When Warren Pereira set out to make a documentary about the most beloved beast in India’s Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, some 10 years ago, he wasn’t expecting his movie to capture a controversy with global implications. He wasn’t expecting to document one of the key animal-rights debates of our time. And he wasn’t expecting to interview the families of loved ones whose lives were cut short by his subject.
A labor of love for eight complicated years, “Tiger 24,” which finally opens in Boca Raton Thursday, explores the fraught, and ongoing, saga of T24, the so-called “king of kings” in a prominent Indian tiger reserve who, over the course of Pereria’s intermittent filming, allegedly kills four humans. The last of these deaths, involving longtime forest ranger Rampal Saini, in May of 2015, leads to T24’s removal from the reserve and his transfer to a cramped zoo, and ignites a firestorm of attention from opposing sides. Were his kills defensive or offensive? Depending on whom you ask, T24 is a man-eater who deserves to be quarantined from potential human contact, or an innocent victim of man’s encroachment into his territory.
Pereira’s film, originally intended to be an immersive nature documentary, becomes something more engrossing—an examination of the thorny issues surrounding these murky fatalities, with history, bureaucracy and geography factoring as significantly as animal instinct. The habitats of Bengal tigers, Pereira shows us, have greatly diminished over the decades, owing to the popularity of hunting and the expansion of the human population. Not only are tigers hemmed in to smaller areas (less than 2 percent of Indian land); they often abut local villages, and in the case of Ranthambore—the scene of the crimes—there is no buffer between the reserve and the human community, just an easily scalable wall. We learn that, though a governing body is supposed to maintain standards involving dangerous tiger-human contact, its own regulations were not followed.
The director, in his feature-length debut, narrates these details with deliberation and lucidity, suspecting perhaps that his movie will be shown in classrooms one day, or even a courtroom. Indeed, “Tiger 24” at times feels like a forensic mystery, complete with eyewitness testimony and clear, illustrated timelines of the events in question. After the director’s digging, it becomes clear that a prosecution of T24 for the killing of Saini likely wouldn’t hold up to a jury, the evidence being too circumstantial.
But the prior killings aren’t as blurry, and to Pereira’s benefit, he doesn’t tip his hand one way or another. He’s as sensitive to the victims’ families as he is the animal-rights activists who have created a cause célèbre out of T24’s case. He’s an increasingly rare breed in a time of agitprop journalism—an objective, dispassionate chronicler who allows his audience to make up its mind on the strength of the evidence presented.
“T24” only falters in some of its technical aspects. Better microphones (or any microphones at all?) would have alleviated some of the disparities in sound quality during Pereira’s interviews, and the musical score, which lays on the suspense a little too thickly at times, is overemphasized in the soundtrack. I chalk this up to Pereira’s ambitions as a first-time feature-length documentarian, and none of these issues should dissuade viewers from experiencing this work of probing reportage on the big screen, where it deserves to be seen.
Pereira himself will introduce the film at its regional premiere, and participate in audience Q&As, at 6:45 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Living Room Theaters at FAU (777 Glades Road, Boca Raton). Special guests at forthcoming screenings at Living Room include Mark McCarthy of McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Center (6:45 p.m. June 22) and Carole Baskin of Netflix’s “Tiger King” (6:45 p.m. June 23). Visit fau.livingroomtheaters.com/movies/4254.