that too. And though you’re made to dress up for dinner daily, don’t expect a Titanic style grand ball.

However, one needs to book some activities months in advance. Else, you can miss out on much, especially if its a short 4-night cruise. The customer complaints redressal person would flash a dazzling smile and tell you they can’t do anything about you not being able to do any of the activities for which you took the cruise in the first place. So you have to pretty much be content with shopping, swimming and getting dressed in your fineries for dinner.

The best part of the cruise for me was when I stepped out of it. The ship docked in George Town, the capital of the exotic Penang Island and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You need more than a day to explore this heady cocktail of a city, an eclectic mix of the time-worn old world charm and the outlandish new. Imagine a city punctuated with crumbling yet colourful Chinese shop houses, pedalling trishaws, mouth watering hawker stalls, unexpected museums (like the Upside Down one), Buddhist temples and Chinese mansions. Above all, George Town epitomises street art. The 3D artworks decorate the streets with their quirky humour and offbeat imagination. You can push the cycle with the two happy kids on it or crouch behind a boy crouching on an old motorbike. Or you can just stand and admire the art, without making a motley fool of yourself.

Dragon Art at Gardens by The Bay

Not to be missed in George Town is the Blue Mansion. Built by the iconic Cheong Fatt Tze at the end of the 19th century, the mansion rose from its ashes in the 1990s when a couple of Penang conservationists purchased it from Tze’s descendants. Now a heritage hotel, the lavish mansion stands proud on its indigo blue walls flaunting its granite floored courtyards, louvred windows, art nouveau stained glass and Feng Shui design. You can take a guided tour of the place. We were lucky to get the tour from the owner of the Blue Mansion herself. We saw the grandeur, got insights into the Chinese architecture and history and even saw some possessions of the family, including those of the most favourite seventh wife, while some men in the group sighed about the good old days.

And then we were back to the Kingdom of Singhapura, with its skyscrapers and friendly taxi drivers. Oh yes, you need to visit Hong Kong to see that most of the cabbies and others don’t want to flex their face muscles to smile. The last stop was pure delight for me – the Singapore Zoo! The real, after the artificial. Twenty-six hectares of a lush forest where white tigers roar, lemurs check you out, iguanas give you a withering look and orangutangs have their breakfast nonchalantly as you sit goggling at them.

Street Art in Georgetown

On the way back to the airport our tour guide gushed about Singapore being so “green.” Yes it is, green. But where were the other colours…of birds? It is uncanny that in a city with so many trees, there are hardly any birds. The guide said, “Oh, they are resting on the treetops.” What she didn’t tell was the Singapore government’s policy to shoot pest birds, who dirty their city, in thousands – common mynas, crows, feral pigeons, white-vented myna, purple backed starlings and Philippine glossy starling. The official culling program started in 1973 and today the Singapore’s National Environment Agency employs a security agency as well as volunteers from Singapore Gun Club to shoot the birds. To quote an article in New York Times (Nov 8, 2006), “Crows are everything that Singapore is not — raucous, indisciplined…and disorderly — and they are not welcome here.” That sounds more like tourists from our part of the world. If only the birds could sing their way into the island with Singapore Dollars too.

The Indian Express: Love Will Keep Us Alive


Love Will Keep Us Alive

Written by Arefa Tehsin | New Delhi |
Now, more than ever, we need love jihad. For, isn’t that how societies and the world change, one heart at a time?


Where even inter-caste marriage becomes an issue, how open are we about inter-religious marriages? (Source: Thinkstock images)


Disclaimer: This is a true story of love jihad, based on real characters in real circumstances. The names of the characters haven’t been changed (it’s a different thing that I haven’t named any of them).

Oh yeah, it is a filmi romance — a girl from the sleepy, lake town of Udaipur; a boy, two years her senior in college, from badass Bombay (uh-huh, Mum…baai). A college picnic in the remote, forested tribal lands of Jadhol. A few students from the picnic group go on a trek. The girl and the boy get lost in the jungle. Alone. Period. Need we say any more?

The girl is from a Bohra joint family, which has a history of love marriages from the early 1960s. Hindu-Muslim, Shia-Sunni, you name it. The reason: the grandparents — the matriarch and patriarch of the family — were both much ahead of their times. But the girl’s mother is a conservative Bohra, wanting to marry her daughter into a pious, godfearing family. What? A son-in-law without a beard? The clean-shaven, agnostic husband has been more than enough on her nerves all these years, thank you very much.

The boy, a rebel from a joint business family, an Agarwal — pure descendants of Agrasena himself, that too. Love marriage? Love happens after marriage, anyway. Inter-caste marriage? Unheard of. Inter-religious marriage? Heart-stopping. “Chhoro naak katavega!”

The boy and girl break the news to respective next of kin, or rather the news breaks itself. Ishq aur khansi chhupaane se nahi chhipti (love and cough can’t be kept secret), the girl’s mom’s prophetic words come true.

Both the sides are appalled, but they still have faith in providence. Surely, this is jawaani ka josh, which will soon die down. When it doesn’t, hell starts to break loose. A small word of caution travels from the boy’s family to the girl’s, through a common acquaintance. The boy hears about it and travels from Mumbai to Udaipur to apologise and have a word with the girl’s dad, a well-known and mild-mannered naturalist. They meet on the banks of the famous Fatehsagar Lake; both the wanting-to-be groom and the not-wanting-to-be father-in-law arriving on their scooters.

Boy: I really love your daughter.
Father: Boy, what’s the sense of it all? Your family is opposed to it, my wife is opposed to it. How will you make it work?
Boy: We will. You see…
Father: Hang on a second! Do you see that turtle there? Do you know about the hardness of its shell? (Father goes on to explain the scientific reason). But, my boy, what will happen when you have children? When they go to your place, they’ll teach them namaste, when they come to our place, we’ll teach them salaam.
Boy: Oh, it’ll all work out since we love each other.
Father: Wait a minute! Do you see that bird on the tree trunk? Do you know why it makes its nest there at that particular angle? (Another explanation follows). You know what, why don’t you both just run away and get married? I can’t convince her mother. You have my blessings.

The father is not spared the trouble as the couple doesn’t elope. However, the girl and boy realise that trying to wait for the families to agree one fine day is like waiting for a flight on a bus stand. The girl, with the secret help of her hassled father, calls her mama from Mumbai to convince his fiery sister. The boy, pursuing his MBA, conveys to his father that it’s either this marriage or lifelong celibacy. The father grudgingly agrees. And so does the girl’s mommy after a night-long convincing about fate and faith by her elder brother.

The boy, with the girl’s father, approaches the district court in Udaipur to file for their court marriage. The lawyer looks at them as if they have let loose venomous snakes on him. “Boss, why do you want to incite communal riots in our peaceful city?” It takes him a day to locate and pull out the dusty form for an inter-religious court marriage.

The boy, seeing the supreme reluctance of the lawyer, approaches the Mumbai courts. Without even looking up, the babu at the registrar, says, “Which date do you want? The 14th of February is completely booked.”

The small-town girl and the guy from the metro get married in the Mumbai court, and squeeze their way out after signing the paper, as the registrar calls, “Next!” When they emerge from the crowded court, they see the two Mummyjis hugging each other and crying, and not out of joy.

People forget that there is always a reception before the “happily ever after.” In the evening, with just the two families and a handful of friends, the wedding reception is held at a resort. While the couple flashes 200 watt smiles, the rest look like fused bulbs.

Yes, it has been a filmi journey for us, minus the slow motion shots and background music. After more than a decade of being married, the families have accepted us wholeheartedly, opening their hearts and their minds. They have changed for us, and that speaks volumes. But isn’t that how societies and the world change, one heart at a time? And what our society needs more than ever today is love jihad. Let’s tickle the tender sentiments of the anti-Romeo (and anti-Juliet?) brigade and mix it all together so that they are completely confused about who to place before the firing squad. For, I believe, we do not have to save love. Love will save us.

Arefa Tehsin is an author and environmentalist.