‘The Elephant Whisperers’ documentary review: A strikingly-lush safari on the co-existence of man and nature

Kartiki Gonsalves’ documentary, which has been shortlisted for the 95th Oscars in the Documentary Short Film category, takes the audience on a mesmerising visual safari

December 27, 2022 03:57 pm | Updated December 28, 2022 06:15 pm IST

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

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

Surrounded by the Nilgiris, and just beyond the Mayar river, Bomman, Bellie, and their child Raghu (an elephant) live in the heart of the Theppakadu Elephant camp, at the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. In her short documentary, Kartiki Gonsalves follows this family of three, across changing seasons of the forest.

Gonsalves’ documentary, which has been shortlisted for the 95th Oscars in the Documentary Short Film category, takes the audience on a mesmerising visual safari as the trees change colour, the river gets replenished, and later in the summer, the forest burns in the heat. That is when Bomman and Bellie were given the charge of Raghu, an injured baby elephant separated from its herd. While Gonsalves’ focus remains on the bond that develops between Raghu and his caretakers, she makes quiet but effective points on the perennial human-animal conflict. The trio’s tale is also a crucial insight into when forest officials fail to reunite an elephant calf with its herd.

Belonging to the Kattunayakan tribe, Bomman and Bellie’s life revolve around this forest. This is where their ancestors had worked to protect, and it is what they hope to pass along to their grandchildren. “We live off the forest, but we also protect it,” says Bellie, whose husband was killed by a tiger. This creates a chasm between her and the forest and she begins to fear the place that she grew up in. Raghu’s early life followed a similar trajectory. He was separated from his herd after his mother died of electrocution. Bellie, who had never taken care of elephants and has recently lost her own child, and Raghu, who has not known a life around humans, are united in their effort to alleviate the sorrow they have suffered in the same forest. For Bomman, taking care of Raghu are the first baby steps he re-takes into continuing his grandfather’s and father’s legacy. Having been hurt by an adult tusker before, Bomman has been assigned by the Forest Department to take care of the younger elephants.

The Elephant Whisperers (Tamil)
Director: Kartiki Gonsalves
Duration: 41 minutes
Storyline: In Tamil Nadu’s Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, a family of circumstance is formed when a young elephant calf is separated from its herd and placed into the care of two humans

There is a solid theme of the symbiosis between nature and man that runs like a constant thread through the 41-minute duration of the film, during which Bomman, Bellie, and Raghu’s lives enter unchartered but exciting territories in each other’s presence.

As their family expands, Raghu gets a new sibling in Ammu, a new calf that Bomman and Bellie are assigned to care for. With this, the documentary informs us that Bomman and Bellie become the ‘first couple to successfully raise two orphaned elephants in South India’. Gonsalves’ work is effective in delivering this statistic, despite it being a grim one given how it foregrounds the care that goes into the task of raising an elephant among humans. Despite this, Gonsalves doesn’t shy from addressing the issues that led to Raghu losing his mother. The documentary is narrated by Bomman and Bellie only, and in telling the story of their life with Raghu, human’s tampering with nature seamlessly becomes part of their conversation with the audience.

It is this seamlessness that Gonsalves extends to the visuals of the documentary that make for an immersive experience. The camera, though constantly documenting the daily routine of the family, does not disrupt the personal space it occupies. Bomman and Bellie are also never taken out of the forest to tell their story, with the viewer eagerly following behind Bomman as he talks about Raghu’s picky eating, or sitting beside Bellie as she recalls her first meeting with Raghu.

In that way, Gonsalves’ work mimics a safari, where the audience quietly observes the co-existence of nature and man, as Bomman, Bellie, and Raghu invite you into a space that is becoming scarcer by the day.

The Elephant Whisperers is currently streaming on Netflix

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