Meet Gangadharan Menon – a teacher, travel writer, photographer, and granddad. He played an important role in saving one of India’s beautiful evergreen forests about 32 years ago by making a documentary film.
“We…started on a journey that I treasure as the most memorable days of the 52 years of my existence – something that I will not trade for anything in this world, or even the next! Carrying huge loads of bare necessities, we set out with an inexplicable fear in our hearts,” wrote Gangadharan Menon in his book Evergreen Leaves.
Gangadharan, who has been a resident of Mumbai since 1962, worked in the field of advertising for 27 years, after which he quit and is now teaching at an arts college, other than working as a travel photographer and writer.
In this chapter of his book, named ‘Silent Valley isn’t silent anymore’, Gangadharan, now 60, talks about his journey to Silent Valley – a journey that ended with him playing a huge role in saving an evergreen forest that was declared to be a national park because of his laudable efforts.
Silent Valley, now a national park, is located in Nilgiri Hills in Palakkad district of Kerala. It is home to a variety of animal and bird species like the lion-tailed macaque, Ceylon frog-mouth, leopards, black stork, and more. In the year 1978, the government of Kerala decided to build a hydroelectric dam in the valley to generate power. This would have entailed blocking the Kunthi River, which flows through the forest, and a major portion of the valley would have been submerged. However, after several protests from environmentalists around the country, the matter moved to the central government and finally to the Supreme Court. This stalled the dam construction for years.
In 1980, Gangadharan, who was then a 22-year-old MA student and was also working as a theatre actor, met a filmmaker named K K Chandran. The latter used to make films on environmental issues and he told Gangadharan about Silent Valley. “He told me that the dam was a threat to the place and that he was planning to make a documentary film on it. He also asked me to go to Kerala with him for a recce and write the script for the film. Excited, I took a year-long break for this project.”
Together, with a team of five people who contributed Rs. 15,000 each because they did not have any producer till then, Chandran and Gangadharan went to explore Silent Valley.
They conducted extensive research on what was happening in the region, and that part of the journey in itself was amazing.
Armed with a 16mm camera and bags filled with the bare necessities required for survival in the Valley, the team marched forward. They had to carry food supplies, water, medicines, etc., because the last tribal village on the way to Silent Valley is Mukkali and it was 24 km away from the dam site. No vehicles were allowed after Mukkali and the only way to reach the site was to walk through the dense, pathless forest.
Chandran and Gangadharan had found out that there was only one guide who would be able to take them into and out of the forest – a 62-year-old man named Thekkinkattil Hamsa (or Hamsakka), who lived nearby and knew the forest like the back of his hand.
“When we reached the dam site at noon, we witnessed something akin to manslaughter. A tree that had withstood the onslaught of time for two centuries was brought down in two minutes to make way for the dam. As we captured the heart-rending cry of that tree, we had captured the spirit of our documentary,” wrote Gangadharan.
They saw that the base of the dam had already been constructed. The team, which included a cameraman, an assistant, and a porter, set out to shoot the film. The shoot lasted 17 days.
“Evergreen forests are really dense. We realised that the forest had daylight only between 11 am and 3 pm. So that was the only time we could shoot every day. This is why we extended estimated time. But we had provisions for 10 days only. I remember being an adventurous youngster and when no one was willing to walk back to the village for supplies, I volunteered. It was while returning that I saw a wild tusker and experienced terror for the first time,” laughs Gangadharan, reliving those days. Together, the team learned about escaping wild animals, gathering wood to light fires every night, and walking on massive carpets of leeches.
After returning to Mumbai, it took a long time for Chandran and Gangadharan to edit the film because of a lack of funds.
Chandran also had some disagreements with the producers at Film Division, Mumbai – the only organization at the time that produced and distributed documentary films.
“Chandran left and everything came to a standstill after that. But we had invested 7-8 months in the film. I could not let everything go to waste after giving it almost a year of my life,” says Gangadharan.
New to the field of filmmaking, he learned on the job and completed the first cut himself. Then he met Dilnavaz Variava, the Chairperson of the Save Silent Valley Committee, which was formed at about the same time. She watched the film and helped him with a sum of Rs. 10,000 to complete it.
The 18-minute long documentary was finally ready – only to receive a rejection certificate from the censor board on the grounds that the film was ‘one-sided’.
Gangadharan again reached out to Dilnavaz. She, in turn, spoke with Mr. S P Godrej, the chairman of Godrej Group. He took some time and arranged for a meeting with the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, with the hope that she would understand the environmental consequences of the dam project.
“A screening was organised for Mrs. Gandhi and, to my surprise, she watched the entire movie. And she was actually moved. She told us that she would ensure the area is declared a national park,” says Gangadharan.
That is exactly what happened in 1984 and Silent Valley is completely protected now.
“That is the only worthwhile thing I have done in my life. If I am asked: ‘What was your purpose of coming to this earth?’ I can say it was to save this forest. I went there again after 26 years with my wife and children and saw that the base of the dam is still there. The site now has a watchtower from where you can see the entire forest. They are restricting visitors and only 25 people are allowed in a day.”
Ask him about the importance of conservation and he quotes a Chinese proverb: ‘“Only when the last tree is cut, the last river poisoned, and the last wild animal killed, that man will realise that he can’t eat money.’ We want to monetise mother earth and sell everything that nature has provided. But this saying shows exactly why we need to conserve.”