How on earth will Oscar voters find the strength to resist a documentary about two adorable baby elephants and their equally lovable elderly caretakers? Indeed, it will take a pachyderm’s hide – and a heart of stone – to ignore a 41-minute montage of “awwww”.
Kartiki Gonsalves’s The Elephant Whisperers is among five candidates vying for the Documentary Short Film Oscar. Produced by Guneet Monga’s Sikhya Entertainment, The Elephant Whisperers is itself among three nominations for India at the Oscars.
The Elephant Whisperers is being streamed on Netflix. It is this year’s My Octopus Teacher – the 2020 Oscar-winning documentary about the bond between a filmmaker and an octopus whom he credits with helping him through a rough path.
Gonsalves’s mostly Tamil-language film follows Bomman and Bellie, who are among the tribals working at the Theppakadu Elephant Camp in Tamil Nadu’s Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. The tribals bring to their jobs an intuitive understanding of the forest and its irreplaceable riches, the film suggests.
While there are several wonderful elephant specimens hulking about, two are in focus: Raghu and Ammu. Both have been orphaned, and both are treated like Bomman and Bellie like their own children.
The eyes cloud over and the mouth involuntarily widens into a grin as we see Raghu being bathed, fed and fussed over. From tossing a football to kicking up a tantrum over his feed, Raghu is a bona fide star. But the competition is stiff. Not only is Ammu younger than Raghu, but she has the kind of fringe that makes you wish that Netflix had an interactive feature that would allow you to reach into the screen and ruffle Ammu’s hair.
The two humans are equally hard to forget. Bomman and Bellie are the kind of unselfconscious subjects that make even scripted documentaries like this one feel authentic. Their smiles are as heartfelt as their tears are sincere. The deeply moving love they have for their wards results in several misty-eyed “Hum Do Hamare Do” moments – we two and our two children.
The dreamy visuals, by Gonsalves, Karan Thapliyal, Krish Makhija and Anand Bansal, amply capture the beauty of the reserve. Although the film doesn’t overtly discuss conservation or the role played by tribals in protecting the ecology, there is no doubt that this patch of nature, with its understanding humans and vulnerable animals, needs to be left alone.