Manickyam, the friendly elephant that’s led a joyous life making appearances at weddings, temples and festivals, thereby earning his mahout and caretakers a tidy sum, refuses to step down the truck when the group pulls up near a verdant forest. The forest and the hamlet nestled within look like a piece sliced off paradise. Call it animal instinct or what you will, but Manickyam senses clear and present danger behind the lush greenery, sloping hills, flowers and fields. The mahout Bopanna (newcomer Vikram Prabhu) nudges and then goads the elephant to step into the unknown territory.

Director Prabhu Solomon continues his love affair with jungles (he directed the much-appreciated Tamil film Mynaa). In Gaja Raju, he explores dichotomy — of a land, its people and relationships. Time stands still in this settlement sandwiched between hills and verdant forests. Its people are conformists to traditions and have no intentions of changing their lifestyle and even the way they guard themselves from wild animals.

The village inmates are jolted out of their idyllic happiness when a wild elephant enters their fields, hurls a handful of unsuspecting women to the ground and crushes them to death. We are told the elephant has wrecked havoc on and off, even trampling forest range officers. The villagers want to hire a trained kumki elephant that can guard their village.

By a twist of fate, Bopanna and his associates land up in the village with Manickyam as a stop-gap arrangement until the real kumki elephant arrives. The villagers are oblivious to this and hold Bopanna and team in high reverence. Bopanna knows no fear. But his uncle (Thambi Ramaiah) and his sidekick (played by Ashwin Raja) sense danger and want to leave the village as soon as possible.

Bopanna learns it’s a one-way route to the village when he sets eyes on the village chieftain’s daughter Singi (Lakshmi Menon). Blinded by love, he believes he can train his trusted elephant to become a kumki elephant. He is torn between his love and living up to the villagers expectations. These are people who hold Bopanna’s team in high regard but ominous enough to finish them off if they smell foul play.

Prabhu Solomon narrates the story through different layers, revealing the personality traits of each of his prime characters against the beautiful land. Sukumar’s stunning cinematography and D. Imman’s music add the required depth to the narrative. Imman’s music is hauntingly melodious and at the same time conveys the possibility of danger. The film is visual poetry, taking us into virgin forests in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The shots from atop the Jog Falls are breathtaking.

The director captures the bond between the elephant and the mahout beautifully. He makes you believe the elephant is as important as any human character. In the latter half, your heart skips a beat for the pachyderm. The film is pristine, without the frills of stunts and dance sequences.

Vikram Prabhu shows promise with an understated performance. Lakshmi Menon is emotive and conveys it all with minimum dialogues. Thambi Ramaiah is excellent, oscillating between fear and humour.

Gaja Raju is a delight. Don’t miss it.

Cast: Vikram Prabhu, Lakshmi Menon, Thambi Ramaiah

Direction: Prabhu Solomon

Music: D. Imman

Bottomline: Made by a talented and passionate team, Gaja Raju is as uncorrupted as the landscape it captures.