The film begins with a man looking up at the sky almost obscured by lush green branches. As the camera shifts, we get a glimpse of his face, his eyes scanning the forest with familiarity. “This is my home, where I belong, where wild animals roam free,” he says. With Bomman’s introduction, Kartiki Gonsalves lays the foundation of her debut documentary: quiet coexistence.
The Elephant Whisperers, directed by Gonsalves and produced by Guneet Monga and Achin Jain of Sikhya Entertainment, follows Bomman and Bellie, middle-aged baby elephant caretakers who belong to the Kattunayakan tribe and their unique relationship with Raghu and Ammu, baby elephants separated from their herds. The documentary was filmed in the Theppakadu elephant camp at the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu. At a time when there are regular reports of human-animal conflict, Gonsalves shifts the lens to emphasise the need for peaceful coexistence through a family pieced together with love.
In the months since its premiere on Netflix on 8 December, accolades have rolled in, including a nomination for the 95th Academy Awards in the Best Documentary Short Film category. Gonsalves says it feels surreal. “We are thrilled to receive this great honour. We also feel very happy that the extra publicity will help spread the message of the documentary.”
Although Bellie and Bomman don’t understand the awards part completely, Gonsalves says they are excited and happy. “People from across the world are writing to us, which we are translating for Bellie and Bomman. They have been getting visitors at the camp. In their way, they have been feeling the love,” she says.
The idea for the documentary emerged in 2017 when the natural history and social photographer and filmmaker decided she wanted to film in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, something no one had done in about 40 years. As the permits came in and Gonsalves headed out with a DSLR and a GoPro, she didn’t imagine that this journey would become such a personal one. She began with a plan to make a 15-minute film but soon, Gonsalves realized it needed to be a longer documentary (the run-time is 39 minutes).
One of the first people to come on board was cinematographer Krish Makhija, who did the initial filming with Gonsalves . “I had the background of working with wildlife but I needed someone to help capture the human emotions,” she says. The first few schedules focused on Raghu, and just when they thought it’s a wrap, five-month-old Ammu came along and the story expanded.
Gonsalves shows how the destruction of natural habitats force wild animals like elephants to go on a desperate search for food and water. Their babies, often unable to keep up, get lost and die.
Gonsalves shows different sides of the pachyderms. As Raghu splashes water on Bomman, a glimpse of playfulness sneaks through; when Bellie talks about the silent comfort he provided when she was grieving a loss, empathy makes an appearance; and when Raghu refuses to eat a ragi ball and spits it out, it’s with the stubbornness of a child. “Everything about him is like a human, except that he cannot speak,” Bellie says in the documentary.
Gonsalves says she hoped that people would find Raghu and Ammu relatable. “It’s interesting to see the many traits that they share with humans. I wanted to enable people to switch from seeing them as the other to one of us. At the end of the day, we all need to coexist in the same space for all of us to survive.”
With The Elephant Whisperers, Gonsalves says she wanted to “let viewers understand both the elephants and the human carers with minimal outside interpretation, and portray the dignity of the elephants and the indigenous people who have lived with them and coexisted and cared for them for centuries.” The importance of indigenous communities’ voice is a core theme in the documentary. Gonsalves seems to be aware of the perils of a saviour gaze. For instance, there is no narrator, no one speaks for Bellie and Bomman; it’s their story in their voice, which is refreshing and powerful.
“For us [tribal communities], the well-being of the forest is all that matters…We live off the forest and we also protect it,” Bellie says as she walks through the forest barefoot, a way of showing it respect.
Talking about Bomman and Bellie as narrators, Gonsalves says, “They had beautiful insights into the way they respect the land and how they live their lives. Moreover, I wanted to eliminate any barrier between the viewers and the story. There is nothing like listening to the story from the people who are living it.”
Gonsalves’ focus on authentic portrayals also expanded to the use of natural light. She wanted the viewers to get an idea of what the days and nights look like for this family. “It’s also an ethical stance because natural light doesn’t interfere with elephants and the use of bright lights that we often use in filmmaking might harm them,” she explains.
One of most beautiful scenes of the film is shot in night: Bomman, Bellie, and Raghu gather around a bonfire and Bellie says, “We have become a family around Raghu and that’s why he survived.”
Watching them, I remember how, as a kid, probably as old as Raghu, I was convinced that elephants were magic—a ploy by a young mind to comprehend their larger-than-life existence. By the end of this documentary, you get a gentle reminder: sometimes humans can be too.
Also read: IFFR 2023: filming India on the brink