Perhaps no director is more obsessed with elephants than Prabhu Solomon. His 2012 movie Kumki, about the relationship between a mahout and his pachyderm, was a critical and commercial hit. The Tamil director is planning a sequel to the film. Meanwhile, he will direct Haathi Mere Saathi for Eros International. The movie stars Rana Daggubati and is more of a tribute to the classic 1971 Hindi movie, starring Rajesh Khanna and Tanuja, than a remake.
“Elephants are among the most intelligent and lovable creatures,” Solomon said. “Of course shooting with them isn’t easy. An elephant on set will need about 250 kilograms of food a day and nearly 200 litres of water. It’s like organising a wedding feast. One also has to be patient when shooting with animals. Crews have to be small, and often quiet for long periods of time. But I’ll let you in on a secret. If you look closely and carefully, sometimes you’ll catch the elephant smiling. And that’s just beautiful.”
The original Haathi Mere Saathi won’t pass muster with animal rights activists today – it features four pet elephants performing tricks at a make-shift circus. Throughout the film, the elephants execute a range of tasks, from playing football with Raju (Rajesh Khanna), to helping in gardening, pushing broken-down cars and participating in a race.
Solomon’s movie is far more contemporary, and focuses on the ongoing conflict between elephants and humans through the framework of an adventure. “Eros International was keen on producing a film that highlights man-animal conflicts,” he said. “The brief given to me was that the film should have a global appeal. I felt that a film based on a real incident would work best. So, I travelled across the country to all places where one finds elephants to search for a suitable story.”
Eventually, he picked an incident that took place in an elephant corridor in the North-East. “Around 20 elephants were orphaned near Kaziranga because of the actions of humans,” he said. “What my film is going to do is tell the story of how they are rescued. I was also encouraged by the story’s visual potential. Imagine. 20 elephants on screen together.”
Telugu star Rana Daggubati, who has also appeared in Hindi films, was perfectly suited for the film on account of his rugged looks, the director said. “Rana will fit the role of a jungle man quite well,” he explained. “Even the production house was happy since post-Baahubali, he now has international appeal. It was a choice that made business sense too.”
Solomon has roped in Alphonse Roy, the acclaimed cinematographer who has shot the films Aamir (2008) and Gulaab Gang (2014) but is better known for critically acclaimed nature documentaries. Haathi Mere Saathi will be shot entirely in Thailand to circumvent the restrictions against filming animals in India. “The censor board in India has very strict rules when it comes to shooting with elephants in the country,” Prabhu said. “But if you shoot the film abroad, they have no objections. Thailand has elephant camps and they have given us permission too.”
Solomon will get a national stage with Haathi Mere Saathi – the movie will be released in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. The success of such films as Enthiran (2010) and the Baahubali films, which targetted national rather than local audiences, has encouraged Bollywood studios to look for talent outside Mumbai.
Everything depends on the story, of course. “When you are attempting a project like this with close to 20 elephants, it makes sense to shoot it in three languages. Such films are like one-time wonders,” Solomon pointed out.
Solomon shot to fame in 2010 with the rural romance Mynaa. He had worked on “mid-level” films, as he calls them, until then, and Mynaa gave him his big break. “I think I was yet to discover myself until Mynaa,” he said. “I’m a travel freak, basically. I don’t think narratives or films are born if one chooses to sit inside the confines of a house or an office. One needs to travel, meet all kinds of people and go through all kinds of circumstances to be a storyteller. A single journey is equal to an entire library.”
The success of Kumki, a romance starring Vikram Prabhu as the mahout Bomman, Lakshmi Menon as his lover, and the elephant Manickam, gave Solomon the reputation of a filmmaker who understands the dynamics between humankind and the animal kingdom. “I cannot explain why and how I began to connect with elephants,” he said. “Perhaps, it is god’s grace.”
Feature films about the bond between humans and animals are few and far between. “Only those passionate about this topic will be driven to make films on animals,” he said. “It is tedious to shoot these films. And the passion has to extend not just to the director and the cast but the technicians and the producers as well. Also, it is a misconception that these are niche films. Kids love such stories. If they drag their parents to the theatres, the film is going to make money.”
That is why a sequel to Kumki has been in the works. “Let’s just say that the film is a work-in-progress and is proceeding simultaneously,” he said. “I’m thinking about a narrative about a calf elephant and a group of children.”
The approach in Haathi Mere Saathi will be quite different from Kumki. “In Kumki, I relied on a number of what we call cinematic aspects,” Solomon said. “Here, since this is based on a real incident, it will be a far more intense and pointed narrative.”