With Mowgli, Netflix Gives The Jungle Book A Much-Needed Update

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With Mowgli, Netflix Gives The Jungle Book A Much-Needed Update

Illustration: Arati Gujar

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very great story has room for change. Shakespeare’s plays have been remade into films in fresh milieus as diverse as war-torn eastern Europe and the seedy Mumbai underworld, and Devdas has been resurrected in so many different imaginings by various Bollywood filmmakers, from Satyajit Ray to Anurag Kashyap, that he might as well be renamed Lazarus for the character’s ability to come back to life. Adaptability – the quality that makes a story relevant in different periods to different audiences – is the hallmark of a timeless tale. And while Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is truly timeless, it urgently needed to adapt, if its story were to remain relevant.

The Netflix release Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle marks the latest attempt to update Kipling’s classic, this time by sophomore director Andy Serkis. The film unequivocally succeeds in standing apart from the adaptations that came before, but does it succeed in making the story of man-cub Mowgli matter, more than a 100 years after it was first told? More on that later. First, let’s declare this the darkest Jungle Book adaptation of all time and get that out of the way. It’s like Andy Serkis found the grittiness potion that Christopher Nolan was sipping on while rebooting Batman, and drank an entire cauldron before directing Mowgli.

The cutesy, child-friendly tone that had characterised Jungle Book ever since Disney decided to replace the darker aspects of Kipling’s prose with singing animals, is completely scrubbed from this film. In the place of the happy duo who sang “Bear Necessities”, we get Baloo with a face full of frightening scars, and a Mowgli who is made to bleed. This darker bent to the script, along with an all-time great voice-acting performance from Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan (who is even more intimidating playing a tiger than the dragon Smaug), makes Mowgli a story that is very clearly not meant for kids.

What Mowgli tries to impress upon viewers is that human arrogance and nature’s bounty are incompatible.

That’s not meant to be a knock on Serkis’ take on the story. In fact, older audiences, who grew up on Disney’s version, will probably welcome the change in tone, having outgrown the saccharine quality of kids’ movies long ago. But more than this dark reimagining of a familiar story, it’s the fresh additions to the plot that make Mowgli special for long-time fans.

I attribute my lifelong love for wildlife in a large part to reading illustrated versions of Kipling’s storybooks at a young age, and owning the VHS copy of the 1967 Disney classic. As I grew older, characters transcended their traditional hero-villain alignments, becoming symbols of a wild India that was slowly fading from existence. The idea of a man-eating tiger like Shere Khan might have been the most terrifying notion when Kipling first wrote The Jungle Book in 1894, but today, the endangered king of the forest cuts a sympathetic figure. The outpouring of support last month to save the life of Avni the tigress from being put down, shows how in today’s times, the forest and its wildlife are at humankind’s mercy, and not the other way around.

This is why the introduction of a British big-game hunter in Mowgli is a masterstroke from Serkis and screenplay writer Callie Kloves. The biggest threat that looms over the jungle and its denizens in this film isn’t the tyrannical, man-eating Shere Khan, but the threat of human encroachment. The hunter embodies man’s rapacious relationship with nature, killing for sport, and threatening to upset the interconnected web of life, which is the soul of the jungle.

We would be better off finding our place in the natural order, rather than trying to impose our will on it.

Netflix

What Mowgli tries to impress upon viewers is that human arrogance and nature’s bounty are incompatible. We would be better off finding our place in the natural order, rather than trying to impose our will on it. By changing the focus of the narrative from Mowgli’s Hero’s Journey to one that underscores a peaceful co-existence between people and the wildlife, the film gives a timeless classic a timely update.

After entertaining us as kids, Mowgli is now educating us as adults. This legend of the jungle is all grown up.

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