“The Elephant Whisperers,” India’s heart-wrenching film about the inseparable bond between an abandoned elephant and its two caretakers, won an Oscar – in 2023. Kartiki Gonsalves’ film won top honors in the Documentary Short category at the 95th Academy Awards.
The documentary, streaming on Netflix, focuses on the relationship between humans and animals. This drives home a huge message about the need for elephant conservation and protection.
The Elephant Whisperers
Surrounded by the Nilgiris and beyond the Mayar River, in the heart of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve Theppakadu Elephant Camp, live Bomman, Bellie, and their baby Raghu (elephant). Kartiki Gonsalves follows this family of three through the changing seasons of the jungle in his short documentary.
Gonsalves’ documentary, shortlisted for the 95th Oscars in the Documentary Short category, takes viewers on a mesmerizing visual safari of trees changing color, rivers overflowing, and forests burning in the summer heat.
Then, Bomman and Bellie were responsible for Raghu, a baby elephant separated from the herd. While Gonsalves focuses on the bond between Raghu and his caretakers, he makes quiet but effective points on the perennial human-animal conflict. The trio’s story is an essential insight into when forest officials fail to reunite a baby elephant with its herd.
Bomman and Bellie, who belong to the Kattunayakan tribe, revolve around this forest. This is where their forefathers have protected and toiled, which they hope to pass on to their grandchildren. “We live off the forest, but we also protect it,” says Bellie. A tiger killed her husband. This creates a gap between her and the forest, and she begins to fear the place where she grew up. Raghu’s early career followed a similar path. He was separated from his herd after his mother was electrocuted to death. Bellie, who has never taken care of elephants before, and Raghu, who recently lost her baby and is not used to being around humans, join forces to find relief in the same forest. For Bomman, taking care of Raghu is the first baby step he takes to carry on the legacy of his grandfather and father. Bomman, who was attacked by an adult elephant and injured, has been assigned to care for the young elephants by the forest department.
Raghu gains a new sibling Ammu, a contemporary calf. Bomman and Belly are assigned to care for them as their family expands. Through this, the documentary informs us that ‘Bomman and Belle are the first couples to raise two orphaned elephants in South India successfully.’ Gonsalves’ work helps provide this statistic, considering how it predicts the care involved in elephant husbandry among humans. Nevertheless, Gonsalves is not shy about addressing the issues that led Raghu to lose his mother.
The documentary is narrated only by Bomman and Bellie. In telling the story of their life with Raghu, human damage to nature is part of their conversation with the audience.
It is this seamlessness that Gonsalves extends to the footage of the documentary, creating an immersive experience. Although the camera continues to document the family’s daily routine, it does not disrupt its private space.
Bomman and Bellie are not taken out of the forest to tell their story. The viewer eagerly follows Pomman, talks about eating ragu, or sits on the sidelines as Belle recalls her first meeting with Rahu.
In that way, Gonçalves’ works represent a safari where the viewer quietly observes the connection between nature and man as Bomman, Belle, and Raghu invite you to a place that is becoming rarer by the day.
From Documentary To Oscars
Gonsalves dedicated the award to his “motherland India” and her family. “I stand here to speak of our connection with the natural world, for the respect of indigenous communities, and empathy towards other living beings we share a space with, and finally, for coexistence,” she said. “Thank you to the Academy for recognizing our film, highlighting indigenous people. And for Netflix, for believing in the power of our film.”
“The film has connected people across the world. It comes to the question of how powerful filmmaking and storytelling is and how a small story with a global message has reached people across the globe in spite of being a local story from the heart of India,” Kartiki Gonsalves, who is the director, cinematographer and executive producer of “The Elephant Whisperers,” had told Moneycontrol in an interview in February.
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