Part crime drama and part nature documentary, Tiger 24 is a gripping work from director Warren Pereira. What begins as an interrogation into the waning tiger population in India—thanks to locals’ fears and British royalty practicing the sport of hunting—becomes a character study of the formidable male tiger Ustad, tagged as Tiger 24, in the Ranthambore jungle. Ustad’s territory is a single path that fearful villagers must use to get to their temple. He rules the beautiful wilderness with his queen Noor and their cubs.
Immersing himself in the wild bush, Pereira explores the heated tensions between the villagers and the forest department when a guard Rampal Saini is killed in a tiger attack. Tiger 24 becomes the main suspect, with Saini being his fourth human kill in five years. The big cat is placed into confinement for the village’s protection, sparking the protests of activists to return him to his home. This fascinating documentary attempts to uncover the mystery of whether Tiger 24 truly killed Saini and the others. Is he a man-eater? Or did he retaliate out of fear? Pereira’s even-keeled, inquisitive approach grapples with the moral quandaries of the tiger’s innocence and fate.
One of the best aspects of this documentary is the various perspectives Pereira offers on the situation. All of his interview subjects are incredibly passionate about what should be done to Tiger 24: grieving families of the victims who have found peace knowing their loved ones’ killer is gone, anxious villagers who no longer feel scared to enter the animal’s territory, and the forest guards who recall the harrowing murder scenes and believe Tiger 24 was truly out for blood. One of the guards asks Pereira if they should have waited for a fifth person to be killed before removing the intimidating beast. Then there are the activists who believe it is wrong to lock up Tiger 24. Tiger expert Valmik Thapar speaks loudly and excitedly as if a fire is lit under him, to defend Ustad, arguing that humans should not interfere with the natural world.
The documentary’s bright spots are the awe-inspiring footage of Ustad and his family in the jungle. The slow-motion shots, penetrating close-ups of the tiger’s rippling muscles, and curious face allow the audience to marvel at the majestic creature thriving in his sacred space. He wanders his tree-filled kingdom where he plays with his cubs, runs, bathes in the river, and gathers food for his family. It is a fascinating glimpse into this beautiful creature’s daily life that is sadly juxtaposed with his confinement which literally makes him ill. Noor is left alone crying out for him in a heart-wrenching scene. The rapturous score compliments this footage well, with swelling strings that evoke the wonder of Ustad’s beautiful home or the pulse-pounding dread of violence and society turning against him.
Tiger 24 leads to an informative and neat conclusion where Pereira lays out the bigger picture of tiger conservation and its importance. He reminds the audience that keeping animals in their environment has ramifications not only for individual ecosystems and the development of their species but climate change as a whole. This extraordinary documentary arrests the viewer with its sumptuous visuals and high-stakes drama. The balance of different perspectives throughout Tiger 24 forces the viewer to contemplate difficult ecological questions about humanity’s relationship with animals.
Tiger 24 is now streaming on Prime Video, AppleTV, YouTube, and more.
by Caroline Madden
Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Baby It’s You, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Editor in Chief of Video Librarian. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss.