The entire storytelling of Elephant Whisperers, the first Indian production ever to win an Oscar, was organic in nature, meaning it had no script. And, if director Kartiki Gonsalves had not chanced upon Raghu and fallen in love with this baby elephant, she probably would have never made this award-winning documentary.
After walking the red carpet at the 54th International Film Festival of India, she shared with Gomantak Times Digital this touching six-year adventure-filled story of human-animal bond.
Tell us how your documentary film, Elephant Whisperers, came into being.
I actually fell in love with a baby elephant and that’s how the journey began for me. That is when I felt a connection. If I had never met Raghu (baby elephant), I probably would never have ended up making the documentary. I felt that love and over time it turned into Elephant Whisperers, a six-year journey of human-animal bonding.
Share something about this six-year journey in Madumalai forest where the documentary was made.
In this journey, I realised how powerful storytelling could be and documentaries are the medium to showcase those stories and make an impact. There is a lot of knowledge out there that needs to be passed on to the next generation and the rest of the world. All I can say is what Elephant Whisperers did for the Asian elephants is phenomenal.
What is the knowledge you gained?
I grew up among nature in the Nilgiris in Ooty, and Madumalai is so close to my home. I entered this forest when I was three years old. The beautiful part of this whole thing was seeing how Boman and Bellie lived off the land. I experienced the rich knowledge they were sharing and the ways in which we need to protect our planet. After this experience, I have been stressing the fact that indigenous knowledge is so important for conservation and fighting climate change.
One heart-breaking moment while making the film.
Yes. It was very heartbreaking to see Raghu being separated from Boman and Bellie at one point in time. We could not stop that because we were not supposed to bring our own perspective to the documentary. You have to just witness what’s happening and that was one of the hardest things for me and my film crew. We could feel the emotions because we were there with them for so many years. At the same time, however, Raghu needed to be taken away because Boman and Bellie’s bond was pampering him too much. There is a tendency for elephants to become naughty and not listen, just like humans. So he had to be transferred to another caregiver who could be stricter with him. He is an amazing elephant and he is doing so much better now because of that separation.
Did you experience any danger in the forest while shooting?
A: Making the documentary was challenging because you are working in an environment which is on its own terms. While we were shooting, we were dealing with other wild animals like tigers and leopards. It was not fiction, so there was no script. It was difficult to know what would happen next. There was no beginning and no end.
One valuable lesson you can recollect you learnt from this whole experience.
I was making this documentary solely based on an idea, and that idea was to document the sacred bond between man and animal and that was my guiding point till the end. But the beautiful lesson here was to accept all that happened on the ground and in reality.
One reality that really made you think.
Yes, there is a lot that we don’t see. In the region where I filmed the documentary, it was dangerous because of the man-animal conflict. Elephants enter human settlements. I wanted to tell this story via the documentary because elephants are very intelligent animals. My aim was to make people realise and make them understand elephants on a deeper level. The man-animal conflict is not just in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka or Kerala, it happens all across. When people live on the periphery of the forest, there are bound to be conflicts. This is something one has to acknowledge because we live in a world where there is so much destruction.
What was your reaction after winning the Oscars?
At the time, there were a lot of mixed emotions. I didn’t realise that it was the first Oscar for an Indian production. But I was so proud that a documentary on an animal and this indigenous couple would ever be able to make it anywhere. I was happy knowing that the world was seeing a true part of India. It was also special because the movie was made on my home turf where I grew.