Through the Lens of Life: Mr. Sabyasachi Patra
If you feel like there's something out there that you're supposed to be doing, if you have a passion for it, then stop wishing and just do it. -Wanda Skyes
Mr Sabyasachi Patra, an alumnus from the batch of 1992, is an award-winning Director of Photography and a Cinematographer. He did his PGDM (Post Graduate Diploma in Management) from Xavier Institute of Management and joined the corporate world thereafter. After many years, he turned his life around and started his own filming company Wild Tiger Productions.
Being a passionate wildlife conservationist, he shoots wildlife photographs and documentaries and posts several articles on IndiaWilds, showcasing his work. His documentaries “A call in Rainforest” and “Discovering Rann” have been featured in several international film festivals. He also shoots promotion videos and corporate films for various MNCs and Indian corporates.
Team Monday Morning recently had the opportunity to interact with Mr Sabyasachi Patra to garner insights from his experiences and journey in the corporate world and Wild India.
Gearing up for REC Rourkela
[National Institute of Technology, Rourkela was the Regional Engineering College (REC), Rourkela until 2002.]
Monday Morning (MM): How was your life, childhood, and schooling before joining REC Rourkela?
Mr Sabyasachi Patra (SP): I was a studious kid in school, aspiring to be the best in the class like my peers. My dad being a professor, we had to relocate on a frequent basis. I studied in both English and vernacular mediums and different schools all around Odisha. We had a 10+2 course, and after that, I decided to study for one more year and prepare for the IITs however, in 1988 I got into REC Rourkela.
MM: How did REC Rourkela happen?
SP: Many of us were preparing for engineering, so was I but my dad wanted me to join a medical college. I got into REC Rourkela before medical college that’s why I joined here. At that time, I used to have sinusitis which caused a massive headache during exam time. I distinctly remember that I knew the questions asked in the exam, but I couldn’t recollect how to solve them. But that’s destiny, and that’s how I joined REC Rourkela.
Birth of a Master Filmmaker
MM: How was your life at REC Rourkela?
SP: That was the first time I left my house to stay at a hostel.
While going to college, my dad had a very slim briefcase and told me to carry the baggage which came to me as a shock as there was this big bed holder and a trunk that mom and I packed a lot of stuff into and this long backpack with skinny straps that used to bite into my body!
However, one life lesson I got from my dad is that you are on your own, one has to carry his baggage that is true for his entire life. You should not be dependent on anyone, even if it is your dad or somebody; you should be able to manage yourself. It is a hidden and compelling message he had given for an 18-year-old guy, it might be challenging to understand but I kept pondering over it, and I understood that it was something that I needed to cultivate. Therefore, when one stays alone in a hostel, he needs to handle the issues properly. Initially, it was jittery because of a new place and new people, but eventually, I figured how the classes worked, made some new friends, and everything went back to normal; it was quite a pleasant experience, I would say.
After engineering, I joined TATA Motors, then did an MBA and a lot of things. What I would say is this is one period of life where you join as an 18-year-old boy/girl, this experience shapes you, at least for me, I am not doing an engineering job right now, but there is some part of us that still is an engineer, and it shapes our thinking.
Engineering helps me think analytically and battle everyday situations. Though I am not in an engineering job, the way you approach things, the way you look at technology, devices and projects etc., comes from our engineering background.
MM: How important has REC been in shaping your career and life?
SP: In Metallurgy, there was a course called Furnace Design. While sitting in that class, I suddenly felt that this was not me. I am doing engineering, but I am not meant to be a Furnace Designer because I could see that it is not resonating within me. You can score marks somehow and try to understand things but it would help if you realised what you are.
I realised my life is not meant to be sitting somewhere and designing a furnace. Even later on, when I picked up photography and started filming, I used to have a small camera because I wanted it to be portable to click pictures wherever I went. Few friends used to chip in and buy a camera film and afford the developing cost, and we kept clicking, and it was pretty memorable for all of us. All I would say is that we had a lovely time, and learning from each other was very easy for us; it was not a very stressful environment, we were happy, and that’s what counts for me.
Thriving in the Corporate World
MM: After passing out from REC Rourkela, you did your Management Studies from XIM Bhubaneswar. How did that come about?
SP: I was placed on-campus at TATA Motors when it was known as TELCO(Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company) where I worked for three years. It came to me as a surprise when they told me that they hadn't picked any Metallurgist for six years before me. While working there, I realised that engineering helped less and it is all about managing people, a skill that I didn’t have. I was a timid kid, and handling workers was not my cup of tea. I realised that I need to pick up some management skills, which made me pursue management. I decided to prepare for MBA but I wasn’t getting much time.
A few days before my exam, there was an accident in the plant, and a rod fell on my right middle finger. So, I had to write the exam using my left hand. It was an MCQ based exam, and we were supposed to circle the correct answer on the OMR sheet with a pencil. It wasn’t easy, but somehow I managed to get into XIM Bhubaneswar; with my left hand. For me, it was like destiny taking me wherever I was supposed to be.
XIM Bhubaneswar was another wholesome experience, I had an enjoyable time learning. It shaped my personality as you pick up basic things you never forget in life. Scoring marks is one aspect you can score even by mugging up for the exam and then forget after it but if you understand the basics very well, you can reframe, reorient, reorganise, and create something good. So that was what I realised.
MM: You have worked at various top-notch organisations, like, TATA, Nokia, etc. How had that experience of working in a corporation been?
SP: After my MBA, I worked as a consultant to PwC India, as a consultant to many companies, and as a Telecom and Broadband consultant to CII(Confederation of Indian Industry). After this, I worked for NOKIA and as an Executive Director for MAIT(Manufactures’ Association of Information Technology). Finally, I quit the corporate world to be on my own. These were all different steps in a ladder I kept climbing up for 20 years, from 1992 to 2012 in this corporate world. In every organisation I worked for, I realised that I had been trying to fight it out, do good work, and get praised by the client and the senior management. I used to feel very good that people were talking about me; I was getting promotions, I was getting appreciation from the MDs and various clients were explicitly requested. It was definitely a confidence booster.
But, there was a personal loss, and so, I finally decided it was time to pursue my passion rather than focus on earning money and moving up the corporate ladder. So the corporate experience gave me a rounded personality in a sense I knew different sectors. It’s like expanding your armoury. All these experiences help you and shape you, provided you are willing to learn.
Especially those struggling times teach you the most. That’s when you strive the most, learn new things and finally overcome them which I learned from the corporate world. In any job you work, initially, people might doubt you, people might typecast and discriminate against you, but then you slowly overcome those, earn their trust. Eventually they find you are doing exceptional work. At the end of the day, it is your perseverance and knowledge and your willingness to keep on doing the excellent work that will help you in the corporate world.
Love for Capturing the Moment
MM: Cinematography is something that has no relation to your academic background and is nowhere related to your previous domain of work. Where did that passion develop from, what was the story behind your love for cinematography and filmmaking, and how did you nurture it?
SP: Everything has its roots somewhere or the other. I only had experience with cameras from my college days. You learn some tricks with a tiny camera and then when I joined TATA Motors I bought a lot of cameras. Then my salary was 4600 rupees which was a top-notch salary. After borrowing money from some friends and my savings, I purchased various cameras, lenses, and flashes worth 26000 rupees. I spent so much money, and such was my seriousness in trying to reach the top of my game. Then, 26000 was a lot of money. When I invested that much, I felt that I should learn it properly. Later on, I was doing photography; I wrote newsletters every month for my website India Wilds.
Then I realised the spoken word had a particular impact, but the visuals have way more impact because not everybody wants to read a thirty-page newsletter. Still then, if you show a picture, it can immediately shoot up. I realised if an image is so powerful, a moving picture, a film, it can touch you without you knowing that it has handled you. When you are conveying an issue through a movie, it connects with others, shapes their thought process and at times leads the person to certain things by changing their behaviour.
That’s when I realised that I should try filming and share my vision and my views and help change the world even a tiny bit for the better. So, I started filming small documentaries, sharing my ideas of how the Indian wildlife is being destroyed and living in harmony with nature, ultimately benefiting us. Then one thing led to another, and now I am a full-time filmmaker myself, and it has been a learning journey; I think learning never stops in life. You look at an ocean and see the waves keep on coming, like the ocean never rests; it keeps on pounding the shoreline and shaping the shoreline; learning is like that.
The day your learning stops is when you die, that’s my attitude. I am not formally trained, so I watch movies of master filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, Rithwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen. When you watch their films, you understand there’s a vision behind what you are doing, there are so many dimensions, there are so many layers to what they are doing in their storytelling. So, you can keep watching those master works and learn from them. That’s what I’ve been doing. Cinematography is a learning journey, it keeps moving on steadily.
Focusing on India Wilds
MM: You founded the India Wilds in 2008 and worked at the NOKIA while managing the India Wilds sidewise. How did things unfold gradually?
SP: I was visiting various wildlife sanctuaries in India. I realised that whichever places I had visited a year ago, had changed. While trekking in the deep forests the tribes told me that a perennial stream had dried up which he had never seen or in some other place, the source of the river had been contaminated with a lot of garbage. So, you realise that you are destroying nature.
Suddenly, I see vast areas of a national forest have been burnt just because a tiger killed a cow and so on. So, there are many different issues you find. You realise that people are destroying nature; all of us are destroying nature and the environment, and we face its brunt. I thought let me at least create something and share it with people so that at least on some trim level, we can bring change; we all have a personal responsibility to do so.
You know that story from Ramayana where everyone was creating this bridge over the sea. Then all the monkeys were trying to build the bridge using giant boulders, and suddenly they noticed that a tiny squirrel attempted to carry a little bit of sand on its body and dumped it. Then Hanuman said, “what is this small squirrel, what does it think of itself? we are throwing giant boulders into the sea, and this one is dropping some sand in it.” But then Rama took the squirrel into his hands and caressed his hand over it, and that’s why there are three lines on a squirrel’s back.
Lord Rama explained that no matter how powerful you are, how big or small you are, the individual effort matters, the intent matters. It matters whether you are interested in putting your best foot forward. So, I felt that let me do my bit, one small guy in one corner of India trying to do his bit, so if everybody gets inspired by it and everybody follows their duty, then probably the world would be a better place.
MM: You have worked with various international broadcasters, MNCs and media houses. What went into building that Client Base?
SP: Frankly speaking, after leaving the corporate world, I didn’t approach any of my friends to give me some corporate work because they would have immediately felt that this guy has no money after leaving the job and seeking help. I wanted to shoot things on my own even when there was no planned work and showcase my quality, my vision, the way I approach things, and slowly, clients started coming from different channels on their own. People decided that “this guy is good in this field, so let us approach him”; the basic filmmaking is the same, the skills are the same, but then you are just applying them in different genres, so you need to tailor it to said genre.
For example, one day, I got a call from HBO, an they asked “Can you shoot women’s athletics for us?” I asked, “Why me?” I was sleeping, and at 1 AM, I got this call, and I wondered why did they want me to shoot that? I was not in my senses; otherwise, I wouldn’t have asked that question; they said that I had an eye to seize the moment. In wildlife, suddenly action happens, and you have to take a moment, and in athletics, it is the same. Once the move is made, you can’t rewind the clock; you have to capture the moment. HBO said I had that skill.
So that’s how it is, you showcase your things and people come to you, and over some time, slowly people find out that this guy is doing something. While filming for corporates, I realised that because of my experience in senior positions, while speaking with senior executives, it was easier for me to coach them as to what kind of words they should say in front of the camera so that the words are powerful, where do they need to give a pause, where do they need to emphasise more, etc. I realised that the senior executives were more comfortable with me as I discuss how they need to speak, so they became happy with me, which became my strength.
Whatever you have done in your life, nothing goes to waste. Everything is in some part of your brain, you have to pull it out!
Editing all the snags
MM: What were the major challenges that you faced in the initial days of India Wilds?
SP: A guy, an engineer, an MBA talking about conservation issues. Why would anyone listen? I met many people in government offices, researchers and so on, and they asked why they should listen to me because there are huge egos involved in the conservation communities. But, when they realised that I could synthesise things because all these people know a particular area, what I am bringing to the table is my management expertise in synthesising everything. Reading different journals and picking up whatever they are talking about and whatever is happening in India, all the issues, and creating a story about it and saying this can be a way forward. People eventually realised that ‘this guy is adding value,’ and that’s when people started reading, so, I said regarding the corporate life, the challenges in getting acceptability are everywhere.
My views are to disseminate information, raise awareness among people, talk to schools and colleges, and show documentaries to get inspired, which helps people change their lifestyle. Especially for people living around national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, change their behaviour. A lot of pollution at the river source be mitigated, ensuring that the water you are getting will be clean.
Contrast & Sharpness: Balancing Job and India Wilds
MM: In 2012, you finally took the bold decision to leave your job life and founded Wild Tiger Productions. What was the idea behind establishing the Wild Tiger Productions?
SP: IndiaWilds is my brand, my trademark, so I didn’t want to register a company under that name. The name of the company can be different, and its brand can be different. I am known by the brand IndiaWilds, but my company is Wild Tiger Productions. I needed to process transactions and other things legally, so I had to register a company. It is called Wild Tiger Productions because it is about wildlife and a production company producing other events.
MM: When you start something new, there are various hurdles, limited resources, and many things to be done. How did you manage and overcome the challenges?
SP: I had decided that I would start a company and follow my passion. I realised that it is very resource-intensive to create even a tiny film-making company and do reasonably good work. Of course, you can rent out certain things, but since you are always in the wild, it becomes challenging, and the budget is enormous. Spending that much money at one go was a challenge, so I realised that it is easier for me if I take an instrumental approach and keep on investing over time and slowly build it up. For example,
I got a tripod and a fluid head, for around 9500 USD; it was the beginning of the professional range, so these things last for 15-20 years, but cameras have significantly less lifetime, like around 3-4 years. I slowly built up my equipment so that when you tell people I have all these things, they realise that serious thought has gone behind it. That is why I had been buying equipment over some time to raise the overall level because, in one go, suddenly taking a plunge is very difficult.
It would help if you planned it out slowly, decided when to buy what, what all things to get, and then it becomes a little be more accessible, but still, when you jump into the field, you will find there are some variables you may not have thought of. Certain things have changed, and there will always be challenges, but there will be things that you can undoubtedly predict; you should always control them. You should always be ready and be resilient so that if there are any challenges, you will be able to handle them. I decided that for the next two years, even if I didn’t get a single penny, I should survive; I planned that way, I ensured that all the EMIs were over, that I had some funds for the next two years. Even then, there were challenges. The more thought you put into your venture or behind any startup, the easier and faster you reach your goal.
MM: Your success in the field of wildlife cinematography is no mystery to any of us. Among all your achievements and projects, which would you consider to be the most significant one?
SP: I will say that the most significant one is yet to happen. I keep on doing things; each film, each documentary is a different challenge. I did one documentary for the government of Maharashtra, the German ministry funded it, and it was on the Thane Creek. It was to showcase the environment of Thane Creek and mangroves of it along with all the species. It is called the “Jewels of Thane Creek”; you can watch the film on my YouTube channel. It was challenging because it was in an urban environment, so there were houses all around, and almost all the waste from households was dumped into it and it is not very clean water. How do you showcase this environment? How do you showcase this unique habitat? How do you make people wow at this and make them feel that they are missing it?
I had to get the natural shots, make people fall in love with it, and feel that some jewels in their backyards need to be protected. If you tell people that Corbett is a beautiful place, they will agree to Western ghats and other sites; people have a preconceived notion. But this was an urban environment within your city where there is rich vegetation and high biodiversity. So every project has its challenges, and philosophically I consider that my next project is the best one.
MM: What projects do you plan to work on shortly?
SP: I have many short-term plans. So, many things have happened in life, and we are not immortal. We should enjoy every day, and we have to take things as they come, but then I want to create good films. I am also editing a commercial that most likely would be ready by next month and a documentary on leopards. There are other projects once this is over, but I don’t want to speak about them until they are out.
Bokeh of life
MM: How has your life changed after deciding to get into such an unconventional career path?
SP: I have become way more adaptable. Earlier I was only able to enjoy some things that fit my definition but not anymore. I even woke up people from some dhabas(roadside restaurants) in the middle of the night and asked them to make food. So you have all these different kinds of experiences. You’ll learn how to survive. My life changes entirely because I have decided to shoot throughout India and travel throughout the country.
I see honest India because I believe the real India is in all these villages and people who are so warm-hearted. When you talk to all these people and participate in their gatherings, you may not like their cuisine, but you feel love and warmth. You might not feel that kind of hospitality in a five-star hotel and sharing your table with millionaires. Life has changed significantly.
MM: How do you see your decisions now?
SP: After six months of quitting the corporate world, a prominent placement consultant friend called me up and said ‘Bohot hogaya’(Enough is enough)and asked me to come back, saying that there’s a huge opportunity. “This company is giving a huge signing bonus, and they want to take you,” I said no and that I am enjoying life and exploring my life; this is a different journey, and that I don’t want to go back to the same corporate world. I don’t regret my decision of quitting the corporate world.
MM: Would you like to share any anecdotes?
SP: There have been many different moments while traveling in the forest. When working on the leopard documentary one, I interviewed a lady whose kid was picked up by a leopard.
The lady was crying, and I didn’t know how to console her; I was shooting, and I felt terrible. I realised that I didn’t have any words to console her. There are so many things that we can do to improve her life, and that’s what forced me to look inwards and try hypnotherapy and a lot of different therapy techniques and just looking at these people made me think what I can do to help them.
When you observe things, you become one with them and nature, and things start happening. Even for Jewels of Thane Creek, I wanted a particular visual to end the film with. I wanted a lovely sunset and that the evening sun would glisten on the mud like a jewel, and I wanted these flamingos in that frame, and I just visualised it. I waited, but I couldn’t get that shot at all; either the clouds were covering the sun, or there were no flamingos. But on the last day, when I took some coffee in a flask and was waiting to drink, and suddenly I saw the scene; there were no clouds, there was a lovely beautiful sunset, and suddenly a flock of flamingos flew; I couldn’t believe that this happened, I immediately started filming and got the shot.
If you want something substantial and you are persevering you will get it. You should always have hope, even if in very devastating conditions. As I said, Hope flows eternally in human breath. You have to have hope, faith in yourself, in your ability and in whichever god you pray to.
The Final Click
MM: What message would you like to convey to the passionate people out there?
SP: As a student, I joined as an 18-year-old guy, and now I am entirely different. All I am telling you is that you try to find out who you are, discover your inner being, discover your potential within you, and explore yourself. You may not get it immediately; I am not saying that you should pick up a camera; each of us is different, and everyone has their own skill. Keep developing skills over time, don’t feel bad that today you don’t have a particular skill; keep on learning things, someday you will reach somewhere. Be open to things, be honest, keep learning, have an attitude to learn something and never try to go with the flow. Please try to understand what you are good at. Are you comfortable doing whatever it is for the rest of your life? Ask yourself this question, and
Discover yourself; it takes time, keep on reading, keep exploring, keep your eyes and ears open, keep persevering, you will find the real you, and that’s what matters.
Team Monday Morning congratulates Mr Sabyasachi Patra for having a successful and illustrious career and wishes him the best for his future endeavours.
Design Credit: Alok Gouda