A film on Malasar tribes of Anamalai

Malasar, a six-minute conservation film, narrated by actor Nasser, shows not just the sacred bond between elephants and the Malasar tribes of the Anamalai Hills but also the need to protect the tribes, their identity and conventional wisdom 

April 08, 2022 08:36 am | Updated 08:36 am IST

Malasar poster

Malasar poster | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

What happens to elephants once they are captured? Where do they go? Who takes care of them? What will happen if the “caretakers” and their “conventional” wisdom disappear or lost over a period of time?

Malasar, a six-minute conservation film narrated in Tamil (with English subtitles) by actor Nasser tells the story of the sacred bond that the Malasar tribes of the ancient land of the Anamalai Hills in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu share with these majestic beings.

The Kozhikamuthi elephant camp in the Anamalai Tiger Reserve (ATR) near TopSlip is exclusively used to train and discipline captive Asian elephants under the native tribes, who have special skills to work with them. Anaimalai is designated as an ‘anthropological reserve’ as it supports six tribes — Malasar, Malai Malasars, Kadars, Eravallars, Pulayars and Muduvars—which is very unique to Tamil Nadu. It is also probably the only tiger reserve with diverse groups of indigenous people.

Elephants at Anamalai

Elephants at Anamalai | Photo Credit: Pravin Shanmughanandan

“We are Malasars, the elephant people...” begins the film in first person in actor Nasser’s calming voice speaking for 51-year-old Mani. He is a caretaker of Kaleem, a 53-year-old elephant. Mani calls Kaleem his older brother and says “There’s no path we have not trodden in this forest. My ancestors and their elephants have roamed the forests and created the path for us...” The visuals shot in the lush green landscape of ATR are a treat to watch.

“We are doing a series to drive home the key message of conservation,” says Pravin Shanmughanandan, one of the founding members of Pollachi Papyrus that works in the ATR landscape for the past eight years documenting the bio-cultural diversity of the Anamalais. They collaborate with Faraway Original storytellers to tell stories unheard of, of people, the land they live in, its beings and the special connection they share with each other. The first movie was on the Kadar tribes before the pandemic. “The idea is to establish what is intricately their skill or talent and tell an emotional story that the audience can relate to. Because, today we are losing the conventional wisdom of the tribal people at a rapid pace,” explains Pravin.

The film will be first screened at Kozhikamuthi elephant camp for the Malasars. “In the coming days, we have planned multiple screenings across schools and colleges, for corporates and NGOs where we will also talk about the man-animal conflict. What Malasars handle is a language in itself that has no scripture but is passed down the generations. A language that can be learnt only if you are born to a mahout or inside the community.”

Ever since elephants were used to carry timber logs and lay roads, the British chose the Malasars as caretakers of these elephants. The name Top Slip came about because elephants would roll timber logs from the mountain. “The film hopes to touch lives and effect policies for the elephants and their mahouts,” says Pravin

While the native wisdom of the Malasars has shrunk with the tide of time, what has remained is the language. “We have 158 families taking care of the 27 captive elephants at the camp. They share an intricate bond and the elephants respond to their commands. Along with the kumkis ( trained elephants), we have done several field operations like patrolling, weed removing and elephant capture. About eight years ago, when a wild elephant ran amuckin the Chattisgarh forests, it was a Malasar mahout from Anamalai who disciplined it in just two days,” says MG Ganesan, Deputy Director of ATR.

Actor Nasser

Actor Nasser | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Though they are employed by the Forest Department, younger generations are moving out of the settlement. The movie subtly conveys this point towards the end in the narrator’s voice that goes, “...I wish the young who carry forward this language never forget what it means to be a mahout in the Anamalais and never trade the life here for the fleeting joys of the outside world... and embrace the pride and honour of living among the gentle giants. The bond of kindness, friendship and trust goes back a long way.”

The film is streaming on IGTV @ pollachipapyrus on Instagram and The Pollachi Papyrus YouTube channel

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