Warren Pereira still remembers the exact moment when he first locked eyes with Ustad, the subject of his award-winning tiger documentary, Tiger 24.
“I saw him in May 2012. He was sitting in a water body…was handsome, powerful and had a cool beard,” recalls Pereira. Though he had no idea who he was, something about the magnificent animal propelled Pereira towards it. When he put his camera outside of the jeep, Ustad looked right into his lens....,“as if he was boring a hole into it.” Most tigers have intense eyes, but Ustad’s were “on another level and I was very affected by them and felt a connection,” says the independent filmmaker, who shuttles between Los Angeles and Mumbai. Pereira is also the founder of The Tiger Fund LLC, which specialises in documentary film productions related to the conservation, exploration and celebration of wild tigers.
Ironically enough, Pereira’s grandfather used to shoot tigers when it was legal to do so; before it was officially banned under The Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. “I thought it was a great thing because I didn’t know any better,” says the 47-year-old, who grew up in Mumbai and went on to study conservation at the Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. It was here that he realised how important large, apex predators, like tigers, were for the ecosystem. He began visiting tiger reserves “for fun”, before thinking about using his filmmaking skills to tell a conservation story. “Although I would have loved to make a fictional narrative feature film, the narrative documentary of Ustad was more meaningful because it was about the conservation of the national animal of India,” he says.
While he had wanted to make a tiger documentary focusing on a specific animal, he hadn’t yet chosen one back then. “Many people didn’t recommend Ustad because he was a male tiger,” says Pereira. “I was told to follow a female with cubs because those traditionally make for the best tiger documentaries,” he says. But the strange, inexplicable connection he felt with Tiger 24 made him choose it as the dominant male of Ranthambore. “I just decided to follow him and see what happens,” says Pereira, who wrote, directed and produced Tiger 24, supported by executive producers Howard Barish, Jeremy Bell, Eagle Egilsson, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, Zach Mann and Stephen Nemeth.
He spent the next three years trailing this beautiful male tiger, the toast of Ranthambore back then, filming T24 as he swaggered unfettered through the national park. The gorgeous footage of those early days, which finds its way into the documentary, shows Ustad supping off freshly-killed herbivores, hanging out with his mating partner Noor (Tiger 39) and rambunctious cubs, and languorously lounging in the tawny landscape of the national park. Then, in 2015, it all changed when Ustad was implicated in the killing of forest guard Rampal Saini, and was tranquilised and moved to a zoo by local state authorities. “Little did I know that he would become an icon for conservation, move India’s highest courts and have billboards erected for him!” says Pereira, adding that the change in the story required a whole new production approach halfway into its making. “I ended up being the only person in the world with the professional 4K footage on T24, and so in a sense I had the responsibility and privilege to tell his story.”
Tiger 24 went on to become a nuanced, layered narrative that has the pacey vibe of a well-crafted whodunnit, filled with suspects, evidence, clues, witnesses, and victims. “There was definitely a true-crime element to it, and this made for compelling storytelling,” agrees Pereira, who believes that it is an effective way to engage and entertain people from beyond the wildlife community. And certainly, the story lends itself to this sort of approach. For starters, the evidence available was incomplete: the killer could have also been Ustad’s son Sultan or another male tiger in the area. Additionally, branding Ustad a man-eater, even though there was some evidence pointing to the fact that he could have been responsible for three other deaths in the area, was not as straightforward as it appeared. Since all the killings occurred in tiger territory rather than in human settlements, it was hard to determine if these attacks were predatory or defensive.
Similarly, the decision to move Ustad is not painted in black-and-white terms in the film. Pereira simply presents multiple perspectives and viewpoints, including urban activists clamouring vociferously for Ustad’s release, the reigned sadness of local officials, who believe incarcerating Ustad was the best option under the current circumstances, and the terror of the people who inhabit core tiger territory, without offering judgment or a neatly-tied conclusion. “There are no perfect calls in managing a tiger reserve. Removing T24 or not removing him had its pros and cons. Each side, the activists vs the state government, wanted to tear each other down. But ultimately, they all care about tigers,” remarks Pereira.
It is this even-handedness, so rare in today’s intensely polarised world, that makes Tiger 24 such a compelling film. It manages to be deeply sensitive to the threat faced by local communities in tiger territory and the disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on the socially and economically-disadvantaged without diluting this essential truth: tigers, like many other species in the world, are on the brink of extinction due to human activity. “I wanted to take as balanced an approach as possible, putting my emotions aside — even though I am emotional about the topic — because that is the best way to serve conservation,” he says of the film that took a decade to make and more resources than expected; “a true labour of love,” as he puts it.
Tiger 24 premiered in April last year at the Cleveland Festival in Ohio and, following the theatrical release, is now available in the US and Canada on all major platforms. It went on to garner a number of accolades, including becoming a finalist at the Jackson Wild Media Awards and winning awards such as the Panda Award at the Wildscreen Festival in 2022 and Best Documentary at the 2022 Burbank Film Festival. In India, it was first released at the Jaipur International Film Festival in January 2023, followed by a theatrical release through AA Films in major theatres such as PVR and Inox in Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur, and Bengaluru. “The theatrical release was a tribute to T24 who died in captivity (28 December 2022) just before it commenced,” says Pereira, adding that the film is also available for rent on Amazon Prime. “I wanted to show it in theatres for the communal experience, the discussion afterwards and because T24 deserved to be seen on the big screen.”
Tiger 24 is currently streaming on Amazon Prime