While much of the cinema-loving public across the world is tapping its feet and trying out the “Natu Natu” moves of RRR’s Oscar-winning tune, I decided to watch the other, humbler winner.
I am of course referring to The Elephant Whisperers, which bagged India’s first Oscar in Documentary Short Film Category.
Produced by Guneet Monga and directed by Kartiki Gonsalves, it is a must-watch. It really tugs at one’s heartstrings as it recounts the story of two abandoned elephant calves, Raghu and Ammu, and their keepers, Bomman and Belli, who keep them alive.
Gonsalves tracked the life of Raghu over a five-year period, shooting some 450 hours of footage for a 39 minute final runtime.
The movie is sure to absorb and engross animal lovers and wildlife enthusiasts. With its lyrical camera work and sombre musical score, it follows the travails and triumphs of the world’s largest and gentlest land mammals, the magnificent elephants, now found only in Africa and Asia.
Pulling off a miracle
In India, the elephant, as the movie shows, is so much a part of the culture and folklore, thanks to the popular elephant headed Hindu deity, Ganesha, who is considered the remover of obstacles.
But for elephants in the wild, the challenges of survival are enormous. Their natural habitat is shrinking, and their pathways are full of newer and more formidable obstacles.
Increasing urbanisation, climate change, shortage of food and fodder, the ongoing man-animal competition, not to mention poaching—all these make life very difficult for these most intelligent and tenderest of beasts. The Elephant Whisperers shows how traditional, forest dwelling tribal communities offer some hope for the upkeep and preservation of these gentle giants.
Usually, abandoned wild elephant calves do not survive in captivity. But this documentary shows that with proper tending, one might even call it parenting, two dedicated elephant keepers pull off a miracle in saving Raghu and Ammu. Raghu, a little baby elephant, is brought to Bomman and Belli when he is just a few months old.
With patience, care, and love
His mother has been accidentally electrocuted, which is not all that infrequent when elephant herds trample through fallen electric fences or wires. He has also been mauled by stray dogs.
Bomman and Belli, who are also devotees of Ganesha, consider him nothing less than their own child. Both have lived in the jungles all their lives and have weathered many losses and tragedies. Belli has lost her husband and son, while Bomman, quite alone and ageing, has been seriously injured by a large tusker.
Now he can only tend to younger calves. Later, the forest rangers also assign them another baby elephant, little Ammu. She too is abandoned and must be looked after with great patience, care, and love.
The baby elephants live in an enclosure right next to their keepers’ huts in Theppakadu elephant camp, on the border of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The large Bandipur-Mudumalai wildlife sanctuaries, among the largest protected elephant tracts in the world, span across the two Southern states of India.
The area is rich in wildlife of all kinds, as shown in the documentary, including tigers, leopards, bison, deer, wild boar, monkeys, and a variety of birds, all beautifully captured on camera by Golsalves. But the king of the jungle is clearly the elephant, a gregarious mammal, who roams across the rugged hills in large herds.
Unique man-animal synergy
But the hills are bare as a result of climate change and forest fires. Therefore, the elephant strays into human habitation, much to its own detriment. How to save it for future generations?
This is the fundamental question that The Elephant Whisperers poses. The answer is a unique man-animal synergy and partnership, which only the most disadvantaged and “backward” of India’s communities, its so-called forest dwellers are able to demonstrate.
These are people whose lives and livelihoods depend on the health and well-being of forests. They are best equipped to be its finest conservationists. When it comes to elephants, Bomman and Belli demonstrate how much the animals love and trust them.
The funding to protect the elephants also becomes the source of the livelihood of the tribals. The documentary is also a love story because it shows an aging couple, both alone, finding love and companionship in their common devotion to their elephant children.
With Raghu and Ammu, their rescued animal wards as their prime witnesses and guests of honour, the couple tie the knot by an exchange of garlands. The future generations of both the tribals and elephants must, similarly, learn to take care of one another.
To my motherland India
In a moving scene, little boys from the community are shown jumping into the elephant pond with the beasts, scrubbing them down and gambolling with them.
Receiving the globally coveted award, Gonsalves, who grew up in nearby Ooty, said,“I stand here today to speak on the sacred bond between us and our natural world. For the respect of indigenous communities. For entity towards other living beings, we share our space with. And finally for co-existence.”
Kartiki dedicated her film to her parents, Priscilla, her American mother, and Timothy Aloysius Gonsalves, computer scientist, professor, and founding director of Indian Institute of Technology-Mandi. But when got the award, she rededicated it “To my motherland India.”
This film is so precious because it preserves the dignity of both humans and animals, showing how we can coexist on our beautiful planet.
Congratulations Guneet and Kartiki — hope you make more such patiently beautiful movies that sensitise us and teach us how to tend to our planet with greater love and responsibility.