Television, wow. You turn on the set, and there's a tiger staring you in the face. It must be a National Geographic Society Special, and it is: "Land of the Tiger," an exotic beauty that begins the Geographic's 10th anniversary season on PBS tonight at 8 on Channel 26.
For "Land of the Tiger," husband-and-wife wildlife photographers Stanley Breeden and Belinda Wright spent two years at two national parks in India: arid Kanha and leafy Ranthambhor. The superb footage they brought back includes wildlife scenes never captured before, not the least of these being shots of wild tigers mating. Once in the mood, two tigers may have several encounters an hour over a period of three or four days. They don't call 'em tigers for nothing.
This is the first special Breeden and Wright have done for the Geographic, but it resembles the classic of this type, "Etosha, Place of Dry Water," made by another husband-and-wife team, David and Carol Hughes. These documentaries are leaps forward for the naturalist film. There's minimal narration (nicely handled by Richard Kiley), none of the old-time anthropomorphic melodramatics about savagery and cunning, and no self-congratulation for having endured the wild. The filmmakers have the sense, still too rare in television, to let the pictures do the talking.
Obviously the tiger makes a splendid subject for the camera. Long lenses bring the cats within touching distance. Their lives are spent in the crouch position, mostly, as they lurk in reeds or woods waiting to pounce on prey. In the film, the favored snack is the sambar, an Asiatic deer that shares a shaky coexistence with the tigers around watering holes, which the deer must skittishly approach to score a sip.
Only once does the camera record a complete kill sequence, as a tiger, cranked down to slo-mo, raids a drinking party and snatches one of the sambars from the group, then drags it off to hide it from fellow tigers that show no reticence about coveting a neighbor's deer. The opening sequence of the film is edited like a movie thriller, a setup for a major pounce that, one disappointedly discovers, does not occur.
Seasons go by and suffocating heat turns to saturating rain; monsoons make the jungle green overnight. In the height of the dry season, monkeys lick rocks for the moisture and salt they contain, storks poke for fish, bright green butterflies suck sand and a white-breasted kingfisher takes an impulsive dip. The squawk of the peacock is heard in the land; later the bird does a full-feather flash to commemorate summer's merciful end. A male bullfrog inflates two blue Gillespian cheeks for a celebratory croak and, less agreeably, down from the hills come vicious wild dogs that in a pack can intimidate even the mighty tiger, otherwise the ruling beast in this stratified society.
The best television is still the television from which you can learn something. Some of our feisty young documentary makers consider the Geographic's specials innocuous -- they don't get into the sordid realities of human conflict -- but they do have the capacity to bring secrets of nature, and thus of life, into bracing and edifying focus. They have their own enrapturing profundity.
Gulf Oil has bankrolled the specials since the Geographic went public (TV). Now Gulf has become part of Chevron, and Chevron has pledged to maintain its support. Meanwhile, the specials have proven themselves in the video jungle. They have remarkably long lives; some of those that show up now on cable TV are from the first batch done for CBS as long as two decades ago.
It's been a remarkable, rewarding electronic expedition. To judge from its beginning, the 10th season -- which will include a 90-minute retrospective of the previous nine -- will not be a letdown. CAPTION: Picture, One of the subjects of the National Geographic Special "Land of the Tiger." Copyright (c) Standley Breeden & Belinda Wright