Suyash Keshari left his cushy job in the States to do what makes his heart happy: wildlife conservation and filmmaking. Today, he’s the man behind India’s first OTT platform for wildlife. In an exclusive interview with Man’s Life, he takes us through his journey.
Let’s start from the very beginning. How did you discover your love for wildlife?
“When I was about four years old, my nanaji took me to the Zoological Park in Kolkata. Like most kids, I too jumped and clapped when I witnessed the tiger roar. I remember him asking me, “Beta, do you like watching the tiger?” I replied in the affirmative. To this he said: “Beta these are not the same tigers that you watch on National Geographic or BBC documentaries. These animals are trapped for life in these small cages.” This, quite frankly, broke my heart even at that early age and set me on a path to learn more about our wild animals. Growing up in Madhya Pradesh, I’ve always been close to wildlife, and this is where my passion for it was ignited.”
Tell us a bit about your childhood…
“I was always that kid who wanted to play in the backyard, run on the farm, climb up a guava tree and wait for the birds to come, so that I could eat fruits with them. I’ve spent hours watching ants parade in a line. Sat by a pond in scorching summer heat, just to observe the fish, the herons and other birds come to drink or hunt. I always wanted to go to a jungle for the holidays, and was the kid who watched wildlife shows instead of Cartoon Network. I also wanted to share every single wildlife story with my family, friends, and guests—no matter what their interests were. In short, I was that kid who always wanted to do what I am doing right now and share it with people. There’s nothing more fulfilling in this world than getting people to fall in love with the things you are in love with yourself.”
Political science to wildlife conservation. How did that switch happen?
“I grew up watching presenters such as the late Steve Irwin, Steve Backshall, Nigel Marven and of course, Sir David Attenborough! While growing up, I’d see people from around the world come and present and film Indian wildlife. I often wondered why an Indian couldn’t do the same! Before I went to college, I approached several wildlife filmmakers and people from the industry to gain insights on how I could make this my career. Most of them discouraged me by saying that the chances of having a career in wildlife presenting/filming were bleak and it would take at least 10-15 years just to create a name for myself.”
“When this came from the people whom I admired, I believed that this field wasn’t for me. I gave up my dream and moved to the US to study Political Advocacy. I completed my graduation and went onto work in the US House of Representatives, but I felt something was amiss, and made the decision to follow my heart.”
A lot of your peers are chasing after big paychecks and secure jobs, you left all that and chose this. How did your family react to this decision?
“Leaving the comforts of a well-paying job, especially in a country like America, where the standard of living is so high—was definitely a risk that I took. It was a planned risk though! I had plans A, B, C and D in place. My education and good grades were my safety nets. So, I could always go back and do my postgraduate degree and take it forward from there—even if I failed. My family had faith in me and supported me because they knew it wasn’t an overnight decision.”
Your first series was on WWF International, how did that happen?
“In the summer of 2019, I started filming in the wild to develop my own show. When I completed shooting three episodes of my first series Safari with Suyash–Season 1—I started pitching it to several organisations around the globe. It was a real-life web-series, showcasing a young person’s life around tigers and conservation in Bandhavgarh National Park in MP. WWF International loved the concept and decided to publish it on their channels. I then shot two more episodes and the five-part series was launched by them, and that’s how this association started. The series was also showcased at a UN and by Incredible India.”
You now do personalised Safaris. How do people generally react to it?
“Taking people on safaris is something that excites me. I absolutely love people’s reaction when they see their first tiger or leopard or anything else that fascinates them while on a safari with me! I always tell people that we all have a curiosity towards nature embedded deep within us.
We at Safari with Suyash don’t always run after the big species. I always tell my guests to enjoy Nature and all its flora and fauna. For us city dwellers, something as basic as clean air is also scarce. So, when at a national park, it’s best to soak it all in.”
“One of the other perks of doing this is the stories I get to hear from them. This year, I hosted over a hundred people, and they have gone back happy: Appreciating Nature and its gifts even more. I have hosted from young kids to those over 70 years of age. It’s amazing to think that they put their faith in a 25-year-old to travel around India’s wilderness.”
You’ve recently launched an OTT platform, a first of its kind in India. How is it going to be different from the rest or even in comparison to the popular channels like Nat Geo and Discovery?
“The idea to launch the platform originated from the content of: Virtual Safaris. We wanted to create a property that we can nurture from its inception, have full creative control over and carry out strong messaging on conservation issues. These are not talked about on traditional TV shows, and most importantly, we wanted something that was completely raw, authentic, and unfiltered. While there’s no denying that the content produced by Animal Planet, Nat Geo and BBC are mindblowing—they’re more often than not—very scripted, dramatic, and planned to the T, which often takes away the authenticity of being in a jungle.”
“We have all heard people complaining how they recently visited a National Park and did not see a tiger or did not see it well enough. Most of these expectations are heightened due to the shows they watch, forgetting that those are usually put together after years of filming, and then edited to put together a movie-like experience with dramatic music, sound effects, and storylines. Our idea with the OTT was to break away from this very format.”
Could you please explain it a bit more?
On our Virtual Safari Experiences, you will get a first-hand insight into the process of tracking different animals, understanding their behavior, learning how to be patient while waiting at a waterhole for instance. In the meantime, you’re just noticing your surroundings, identifying different birds through their sounds or trees around you, learning about the soil and so much more. It is a deep-dive into Nature: Ours is not a film, it is an experience. So, keeping all of this in mind, we created Safari with Suyash–TV—which is India’s first OTT platform dedicated to wildlife. We will be bringing the beauty, excitement and wonder of wildlife into people’s homes across the world. In October 2021, we launched the platform and kickstarted India’s First Virtual Safari experience—so that people can watch a safari every Sunday from the comfort of their homes!”
Why do you think conservation is crucial in an ever-changing, ever-warming planet?
“India’s rich biodiversity has immense benefits for the economy as well as our well-being in the long run only if it is conserved, protected and cherished. Forests and grasslands are the lungs of this country. More than 600 rivers, streams and rivulets originate from our protected areas, many of which remain safe havens for wildlife. Tourism in protected areas provides direct employment to millions of people who are dependent on forest produce and hunting for survival and subsistence. Conservation has been the need of the hour for decades, but we must find a way to make it go mainstream and I hope that I can play a part in doing that through my work.”
Finally, you’re just 25 and already changing the world in your own way. Do you have any counterparts who inspire you?
“Thank you for your kind words. I had a dream, and I am happy that I can live that dream. I personally know and appreciate a couple of young guns who’ve made their mark in this field. First is Eshika Fyzee, a wildlife filmmaker who I really look up to because she has carved a niche for herself in an industry that is mostly dominated by older males. Secondly, there’s Aman Sharma who’s young and still so actively and fearlessly speaking his mind about conservation.”
Finally, what would be your advice for young aspirants?
“If I can do this, so can anyone. If one is true to his/her passion and makes judicious decisions, not even the sky’s the limit. However, let’s keep it real: The opportunities are going to be few and far in-between unless you CREATE them YOURSELF. Also, there will be too many people who would want to show you big dreams and make promises they never intend to keep. Don’t let any organisation/individual in our industry (or any for that matter) exploit your enthusiasm, passion, skills, and hard work without compensating you fairly. Be professional and others will treat you professionally.”
“Personally, what helped me was doing my own research, absorbing as much knowledge as I can from books, articles, documentaries so nobody could use ‘lack of experience’ against me because of my age. I also made sure to have as many real-life experiences with wildlife and conservation as possible and get a lot of training from locals. Then, it came down to designing an idea believing in it wholeheartedly, transforming it into a brand, creating a personality and leveraging all that to create opportunities. This does not mean I have it all figured out. I make a lot of mistakes that I regret, I am still confused and think I can be doing so much more. However, I’m okay with that because it’s all a part of the process!”
“Lastly, there should be no excuse for hard and smart work. One must be very diligent, dedicated, and smart about how to go about everything. That does not mean you should be perfect. Just learn from your mistakes and be persistent.”