Celebrity Appointment in the Jungle

‘When visitors to the national park heard Amitabh Bachchan was around, they abandoned chasing animals and came after him’, writes naturalist Ratna Singh

Working in the jungles affords one the opportunity to meet and mix with people from around the world. It’s an eclectic mix. I have guided celebrities, socialites, actors, sports stars, artists and families with young children, photographers and those, who just wanted to get away from the big noisy concrete jungles into a real one.

Needless to say, I as a guide, need to constantly try and read what people are looking for exactly. For many, it is the lure of the mighty tiger. People come from across the continents to hoping for a glimpse of the Top Cat. Paeans have been written on the beauty of the tiger. I have to reiterate, how wonderful it is to feast your eyes on a creature that wears its power so easily and gracefully.

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One of the best known actors of Indian cinema Amitabh Bachchan, is a big supporter of wildlife conservation and participated in a conservation event for a TV channel in one Central India’s jungles in December 2010. As part of the event, Big B was scheduled to take a safari into Pench National Park located in Madhya Pradesh, with me as his naturalist.

Although the TV channel and the safari company had tried to keep the visit of Big B, a big secret for purposes of law and order. It was not to be. Crowds thronged the little village, and some of them travelling as far as a 100 miles to catch a glimpse of the superstar. There were fields and a patch of the forest leading to the lodge. On the day the stars arrived – the area was turned into a virtual fortress by the police. The volume of people pouring into the region was so high that the little police post had to send for enforcements, apart from the extra security already deployed.

We were scheduled to go for an afternoon safari. The National park’s entrance was only a few minutes’ drive from the lodge. But the security did not want to risk an open vehicle on either side of the track. I drove inside the national park’s gate. The actor would be driven up in a bullet proof car. I was just a little bit nervous. I knew the jungle and was comfortable in it. But this was going to be filmed, so I had to be bugged with devices, to record whatever I said. The safari vehicle was bugged too, to record conversations between the TV channel host and Big B better. There were many camera persons. Two of them on my vehicle – one crouched behind the driver’s seat pointing up at the celebrity passengers, the other squeezed in front between the actor’s personal body guard and me. From time to time, these camerapersons would change positions, at times, parking themselves on the bonnet of the vehicle, which meant that I had to drive doubly carefully. There were a number of cars ahead of us some with more camerapersons, those for technical assistance, park authorities etc. In all, we formed a convoy of about eight vehicles.

Once we started the drive and left the melee at the entrance behind, I relaxed and tried to guide. I didn’t expect him to be very involved, as the host of the show was constantly asking him questions. Other visitors at the national park had by now heard of the Amitabh Bachchan’s visit. They abandoned the search for animals, and tried to pass by us repeatedly, for a chance to shake hands, have a word with him or hurriedly take photos. It was soon a traffic jam like in the jungle! This crowd kept the predators away, but we spotted plenty of animals. Spotted deer, langurs or grey monkeys, antelopes, the largest cattle in the world – the impressive gaur, and some birds showed mercy.

As the sun set, we returned to the park gate. As the park gate came into view, I gasped. A multitude of people waiting! Some had climbed the pillars of the park gate. Others climbed trees. On seeing our vehicle approach, a cry went up in the crowds, those at the back strained forward and the gates which were shut, flung open.

The people rushed forward. It was an open vehicle with no cover of any sort, and we were exposed. The bodyguard stood up quickly, and I put the vehicle into reverse gear trying to get to a safer distance from the crowd that was running after us. The forest official and security people radioed the gate ahead, asking for the celebrity’s car to be sent, so they could switch vehicles in the safety of the jungle. While the rest of us were afraid, Amitabh Bachchan stood up and waved to the crowds.

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He said to us, “Don’t be afraid of this crowd, they mean no harm”. The car arrived and he could safely get in. Another safari that was planned, was cancelled for security reasons. The rest of the programme continued for the next two days where Amitabh Bachchan shot from morning till late night.

The rest of us took time off to rest. He did not. I realised then, that greatness does not come easy. You have to put in a huge effort for it.

I did not think he enjoyed the safari at all, but was surprised to read his blog the next day. Not only had he photographed even simple things, he remembered the info I gave him in great detail!

Another celebrity who surprised me was Ted Turner – owner of CNN. His childhood dream was to see a tiger in the wild. A common trait I have noticed with the rich, famous and successful people is that they are incredibly busy! Ted Turner arrived with no fuss. His team had a friend and a tour manager from the travel agency in May 2010. No one else. He flew into India exactly for two days, in pursuit of tigers at Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh. For some one used to having everything his way, I expected tantrums. But he came as a pleasant surprise. He carried my bags to the vehicle, and then always remembered to carry them back after drive.

I am of a short build. So I always carried a cushion to put behind me. He would carry my cushion too! And I thought that his life was all about gizmos! After all, he was the owner of CNN! It was just the opposite. He did not carry a cell phone. If he found some interesting info about the jungle – he would note it down on a slip of paper. Ted did not carry a camera. He just wanted to see a tiger. When he saw me taking pictures – he asked me to email some pictures. That’s simple!

 

Ratna Singh

Ratna Singh

Ratna Singh used to be a part of Taj safaris as a naturalist and then a trainer for naturalists for almost a decade. She is now working on an enterprise to help enhance guiding standards in both wildlife and cultural sectors, as well as helping boutique properties enhance their guest experiences. She has been a part of skilling of local youth in wildlife guiding organised by national park authorities in MP. Ratna hopes to be able to bring her wildlife/ training and hospitality skills to other parts of the country as well.