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A gift from the Gods – Beyond Bollywood

Kartiki Gonsalves’s Oscar winning documentary short film is a remarkable human-animal bond tale, but it’s also a fine ode to her mother Priscilla.

Rating: 4 / 5

L-R: Bomman, Raghu and Bellie in The Elephant Whisperers [2022]

By Mayur Lookhar

We’re a nation obsessed with mainstream, masala entertainers. If not a slur, a documentary film is equivalent to boredom for the leave-your-brains-behind audience. When an Indian documentary wins an Oscar, it sure is bound to raise the curiosity of such audiences too.

India is basking under the glory of Kartiki Gonsalves’s The Elephant Whisperers [2022] which won the Best Documentary Short Film at the recently held Academy Awards. There was double joy as M.M. Keeravani’s Naatu Naatu song from RRR [2022] won the Oscar for the Best Original Score.  There’s plenty to rejoice for the masses but as a human you would be missing out on some magic if you don’t lend an ear to the Tamil documentary, The Elephant Whisperers.

Set in the Madumalai National Park, Tamil Nadu, The Elephant Whisperers [2022] captures the life of the mahout Bomman and another caretaker Bellie, as they raise two orphan elephants – Raghu and later Ammu – in the village of Theppakadu. Ah, there are countless such infotainment documentaries. What separates The Elephant Whisperers from the rest is the prevalent environment in Theppakadu.

Like any mahouts, Bomman, Bellie and their ilk serve the pachyderm as part of the tribal tradition. Divinity plays its part, however, Bomman and Bellie are also tied by the tribal roots and the existential nature. Despite their economic condition, Bomman and Bellie are determined to look after Raghu and later Ammu. They call these beautiful animals as a gift from the Gods.  So, it’s their duty to look after these pachyderms.  Compare that with city life, where most would hesitate to adopt a pet cat or a dog.

Bomman, Bellie love Raghu and Ammu like their own children.  The latter is perhaps a widow and she also discloses how he lost her daughter.  There is not much revealed about Bomman save that he is continuing with the family tradition. It’s the affection for Raghu and Ammu that eventually binds them together.

The Elephant Whisperers idea came from Kartiki’s mother Priscilla, who is credited with the story.  Though a documentary, the screenplay, events feel like watching an emotionally gripping unique family drama. Kartiki doesn’t burden her film with too much conflict. It gets its due mention. Harping too much on it would have catapulted her film into the typical man vs nature space.

Kartiki smartly builds her narrative around Bomman and Bellie’s servitude. The happy faces and the sincerity of the elderly duo win your heart. The human-animal bond is not one way with the latter, too, is known to display emotions. The tears in Raghu’s eyes as Bomman and Bellie are about to bid him goodbye tells its own story.

Kartiki’s astute direction is backed by superlative cinematography which is the handiwork of Karan Thapliyal, Krish Makhija, Anand Bansal and Kartiki herself. The team work enriches the visual quality.  At 40 minutes, The Elephants Whisperers gives a near lifetime experience. Sanchari Das Mollick and Douglas Blush’s neat editing ensures consistent engagement.  The visuals are elevated by Sven Faulconer ‘s very moving background score.

The Elephant Whisperers’s success is likely to give much needed fillip to the documentary filmmaking in India.  These 40 minutes truly feel like a gift from the Gods. It also a fine ode by a daughter [Kartiki] to her mother.

Produced by Guneet Monga’s Sikhya Entertainment, The Elephant Whisperers is available on Netflix.

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