City-based wildlife conservation filmmaker Shekar Dattatri on his latest documentary Chilika — Jewel Of Odisha

The crabs are in a hurry to feed; the flamingos are not; the cormorants dip their bills into the water for fish, a gull follows suit, hoping for an easy catch: the inhabitants and visitors of Chilika Lake in Odisha have nothing to complain about. There’s plenty to eat and lots of room to lounge about during the winter. Chilika’s is a story that needs to be told. This 1165-sq.km brackish water lagoon was once lifeless. Today, it brims with life, thanks to the efforts of the Chilika Development Authority (CDA). This lake, the ecosystem and livelihood it supports, form the core of wildlife conservation filmmaker Shekar Dattatri’s recent documentary Chilika — Jewel Of Odisha. Commissioned by the CDA, the film took 18 months to be made. Aimed at “decision makers, local people, conservation NGOs, and all those who are interested in wetlands”, it takes the viewer on a journey into the lagoon that is connected to the Bay of Bengal.

The lake’s sea inlets were choked with silt in the 1970s to the 1990s — as a result, its waters turned from brackish to fresh and weeds took over the surface. But in September 2000, it was restored; the documentary explains how, with scientific efforts “a new mouth was dredged open between the lake and the Bay of Bengal” letting in sea water, its “lifeblood”. And before their eyes, Chilika flourished.

Dattatri narrates this story of transformation. The Chennai-based filmmaker has effectively captured the sights and sounds of the lake that’s a haven for a variety of migrant and resident birds. Chilika didn’t exactly strike a chord with Dattatri when he first saw it two decades ago. “At that time, from the little that I was able to see, the lake seemed pretty lifeless and dull,” he writes in an email interview.

Chilika supports the livelihood of some 2,00,000 people through the fish that thrive in its waters. But there is a lot of “passive fishing” happening that affects its birdlife. Dattatri shows how a white-bellied sea eagle — a “master hunter”, swoops low to feed, only to find the fish entangled in a net. A tragic case of “so near, yet so far”.

An intense experience

The more time he spent with the lake, Dattatri got to see the magic it was. The filming, he explains, “was quite intense”. He and his team were at the lake with the subjects from dawn to dusk. Each of them required different filming techniques. “In some cases, I sat in a hide to get close up shots of birds. At other times, such as while filming crabs, I sat in the open, but very, very still, until they accepted me as part of the landscape and came close enough to be filmed.”

The team also managed to shoot the highly endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. The mammals proved to be the most challenging subjects, says Dattatri. “A dorsal fin or a tail fluke is all that you see most of the time, and it’s impossible to know where they will surface. So, while you are watching one patch of water with your camera ready, they will surface 10 mt to the left or right. By the time I located them and tried to focus, they would submerge!” he says.

The film has some fascinating snapshots of the “watery wonderland”. Thousands of black-tailed godwits take off in unison when roused by a marsh harrier — the scene stuns with the use of violin in the background.

The Chilika experience taught Dattatri a lot. For one, “it reinforced the fact that even though an ecosystem might seem empty or lifeless, many wonderful things are revealed when you spend time studying it closely”.

(Dattatri’s Chilika — Jewel Of Odisha and Managing Chilika, a 15-minute documentary on the lagoon’s restoration, can be viewed at www.conservationindia.org)