Poacher’s Richie Mehta

In late 2015, Richie Mehta was working with Ridley Scott and Google on India in a Day, a crowdsourced documentary based on the film Life in a Day featuring footage from everyday Indians going about their everyday lives. Of the 16,000 videos shot on October 10, 2015, and submitted for the film, one, in particular, stood out to Mehta. Sent in by the Wildlife Trust of India, it captured a high-stakes ivory raid in Delhi. Mehta didn’t use the footage in India in a Day but knew he wanted to return to the story. After receiving critical acclaim and an International Emmy win for Netflix’s Delhi Crime, dramatizing the case of a brutal 2012 gang rape in Delhi, Mehta set out to tell the real-life tale of the forest workers, police and NGO workers who brought down an ivory trafficking ring. Produced by U.S.-based QC Entertainment in association with Suitable Pictures, Poor Man’s Productions and Eternal Sunshine Productions, Poacher is now streaming on Prime Video worldwide.

TV DRAMA: What made you want to tell this story, and how did it land at Prime Video?
MEHTA: I was doing a documentary in 2015 titled India in a Day. That was a crowdsourced project where people all over India would send me footage of their lives on one day, October 10, 2015. It was mostly people with their families and kids brushing their teeth and fun things people did in a day. One of the pieces of footage was of an ivory raid in Delhi. It was the Kerala Forest Department, Delhi police and NGO workers busting down a door and finding boxes full of ivory. I called Wildlife Trust of India, the NGO that submitted it. I said, What is this footage? And they said it was on the shoot day of my documentary. It happened to be the biggest ivory raid in Indian history. I didn’t think I could use it because I couldn’t give it the context it deserved in the documentary. I said, Give me a few years; I need to finish one other project, and then I’ll come back and learn more about this. I didn’t know wildlife crime was a big problem. I didn’t know there were wildlife crime fighters out there. I didn’t know anything about that world. Toward the end of Delhi Crime, I was in postproduction, and I went and met these people and just got hooked.

TV DRAMA: Did it take time to get it financed? And why did you feel like Prime Video was the best home?
MEHTA: It didn’t take me long to get it financed because I had producers who had such faith in the project. I had just released Delhi Crime and was going to start this research. In Los Angeles, my agents introduced me to [QC Entertainment], who said they loved Delhi Crime. They said, What are you doing next? I said, I’m just going to start researching something on wildlife crime fighters. And they said, We’re in! I said, Wait a second, I haven’t pitched you anything. They said, We don’t care. We love the idea. Let us know when you have scripts. We’d like to finance it. And that was it. When they read what I had written, they loved it. They supported my vision. We showed the first three episodes at Sundance last year, and then Amazon was knocking on the door, wanting to see more. We sent them the rest. Other platforms were also interested, but Amazon had an incredible vision for it. Everything that we have done, some people thought of as risks. For example, the multiple languages. Amazon looked at those as attributes and said, We know how to get this into the world. We think it’s a project that should belong to Kerala and belong to India. And then it will go global because it’s authentic.

TV DRAMA: With Delhi Crime, you’ve had experience taking a true story and adapting it for scripted television for a global audience. Did you have to take a different approach to this story?
MEHTA: It was a bit of the opposite. Of course, there’s a procedural around it and a manhunt and crime fighters. The difference with Delhi Crime is I didn’t need to instill empathy in the audience. You know what the crime is. I don’t need to show it. Here, I felt I had to show you the whole thing. I’m going to show it to you right up front in the very first scene of episode one. Just so you know what we’re talking about. I’m going to utilize every single trick in the movie book, whether it’s technology or thrills, to make you empathize. This is what these wildlife crime fighters are willing to sacrifice their lives for. I need to show you what this is and try to earn your allegiance to stay with us through all eight episodes. Until you reach the end, you won’t fully realize what we’re talking about. The purpose of the project was to instill empathy, whereas, in Delhi Crime, the purpose was to get through something you were completely empathetic about.

TV DRAMA: I know Prime Video is accompanying the launch with a host of events meant to shine a light on the issue of ivory trafficking. What’s the overall message you want audiences to take from the show?
MEHTA: There’s an overarching message that is not subtle. We should not be shooting elephants in the head and exploiting them. That’s an easy one. If it were a film, I could ask one question, but with eight episodes—6.5 hours of content—I could ask multiple. One of the big questions is, do we really think about what it means to examine our relationship with every living thing around us? What does that actually mean? Where you sit on that spectrum, your opinion will differ from everyone else’s. But I need you to examine it. That’s what this is.

TV DRAMA: What were some of the biggest challenges of filming in the Kerala forests?
MEHTA: After doing Delhi Crime and four other projects in Delhi before that, I’d had enough of that urban environment. I wanted to be in an environment with clean air and clean water. A different side of India. As I researched the project and understood the environment more, I couldn’t believe that this side of India still existed. This side is worth protecting. The biggest challenge was for our generally large film crew to get in and out without disturbing the environment. We’re shooting in actual elephant corridors. We’re shooting in their homes. It was about creating a culture of low footprint, almost zero impact, having a kind of communion with the wildlife around us, saying, We’re here; we’re trying to help you. We know that you don’t see the difference between us and any other human, which is what I’m trying to show in the series. The animal subplot is they don’t know who’s protecting them—they’re just going to run away from all humans. If you come our way, we will back off and let you do what you’re doing. We are not here to harm you, and we’re not here to get in your way. If you give us a little space, we’ll do our thing and be on our way. And you’ll never know we were here. That was the challenge every single day. And I think we pulled it off.

TV DRAMA: You’ve done both documentary and drama. Do you feel more comfortable with one over the other?
MEHTA: I only did one major documentary. The rest were dramatic projects. I’m most at home in the drama field and love it the most. It’s the game I prefer playing the most. I love working with actors. That’s my zone. Having said that, I’m also trying to blur the lines now. I’m using every cinematic tool available, but at the same time, there’s a realism to what I’m trying to show. Everything represents something in reality. That’s important to me as well. I think the answer lies in between the two mediums.

TV DRAMA: The media business is in a strange period of disruption everywhere. How are you approaching navigating this latest shift? Are you still finding opportunities to tell the stories you want to tell?
MEHTA: I’ve been very lucky that I found financiers who enable me. I tend not to think too much about the state of the industry. That’s something I leave to experts like yourself to examine. I look at where the pieces are after the chips have fallen. It seems that every few months, there’s a flux right now. How do I fit my intent into this new world? I didn’t know ten years ago I would be making long-form content. Ten years from now, for all I know, people will be consuming short-form. Then, I will adjust my messaging or ideas to fit that framework. I’m happy that I’ve gotten a chance to do two long-form projects with no interference in my vision whatsoever, and the industry has supported that. I’m very, very fortunate for that. Going forward, I’ll see where the chips land in the next phase.