Oscar-nominated filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves on the making of ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ and her passion for wildlife documentation

In an exclusive interview, the director of the Oscar-nominated documentary short talks about her special bond with the orphaned elephant Raghu, wanting people to understand elephants on a deeper level by recognising their intelligence, and her desire to give a voice to indigenous people

January 31, 2023 02:51 pm | Updated February 02, 2023 05:27 pm IST

Kartiki Gonsalves

Kartiki Gonsalves | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Kartiki Gonsalves’ directorial debut The Elephant Whisperers is one of three Indian films nominated for the 95th Academy Awards.  Nominated for the Best Documentary Short Film, the 41-minute movie chronicles the bond that Bomman and Bellie, a South Indian couple, share with Raghu, an orphaned elephant.

For Kartiki, the journey of documenting Raghu began nearly six years ago when she saw Bomman escorting him to a river for his bath. Watching Kartiki peer from her car, Bomman beckoned her to join them. The Oscar-nominated director recalls watching Raghu roll around and splash himself with water. “ Raghu loves water like nothing else I have seen before,” says Kartiki over a Zoom call. She forged a special bond with the orphaned elephant in a short time and credits the movie’s conception to her love for him. “I observed that Raghu is like a son to Bomman. He wraps his trunk around Bomman’s hand and follows him everywhere.”

A still from the documentary.

A still from the documentary. | Photo Credit: Netflix

Her fascination for the bond Bomman and Raghu share led to the making of the documentary..

The documentary also served as a learning curve for the director, who claims to have learnt everything she knows about elephants only after meeting Raghu. Kartiki met the Asian elephant soon after his mother died of electrocution when she went to a nearby village in search of food and water during a prolonged drought in the region. At a time when the habitat of the Asian elephant is rapidly shrinking due to encroachment and climate change, she wanted to focus on the pockets of positive stories.  

“The most special thing about the story is the unusual family dynamic that Bomman and Bellie share with Raghu.” Her motivation to translate Raghu’s story for the screen came from wanting people to understand elephants on a deeper level by recognising their intelligence. And her motivation was only compounded by her desire to give a voice to indigenous people and show their importance in conservation efforts.

Bomman and Raghu in a still from ‘The Elephant Whisperers’.

Bomman and Raghu in a still from ‘The Elephant Whisperers’. | Photo Credit: Netflix

She admits that letting Bomman and Bellie narrate the documentary was a conscious choice and thinks it eventually worked in the film’s favour because the audience could connect to the story. Kartiki is not a fan of people speaking on behalf of the indigenous community because she asserts that it is up to them to share their stories, knowledge and wisdom.  “When you have someone else come in and narrate it, you lose a whole lot of emotional connection,” she says. Kartiki confesses that she finds it hard to connect with the subjects of her documentaries when she is not involved in them emotionally. “This [documentary] was a test in my eyes to see if this mode of storytelling can reach out to people on a different level and get them to connect with people and subjects they have not seen before. If I had done a documentary on Asian elephants without Bomman and Bellie, would it have the same impact?” she wonders aloud.

Born into a family of nature enthusiasts and explorers, Kartiki was introduced to nature even before she could walk and camped in the wild when she was barely 18 months old. Since then, she kept returning to forests, wildlife and the communities that inhabit them in her attempts to document them. With a post-graduation in professional photography and a specialisation in nature, wildlife and culture, she started out as a photojournalist but soon realised that it was hard to sustain and hence, moved on to learn and experiment with filmmaking, a medium she claims is powerful when it comes to creating an impact.

Before the work for her Oscar-nominated project began, she was part of the camera crew of Discovery and Animal Planet’s On the Brink where she assisted in documenting the conservation efforts of researchers and scientists to save the Asiatic Black Bear from extinction. “My conservation philosophy is that human empathy transcends diversity and connects us all for an environmental cause. This made making a documentary an obvious choice.” She desires to focus her work on discussing solutions with a sense of environmental responsibility and create platforms to amplify successful conservation efforts.

Filming the documentary at a time when female directors are few and far between, Kartiki admits that it was a difficult part to tread with permissions hard to come by. However, she is hopeful that efforts by directors like her will help pave a path for women in the future.

A still from ‘The Elephant Whisperers’.

A still from ‘The Elephant Whisperers’. | Photo Credit: Netflix

The Academy Award-nominated director mentions that at the time of the conception of the documentary and during its production, they had no intention of being part of the Oscarrace, but thanks to a last-minute decision, they are now one step away from getting their hands on the coveted statuette.  

Kartiki, who is still in touch with the couple, makes it known that Bomman and Bellie are excited to be in the news and meeting new people every day.  Fan art from across the globe also makes its way to their home through a Government officer.

She occasionally stops by the couple’s house for a cup of tea and a quick chat. “Bellie was in tears the last time I spoke to her. She is very happy that people are appreciating them and their connection with Raghu.”

The Elephant Whisperers, produced by Guneet Monga and Achin Jain under the banner of Sikhya Entertainment, is currently streaming on Netflix

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