One half of the Bedi twins, Ajay Bedi, discusses the trials and tribulations that they faced while filming The Secret Life of Frogs with Saimi Sattar.The wildlife documentary maker and photographer also discusses why the amphibians are important to the survival of the human species
Mowgli. That is what our school friends called us. During our holidays while they went to hill stations, we were busy visiting National Parks and wildlife sanctuaries where we spent time observing elephants and tigers,” recalls Ajay Bedi, one half of the twins along with Vijay who together happen to be third generation of wildlife photographers in the country. Their father, Naresh Bedi, was the first Indian filmmaker to win the Green Oscars award (1984) and their grandfather Dr Ramesh Bedi famously photographed a python swallowing a jackal in 1937, setting the family on course of the profession that the coming generations would follow.
But the twins do not rest on the laurels of the family but rather wear the mantle lightly or rather just accept it as a legacy. Their latest documentary, the internationally acclaimed, The Secret Life of Frogs, which took three years to shoot would soon be aired on the Animal Planet channel on May 1. The film has won prestigious awards like 2018 Cannes Corporate TV and Media Awards and five awards at 27th Edition of The Calcutta International Cult Film Festival, 2019. The film has also made its way to the nominations at International Nature Film Festival Gödöll Hungary and 9th Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival, 2019.
However, it is not the first time that Ajay and Vijay have been awarded for their work. Way back in 2005, their film Policing Langur won the Green Oscar, UK, 2004 making the duo who were 25, the youngest Indians to win it. The documentary also won the second award for Best Wildlife Documentary at Vatavarn Film Festival, 2005. Another film Cherub of the Mist on the red panda has won 21 awards.
“When we were doing the red panda series, people wondered if we were filming it in China. They were not aware that this small, endangered animal is an Indian species!,” says Ajay and goes on to add about their compulsion to document different animals, “As wildlife filmmakers we want to show each animal as a beautiful creature which can contribute to our ecosystem and make the viewers interested. Once they are interested, they start talking about the different species and then the whole process of a focus on them starts. When films like these are broadcast on TV channels, our message goes to millions of people of different age groups.”
And The Secret Life of Frogs too is a quest for the same. Naturally while one has been used to films on animals like tigers or elephants or even blue whales, the amphibians are unlikely to cross anyone’s mind as candidates for a full-fledged documentary. “During our research for another film we came across a purple frog about which nothing is known as it is a newly discovered species. When we researched further, we found that it is more difficult to film frogs because they come out only for a few days during a particular time in monsoon. It was something challenging while at the same time giving us an opportunity to show something new to both viewers as well as the scientific world. It was very exciting,” he says.
To really understand what it meant to shoot these tiny creatures, one also needs to understand that while for bigger animals the filming can be done standing or sitting or at least at eye level, in case of frogs, it had to be done lying down. “When you talk about frogs, the first thing that comes to your mind is monsoon. You had to be in water and practically drenched all the time. Even though we were wearing proper gear, our boots filled up with water. Every day we went back after the shoot to start the process of drying ourself from head to toe,” says Ajay.
It was not just the physical difficulties that proved to be a hindrance which made the shooting extend to over three years in the Western Ghats. “I would say it was all the factors combined together that made it take so long. We needed a lot of time to understand how the purple frogs behave when they come out. In the first year, as we did not know much about them, we were a little late to see the breeding or the courtship behaviour,” he says and adds, “In the second year there was a drought and at that time we were wondering whether we should go ahead with this project or not because if we don’t see frogs how will we make the film?”
So what was it that the Bedi twins, as documentary makers, look for during the filming. “We did not need a frog sitting or staring. We needed behaviour just the way it is needed with tigers or elephants. But with frogs, it becomes more difficult as they are small and with one jump they can vanish,” he says and adds, “Your eyes have to be like a binocular, wide open all the time because you are focussing on such a small creature and at the same time have to observe what they are up to.” He elaborates by giving the example of a torrent frog which urinates before jumping. “The scientific reason is that they distract their opponent especially when they are approaching the female. It is also a way to mark their territories. These frogs are known as dancing frogs, so we filmed them in slow speed where you could see them lifting their feet, toes and hands. So they extend one hand and then the other which comes out beautifully. They actually appear to be dancing,” he says.
However, there were other things that they learnt along the way. “We have filmed them up close and looked at them right in their eyes. They have beautifully patterned ones. We also recorded their calls and scientists are studying what impacts those. Overall this film showcases the frogs in a very beautiful, funny and at the same time a scientific way which will definitely create an awareness and a different image of these amphibians,” he says.
Another thing that they observed while filming the rare purple frog, which has inhabited the earth since the time of the dinosaurs, is that they have big bodies with short hands and look like water balloons. “The males are smaller and females are bigger and the former tries to impress the female The whole process is quite impressive. Finally, when he manages, he rides the female on back and lays eggs,” he says.
Moreover, the number of females is lesser as compared to males so naturally the breeding is limited. “Additionally, for the breeding to take place the environment has to be precise. If there is too much or too little rain, they don’t breed.” Naturally it means that climate change will have drastic implications for the species. Ajay puts it into perspective, “The frog population has declined at an alarming rate worldwide. Up to 200 species have disappeared completely since 1980 which is not normal. The environment, pollution, infection, habitat loss climate change and even harvesting of food is affecting them. Very similar to humans, frogs too are developing deformities like mutation or growing an extra limb, missing eyes or deformed feet which make an important point that frogs are an indicator species that live both on land and water. They are the first ones to get affected and scientists say that what affects them also harms us,” he says and adds, “In certain areas the purple frogs have been impacted by dam construction as there is a narrowing of streams.”
The continuation and existence of frogs is important as they clean up water bodies as do tadpoles. “If we can protect the frogs and the ecology around them, then we are protecting ourselves, our resource and — humans. Just like by saving tigers or any other animals in the national park, we are protecting that forest and ecosystem around it. It is the circle of life,” he says.
But shifting the focus from the subject of the film to its makers, the fact that the Bedis are twins — one assumes — would facilitate the process of filming. Ajay concurs, “We are blessed to be brothers and on top of that we are twins so we do share a bonding and an understanding. If Vijay is filming and an object has to be moved away or he has to take a different position, I know it automatically,” says Ajay who is more inclined towards post production while his twin is the first hand at camera. “When we sit down together we decide the shots that we can take. In this film, there is a sequence where the torrent frogs tap their feet. We edited in a way that it looks like a tap dance. So we have incorporated a scientific behaviour and viewers can relate to it. Ultimately wildlife films are for a global audience and we have to keep that in mind. The film also reflects their funny and different side,” he says as he chuckles and signs off making us to look forward to the airing of the documentary.
Writer: Saimi Sattar
Courtesy: The Pioneer