We watch web series mainly to be entertained. But ‘Poacher’ does not quite entertain us as that is not the objective of its makers. Its executive producer, actress Alia Bhatt, and director Richie Mehta, famous for his web series ‘Delhi Crime’, wanted not only to educate and enrich us but also, to make us feel guilty for our ignorance and criminal insularity.

The series has been written and directed by Richie Mehta who won the International Emmy Award for his dark and gritty web series ‘Delhi Crime’. The first three episodes of the eight-episode series premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it received high appreciation from the viewers.

Why guilty? Because, living in the safe cocoon of city life wrapped in the luxuries of living in air-conditioned apartments, driving through the city in luxury cars and forever dreaming of moving up the vertical ladder of ‘success’, we do not even care to know what is happening to the wild life that is also an integral part of our living and of the environment they live in without whose existence, the balance of our lives will be destroyed forever, thanks to the ultimately complete destruction of our ecology essential for life of humans on earth.

Poacher, with its engrossing narrative beautifully woven in and shot in actual locations, sheds light on the illegal poaching of ivory by killing elephants in the Indian wilds which automatically and ultimately destroys not only elephants but also other wildlife species like ants, mongoose and so on. Through the eight episodes, Richie Mehta makes a scathing commentary on the human ambition of wanting to dominate every aspect of the world and the repercussions of that on wildlife.

According to Mehta, poaching and ivory trafficking, “is the result of the human desire of wanting to dominate every aspect of the world and the repercussions of that on wildlife.” ‘Poacher’ is based on the fictionalisation of recent history of how illegal poaching was halted by a committed team of wildlife officers. Here is the real story in short.

In October 2015, a covert operation named operation “Shikar” resulted in the seizure of 487 kilos of ivory in Delhi. The massive ivory bust was conducted by a group of officers from the Kerala Forest Department, WildLife Crime Control Bureau and the Delhi Police with technical support from Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and its partner International Fund for Animal Welfare (FAW). ‘Poacher’, an eight-part web series streaming on Amazon Prime is inspired by the real events of this incident depicting the pursuit and dismantling of the largest ivory poaching in India’s history.

In an environment where every single day the news channels, newspapers and social media are spilling over with stories of corruption within the Establishment, events that appear to be open threats to democracy, we discover in this brilliant series, how, a dedicated team of a few men and women are ready to lay down their lives to stop the illegal poaching of elephants for their ivory which, as the series shows is spread right across the globe though also concentrated a great deal within India.

The pre-credit scene is a series of huge close-ups of a giant elephant’s body slowly falling to its death and the ivory is extracted through further physical torture, by local tribals hired by the poachers, never mind if the elephant is still alive. It is a shocking scene which hits sharply at our callous indifference to things happening beyond our comfort zones. And yet, the camera so mesmerises you that you cannot turn away from the gruesome scene.

Three committed forest officers keep holding the fort not only to prevent poaching and arrest poachers but also to catch the big fish and confiscate the colossal ivory they have gathered to sell to the global market. One of them is the gritty and focused Mala (Nimisha Sajayan) whose life’s mission is to ensure that the poachers are apprehended and are made to pay for their crimes.

Then, there is Alan (Roshan Mathew), a computer engineer who is a committed activist working as a forest officer. His marriage is often in trouble because he remains absent for long hours especially when he is stationed in his native place Kerala and either cannot get home or drives out every now and then at any hour of the day or night. Their intense and committed boss is a Bengali named Neel Banerjee (Dibyendu Bhattacharya) who is suffering from a terminal lung disease that makes him cough blood, often but he does not bother to visit a doctor and keeps to his duty knowing that it may bring no returns at all but that they must keep trying.

An innovative exercise one discovers in this film is that the dialogue is covered in four languages – Malayalam, Hindi, some English and some Bengali. This adds an extra texture to the film in terms of its audience reach and also in terms of its wide canvas though narrative-wise and visually, the setting is mainly in Kerala with some scenes captured in Delhi.

The gritty and extremely talented Nimisha Sajayan as Mala throws up an amazing performance from beginning to end. She does not care for her relationship with the man in her life, or the fact that with every step she takes to step into the deep forests, there is danger to her life.

She also has a deeply personal axe to grind, but it would be a spoiler to mention here. Her entire life is dedicated to the nabbing of poachers who are mere ‘assistants’ to the larger complex of actual traffickers of ivory.

Sajayan’s performance as the tough, no-nonsense forest officer is touched with a single scene where we find her eyes moistened with tears when she watches a herd of elephants crowding around the skeletal remains of a dead elephant. This subtly shows that like humans, elephants too, mourn their dead which we humans are completely oblivious to.

Roshan Mathew as Alan, who is forever in Mala’s company, drives their car and has a funny streak he uses to lighten the danger they are constantly up against. He offers an ideal complement to Mala though they are friendly colleagues without any romance to spoil it.

Dibyendu Bhattacharya as Neel Banerjee is excellent, which he always is and sometimes, in passing, mentions how his wife is now completely indifferent about what he does, suggesting that the family is a price to pay for your devotion to the task at hand. He does not have children but has an adopted niece he is very fond of.

He tries to avoid his fast escalating lung disease as much as he can but he is so committed to nab the criminals that his personal life is relegated to the back burner without a thought. He is also an excellent boss to his subordinates and is a powerful motivator for them.

The cameo characters like the actor who plays Mala’s worried mother, or the flexible wife of Alan, or some of the higher up officers who bring in their decision-making powers into play, the poor tribals of the forests who are forced into poaching because of desperate poverty are also convincing in projecting that they are real characters. The film begins with the discovery of a body hanging from a tree of one of the local poachers whose death is labelled “suicide” but is actually a murder.

‘Poacher’ comes across like an excellent documentary presented as a feature film as it has no romance, no sentimental melodrama, no synthetic villainy added for marketing reasons, and yet is a brilliant film one gets immersed into without even being aware of this. Johan Huerlin

Aidt’s cinematography is award-worthy with its grey-blue-green shades dominating the frames dotted at times with red, browns and oranges but never allowing the colours to divert from the core of the issue the film deals with. Andrew Lockington’s musical score is so well-designed that not once does it intrude into the main visuals.

Most of the shooting took place in actual locations in the forest division headquarters in Malayattoor, Kerala. The editing is extremely challenging, jet-paced and electric.

The film offers us a rare insight into the lives of the animals, birds and insects in the wild which are endangered and are also likely to endanger the lives and habitats of humans in the near future. One should read the “trivia” each scene has in order to gather as much information as one possibly can about these species intricately woven into our living environment that strikes a balance between humans and animals.

Among these, one may mention the Bonnet Macaque, the Indian leopard, the Indian whistling duck, Owls, ants, greater Indian fruit bat, the spotted deer, the black kite, the Indian native dog, and the white-trumped vultures among many others all of which stand endangered at this point of time. Today, there are around 2600 captive elephants in India. They are used in temples, for begging and for rides on beaches and touring sites.

Please watch the series. It is educational, enriching and a learning experience. Kudos to everyone involved in its making.