More than five years ago, Kartiki Gonsalves was driving from Ooty, her hometown, to Bengaluru, where she worked. On the way, passing through the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, which is surrounded by the beautiful Nilgiri mountains, the photographer-filmmaker saw something that moved her so much that she immediately pulled her car over. “I saw Raghu and Bomman on the road. Raghu was three months old. He sort of beckoned me; I parked my car and joined the man and the baby elephant,” Kartiki Gonsalves told Frontline.
Bomman, his wife Bellie, and their ‘child’ Raghu have hit the headlines globally now, thanks to The Elephant Whisperers, a 41-minute Netflix documentary directed by Kartiki Gonsalves and produced by Guneet Monga and Achin Jain of Sikhya Entertainment, which has been nominated for the 95th Academy Awards in the Best Documentary Short Film category. (This is the second documentary from Sikhya to reach the Oscars. Their Period. End of Sentence bagged the prize for Best Documentary Short in 2019.)
A jumbo backstory
The Elephant Whisperers narrates the story of Bomman and Bellie, a middle-aged couple who belong to the indigenous Kattunayakan tribe, and their heartwarming relationship with the baby elephant Raghu and later with Ammu, another calf elephant, who they received from the Tamil Nadu government-run Theppakadu elephant camp to, technically speaking, tame and train.
But Bomman and Bellie treat the pachyderms with commitment and compassion. Much like Lawrence Anthony, the South African conservationist known as “The Elephant Whisperer”, Bomman and Bellie consider the little jumbos as errant children and shower them with all the love they can offer and, as the beautifully shot documentary shows, build a deep emotional connect with the animals. “I felt this was such an unusual family dynamic,” said Kartiki Gonsalves.
The film is Kartiki’s debut as a director. “I live in Ooty. I grew up here. There is so much beauty around here in the Nilgiri biosphere, especially in Mudumalai, which is a national park,” she said. She wanted to showcase all the “positivity” around the place, even though the story has a very depressing subtext: how the Asian elephant has been losing its habitat rapidly due to climate change and encroachment.
But the making of the movie was quite a daunting task: it took the team five years—2017 to 2022—to finish and release it in December 2022.
Kartiki Gonsalves said: “Even before I got permission from the Forest Department to film in the region, I had spent a lot of time with Bomman and Bellie before I actually started making the film. I was told that Raghu was orphaned and I felt it was a bittersweet beginning to my story.”
Raghu’s mother was electrocuted when her herd wandered into a village in search of food and water during a prolonged drought.
Kartiki Gonsalves said that she made the documentary because she wanted people to “understand elephants and understand them at a deeper level and understand their intelligence” so that they can help protect the jumbos and their landscape.
She also wanted to show the importance of the indigenous people, the Kattunayakan community, and their immense knowledge of the forest and its organisms. “Most importantly, I genuinely wanted to give them a voice,” she said. And that is why she decided to use Bomman and Bellie as the narrators of the story. “This is their story and their voice.”
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The initial cinematography was done by Krish Makhija and Kartiki herself. Karan Thapliyal joined the project when Makhija was unable to continue. Anand Bansal is the fourth cameraman who worked on the project. The team used two or three cameras throughout the five-year schedule.
The post-production work also posed a huge challenge. Aswathi Naduthodi, the post-production supervisor, said: “We had more than 250 hours of footage and creating such a concise, crisp and comprehensive narrative out of the pile without losing the emotion, the drama, and the anguish was quite a task.”
Boost for documentary scene
Expectedly, the film’s Oscar entry has triggered a debate around India’s ailing documentary scene. Even though the country has had a steady tradition of documentaries, it is mostly driven by the will and passion of independent filmmakers and producers who willingly fund projects even where they are bound to lose money. “I hope the attention The Elephant Whisperers is receiving will change the scene for good,” said Kartiki Gonsalves.
According to Aswathi Naduthodi, the accolades being showered upon The Elephant Whisperers may make a difference in the way documentary films are produced, distributed, and appreciated in India. “Documentaries consume more time and energy. They really need support from serious production houses,” she said.
Kartiki Gonsalves said she wishes this would open up more opportunities for documentaries from India and more people would come up with home-grown stories such as hers. “India is very rich and diverse culturally, geographically, and sociologically, and there are many more beautiful stories that need to be told. The world is waiting.”
UPDATE: The Elephant Whisperers won the Oscar Award for Best Documentary Short Film at the 95th Academy Awards on March 13, 2023.