By Sayantan Mondal Mar. 31, 2019
Hollywood director Chuck Russell’s Junglee – the story of a military veteran who fights a poaching ring in an elephant reserve – brings back memories of Haathi Mere Saathi. But much before the Rajesh Khanna-starrer, the 1937 British film called The Elephant Boy chronicled the friendship between man and the gentle giants.
Hollywood director Chuck Russell’s Junglee – starring Vidyut Jammwal as a military veteran who fights a poaching ring in an elephant reserve – brings Bollywood’s focus back to one of the moskt indelible friendships between humans and elephants. A friendship that has endured longer than the bond between Jai and Veeru and Meow and Rats.
Even though the credit for cementing this onscreen elephant frenzy in Hindi cinema goes to Haathi Mere Saathi (1971), something a lot of people may not know is that this trope can be traced back to a 1937 British film called The Elephant Boy, an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s short story, Toomai of the Elephants. Directed by Zoltan Korda and Robert J Flaherty, it was largely set in India and facilitated the debut of 12-year-old Sabu Dastagir, a young Indian actor, who could have possibly been the country’s first crossover star.
The Elephant Boy chronicled the friendship between a young Toomai (Sabu Dastagir) and his pet elephant Kala Nag. It follows Toomai’s efforts to save his only friend in the world from getting killed after a British officer hands Kala Nag to a cruel mahout following the death of his father. It is during this adventure that Toomai – who dreams of being a hunter – witnesses the dance of the elephants, which, as per legend, can make one a great hunter. The film ultimately ends with Toomai getting reunited with Kala Nag and finding a mentor who promises to teach him the tricks of the trade.
But the real heroes are the animals – who are more compassionate than man who is absorbed by greed.
The Elephant Boy had almost everything that can be expected from a ’30s British movie set in India: It starred a reliable protagonist who is willing to go to any length to please his white master. The white master in return, is largely a kind and affable man who knows what is best for the native.
In fact, Sabu’s Toomai made for a fascinating protagonist, considering his willingness to please everyone ends up making him the perfect colonised subject. For instance, when Kala Nag and Toomai’s father get hired by the British officer, Toomai is shown telling him that he is willing to run all errands for him. In doing so, the film gives a vivid picture of the dependency on Indians to capture and plunder the natural resources of the country. It also depicts colonialism as a benevolent mechanism: Kala Nag, an animal who didn’t get to have a say over his own fate then, becomes synonymous with India’s own plight, a nation without freedom and will.
Toomai and Kala Nag’s friendship perfectly sums up the relationship that the nation has had with elephants in general. These gentle giants symbolise loyalty – they are protective and in times of need, can be menacing enough to save their loved ones. Though these films on friendship with the pachyderm follow a similar template of buddy films, they were still different in how they portray the relationship between man and animal. Haathi Mere Saathi (1971), Maa (1976), Safed Haathi (1978) reiterated that man could rely on animals more than he could on his own people. An elephant, then, was also used to highlight the fickleness of human emotions.
One of the recurring themes in the elephant genre is highlighting human cunningness and apathy which tests the very essence of a bond between man and animal. Haathi Mere Saathi is about an orphan boy Raju, played by Rajesh Khanna, and his family of four elephants, of which Ramu is his closest aide. The pachyderms are his ticket to success. Once Raju is married and has a kid, the wife asks him to pick between his family and pets. In the end, Ramu, in an attempt to bring the estranged lovers together, sacrifices his life.
Safed Haathi, a National Award-winning film, is again a story of friendship between a boy Sibu and his rare white elephant, Airawat. Sibu’s uncle and aunt are promised a handsome reward by a maharaja and in turn they have to lead him to the elephant. The king captures the beast but Sibu and his other friends from the jungle rescue Airawat.
The protagonist in these films have to deal with megalomaniacs in the form of businessmen and hunters, who want to capture these magnificent beasts for their own benefit. But the real heroes are the animals – who are more compassionate than man who is absorbed by greed.
But even before these stories of friendship, elephants were a regular feature in Hindi cinema. These movies heavily relied on portraying them as divine beings, partly due to their connection to Ganesha, or prepping them up as war machines, like in Mughal-e-Azam (1960). It’s in this narrative that Haathi Mere Saathi managed to propose a different template, owing its ingenuity to The Elephant Boy.
Despite these tear-jerkers, elephants, irrespective of their divine connection, are often treated badly. They are caged and enslaved, used in circuses and safari rides. And Bollywood has been no different – milking elephants for entertainment. But let’s hope that in an environment-conscious world we dig deeper. Let’s hope Junglee pushes us to put on our thinking hats. We definitely need a jumbo-sized one.
Sayantan Mondal is an instructional designer and writer from Pune. When he is not busy at work, he likes to watch movies, make memes and hunt zombies. He also has a doctorate degree that he uses to ward off evil and other supernatural beings.