Wildlife filmmakers Vijay and Ajay Bedi ventured into the Western Ghats in Kerala to look for the Purple Frog in 2016, only to be greeted by tadpoles. They had missed the breeding cycle when the rare amphibian — a robust and bloated creature also known as the pignose frog — emerges for just one day of the year. They decided to return the next year and reached there well in advance, but due to a bad monsoon, the frog did not appear. They waited for a month but had to come away without any footage. The third year they wondered if it was worth it at all. Nevertheless, they decided to try once again, and after waiting for 27 days, the frog emerged, and the duo became the first to capture the mating on record. Popularly known as the Twin Bedi Brothers, their latest film, The Secret Life of Frogs that documents the behaviour of five different breeds of frogs found in India, recently won the National Award in three categories — Non Feature, Sound Design and Cinematography.
“The idea was to make a natural history film on amphibians. There have been films on the megafauna, or big animals, like tigers, snow leopards and elephants, but people don’t know about Indian amphibians. We don’t see them nowadays. As children, we would hear them and call them out,” says Vijay. More than 80 per cent of the 400 species of amphibians found in India are already on the endangered list, while some have not been seen for more than a century, and about 60 per cent of amphibians are endemic to the subcontinent.
The Delhi-based brothers are the third generation in their family to be engaged with wildlife filmmaking. They are known for filming the red panda in Cherub of the Mist (2008) and the man-monkey relationship in The Policing Langur (2004). They are the youngest Asians to have won the Green Oscar for the latter, and are one of the first Indians to win a nomination at Emmys. Their father and uncle — Naresh and Rajesh Bedi — were also popular as Bedi Brothers, and their grandfather Ramesh Bedi was also a known wildlife photographer and author.
During their school days, when their classmates returned from vacation with stories about countries they travelled to, the brothers narrated their stints in the wild. “We were called the Mowgli brothers,” says Ajay. He recalls taking his first still photograph at the age of six, in Ranthambore, of a tigress with her three cubs. “On the field, they were our gurus, and very strict. My father used to hand me a film roll and instruct that I should not waste even one frame. He was very supporting and encouraging,” adds Ajay.
The twins have worked closely with their father and grandfather since the age of five, tracking elephants in Corbett or tigers in Bandhavgarh, and made their first film at the age of 21. Over the last 15 years, they have made natural history documentaries for TV channels including CNN International, BBC, Channel 4 Television, Doordarshan, National Geographic and Discovery Channel.
“That’s what we always wanted to do — make films on unknown Indian wildlife. In this film, it’s about frogs and we’re losing them really fast,” says Vijay. Over the last three years, they have filmed 45 species of frogs but only five feature in the film, which includes the Bombay Night Frog, and Kumbara Night Frog. “Each of these species has a unique story to tell, while one is a potter as it covers its eggs with clay to keep them moist, the other is a thumb-sized frog that dances to woo its partner, and another does the handstand to lay the eggs,” says Vijay.
In the film, that premiered on Animal Planet in May, we see the only temple dedicated to frogs in India — the Manduk Mandir in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri district. We also travel to Idduki, Kerala, where tadpoles of the purple frog are a monsoon delicacy for tribals. “This is a delicate debate. Tribals are most important when you talk about forests, and as a developing country, we shouldn’t blame the poorest. But we feel while personal consumption is fine, selling them commercially is not,” says Vijay.
The challenges to film these creatures were plenty. The filmmakers had to constantly be in the rains, shivering, with their skin getting peeled off because of excess moisture, and gum boots full of cold water. “The frogs look big on screen but in reality they are as big as my thumbnail. So to not disturb them and go close to shoot was a big challenge. And for a cameraperson with expensive equipment, it was a technological nightmare trying to keep our filming gear dry every second. The second challenge was the light as amphibians normally come out at night. We didn’t want to use bright lights nor interfere with their natural behaviour. Every sequence for the film had to be shot, as if we didn’t exist,” says Vijay. They were accompanied by scientists and researchers from the Kerala Forest Research Institute, University of Delhi, and Gubbi Labs.
They also raise a concern that how the Indian wildlife protection laws mainly covers the megafauna and very few amphibians come under its purview. “Many of them are not notified. We hope that it changes and more frog species are added to the list, for that we need to know the exact numbers,” says Vijay. The frogs are the first indicators of climate change, like canaries in the coal mines, if frogs disappear from the habitat, one can know that the rainforests are in trouble.
The filmmakers have also submitted a proposal to the government of Kerala to make the Purple Frog a state animal. “The rampant construction of unauthorised check dams leads to submerging of their perennial breeding grounds, along with road networks that lie close,” says Ajay. Their next film will be on the “ugliest bird in the world” — Greater Adjutant Stork. India has half the world’s population at 600 birds.