We often hear people talk about how much they love animals, adore pets, and treat their pet animals like their children. Does adopting (or buying) a pet dog or cat, feeding it, giving it shelter, vaccinating it (and neutering it) alone define one's love and care for animals?
The Elephant Whisperers is surely a film that will make us rethink all this. This 2022 Indian-American short documentary film, by Kartiki Gonsalves in her directorial debut, is about the bond that develops between a couple and an orphaned baby elephant, Raghu, who was entrusted to their care.
Set in the Mudumalai National Park in South India, the documentary also highlights the natural beauty of the location. It explores the life of the tribal people in harmony with nature. The story revolves around an indigenous couple named Bomman and Bellie who are entrusted with an orphaned baby elephant named Raghu whose mother was electrocuted. They take great pains to ensure that the fragile, injured infant survives and grows to be a healthy juvenile. A strong bond develops between the couple and the elephant, and it also makes one ponder upon the parallels drawn in all their lives and how they become a family despite their personal tragedies. It also hints at how often orphaned animals find it hard to blend in with the rest of the tribe, and talks about the role of the forest department and local caretakers in elephant rehabilitation camps.
Belonging to the Kattunayakan tribe, Bomman and Bellie’s lives revolve around the forest. Their ancestors had worked hard to protect it, and they hope to pass it along to their grandchildren. 'We live off the forest, but we also protect it,' says Bellie, whose husband was killed by a tiger.
This thought can be found in religious and spiritual traditions throughout the world. In Hinduism, there is a strong belief that God is present in everything. The five elements of nature—pancha tattvas (Water, Air, Fire, Earth, and Space)—are worshipped. It is believed that all living beings are created from these five elements and when they die, they are returned to these five elements.
There is a story in the Srimad Bhagavata Purana where Sri Krishna said, 'We are cowherds. We earn our living by rearing cows. We should thank the giver of grass to our cows, which in turn give us everything. I suggest that we worship our cows and the Mountain Govardhana—the nourisher of cows'. Similarly, in Greek mythology, Gaia is the name given to the personification of the earth, which is supposed to be the mother of everything and everyone. Modern-day ecologists have adopted the term Gaia to refer to the Earth as a complex and dynamic self-regulatory system consisting of all living organisms and inorganic material on earth. Whether it is mythology or ecology, both believe that we owe our life to Gaia. This is no different from how believers look upon God as the giver of life.
In more than one way, on multiple levels, this is a love story—the love story of a community that serves to protect the dignity of all kinds of life. With stunning cinematography that needs to be experienced more than just merely be seen, with music that is subtle yet moving, this 40-minute documentary showcases the beautiful symbiosis between man and animals and their co-existence in the most soul-stirring way possible.
The Elephant Whisperers won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Film at the 95th Academy Awards. In her award acceptance speech, Kartiki said, 'I stand here today to speak on the sacred bond between us and our natural world. For the respect of indigenous communities. For empathy towards other living beings, we share our space with. And finally for coexistence. Thank you to the academy for recognising our film highlighting indigenous people and animals...To my motherland India'.