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Welcome to the jungle: Richie Mehta on ‘Poacher’

Richie Mehta on his new series and the challenges of following up ‘Delhi Crime’ with a different sort of procedural

Nimisha Sajayan in 'Poacher'
Nimisha Sajayan in 'Poacher'

When writer and director Richie Mehta opted not to helm the second season of his hit 2019 Netflix show Delhi Crime, there was curiosity about what he would take up next. It later emerged that Mehta, who is based in Canada, had been working on another fiction series based on true events. In Poacher, he trains his lens on the issue of elephant poaching. 

The eight-episode series looks at an elephant poaching ring in Kerala and the larger illegal ivory trade. The crime drama, streaming on Amazon Prime Video from 23 February, features an accomplished ensemble cast, including Nimisha Sajayan (The Great Indian Kitchen), Roshan Mathew (Moothon) and Dibyendu Bhattacharya (Rocket Boys). Mehta spoke to Mint about how he chanced upon this story that led to the series, and how he went about realising this very specific world.

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How did you identify the story that resulted in ‘Poacher’?

I was directing the documentary India in a Day (backed by Google) in 2015. In that film, people all over India were meant to shoot footage of their own lives on their phones on one particular day—10 October 2015—upload it to me, and I would assemble it into a feature-length documentary that profiles a day in the life of the country.

One of the pieces of footage I received was of an ivory raid in Delhi. I called the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), the NGO that submitted it. They told me that the Kerala Forest Department (supported by other groups, including WTI) executed the largest ivory bust in Indian history in Delhi, on that day, after a year-long investigation into the biggest wildlife smuggling ring in the country. They figured they would send me this footage since it was my shoot day.

I was flabbergasted. I always loved elephants, and cared deeply for wildlife conservation, but passively, from afar. I knew that Google would never let me show this, as it was a crime scene. I told the person at WTI that I couldn’t use this footage for this documentary, but if she gave me a few years, I would come back and try to understand the entire case, the issues it addresses, and do a full piece on it. Poacher is the result.

What kind of research and support did it require to write the script for the series?

Two years of meetings with the individuals involved in this massive case, on both sides of the law, and taking months each time to disseminate the results of those meetings.

I began to research this after Delhi Crime. As I did, I realized that this wasn’t just about saving elephants from assassination, but it addressed dozens of issues ranging from our relationship to all other life on Earth to indigenous peoples and how they are integrated (or segregated) in society to what the laws of the jungle truly are (both the natural and asphalt one), and how they are ingrained in us.

I realised that this story concerns everything that I hold dear. The fallout of poaching is enormous—species extinction and collapse of ecosystems that support millions of other species, including humans. Ultimately, it will cut down the lifespan of everything. The stakes could not be higher.

Was there pressure to follow up ‘Delhi Crime’, given its success at the time?

There was immense external pressure to continue onto season two of Delhi Crime, but I did not want to depict crime for crime’s sake (especially one that had little resemblance to reality). Landing on the idea for Poacher was entirely organic and came through my encounter with wildlife crime fighters, who I believe are among the most noble people I have ever met.

Did you encounter resistance from the local authorities and forest guards while researching and shooting the show?

I encountered only assistance. They were very happy to open up about the work they do in wildlife crime-fighting, about the challenges they face, the triumphs, sacrifices and their motivations.

What were the challenges of shooting a show about wildlife, especially in terms of animal representation and use of visual effects?

This answer would take hours to discuss. But all of the decisions we made stemmed from striking a balance between how best to get the message across to viewers while shooting the series in an ethical manner. That meant being in real locations with minimal footprint and also using extensive VFX to showcase a crucial story-thread—that of the perspective of the animal kingdom, especially the elephants.

‘Delhi Crime’ started many conversations. What do you feel will be the impact of a show like ‘Poacher’?

I hope viewers are not only entertained by the ride—it’s a propulsive and intense manhunt thriller—but that they also learn, just as I did when I was making it, that there are people in India (and indeed, all over the world) who have devoted their lives to wildlife crime fighting. These people are willing to sacrifice anything, including themselves, to avert species extinction (including our own).

My team and I have also made extensive use of the X-ray feature on Amazon Prime, whereby there is embedded trivia on every animal that appears on the screen through the series. We hope that this is an all-round experience, an entertaining watch that can be an eye-opener, educational and much more.

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