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Whispers into Roars: The Elephant Whisperers won an Oscar.

If you were online for even five minutes in the last few months, you couldn’t have avoided the most wholesome illustrations of the Tamil documentary ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ that created history at the 95th academy award by winning the Best Documentary Short film, beating contenders like Stranger at the Gate and How do you Measure a Year? Directed and produced by debutante Kartiki Gonslaves and Guneet Monga respectively.


The documentary is a heartwarming story of an indigenious couple named Bomman and Bellie as they wholeheartedly care for an injured elephant calf, Raghu, who gets separated from the herd. The story brilliantly showcases the couple’s efforts as they ceaselessly work to ensure Raghu’s recovery and survival. The documentary was shot in the Theppakudu Elephant Camp inside the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and highlights the spectacular surroundings, truly a delight to watch. As Raghu grows, the couple falls incandescently in love with the majestic creature over the course of time. Later, Belli is also given the responsibility to care for Ammu, a female elephant calf. The documentary, in its 39-minute runtime can make anyone shed a tear or two.


Animals are more expressive than humans.


One of the many things that caught my attention and emotions while watching the documentary is that it didn’t just show the human perspective, but also brilliantly portrayed what Raghu felt. This movie is interspersed with adorable moments centred in Raghu’s life: we see him playing, getting angry, asking for food, spraying water on himself and his mahout while lifting kids on his back as they scrub him. We also see him make a fellow elephant friend named Krishna who he learns picking grass from. When i said, animals can express more naturally, i meant that one scene where Belli talks about her daughter passing away and Raghu wipes her tears. Somewhere, Belli was content too as she found a child in Raghu and her daughter came back into her life in the form of Raghu. Maybe, this is why a big chunk of everyone’s heart sank when they realised that Raghu had to part ways with Bomman and Belli .


In her acceptance speech, director Kartiki Gonsalves said, "I stand here today to speak of the sacred bond between us and our natural world, for the respect of indigenous communities and empathy towards other living beings we share space with, and finally, coexistence."


Producer Guneet Monga shared the news of the win with an Instagram post: "Tonight is historic as this is the first ever Oscar for an Indian production. India's Glory with 2 women. The documentary had its world premiere on 9 November 2022 at DOC NYC Film Festival, one of the most renowned film festivals for documentaries in the United States. Following its successful premiere, the film was released globally on Netflix on 8 December 2022, allowing viewers from all over the world to experience the touching story of the couple and their beloved elephant. The film has received an abundance of love from audiences and critics alike and has been hailed for its breathtaking cinematography, touching storyline, and powerful message about the importance of compassion in India.


In the documentary, Belli says how elephants are known for raiding crops, shedding the light on the controversial human-wildlife conflict that has been affecting some states for a very long time. The documentary has shown the viewers that it's not elephants who are barging in our space but us in theirs. When Raghu got separated, Bomman and Belli rescued him, saved him, took care of him and this was just one elephant. Imagine how many elephants get separated, pelted stones at by the locals, with no one to look after them? This is an issue that the concerned authorities need to address now that the country has been embellished with such a prestigious award.


Speaking about the documentary, this feature is going to raise questions that no one would like but it needs to be said aloud. The film is about the life of a tribal couple, it’s a


 


 documentary, sure, but it's their life. Besides all this, They were not on the Oscars stage, they were not mentioned once in the speech we all saw. The speech was about inspiring women and how we are the future etc etc,. When we tell someone else’s story, someone who does not have the means and resources or really the visibility or social capital to tell their own, how much can we really claim to own? If this is not an unequal distribution of power then what is? Now, some critics may claim that it was a win for the cinema and how it was cinema that told their story to the world artistically. Yes, but at the end of the day it is a person, with power, controlling how someone less privileged is shown and perceived and it is exploitative on so many levels. The ideal scenario is someone from the same background/lived experience covering their own stories. In some exceptional cases where this is not possible the least we can do is allow the subject some amount of control over their story and mention them first, everywhere, every single time.


According to a report by Indiatimes, published on 19 March, Odisha Minister of Forest and Environment Pradip Kumar Amat on Tuesday informed the Assembly that the state had recorded 784 elephant deaths in the last 10 years, with 2022 being the most cruel to jumbos. The minister also stated that the following number includes elephants that died from various incidents, including accidents, diseases and Poisoning by poachers and electrocution. The state government also investigated 39 elephant deaths and filed a charge sheet against 50 people as 11 elephants were also killed by miscreants. However, not even a single accused has been convicted in these cases so far. Why is that?


The entire India is so proud of Bomman and Belli, as they should be but why is no one talking about the degrading conditions of elephants or any other animal for that matter? Not only poaching, killing and electrocution is to be blamed for the jumbo deaths but train hit cases are also there. Why is there not a better provision? Why are not there any elephant corridors for the safe movement of jumbos? Is that why India is now globally known for co-existing with elephants and conservation of forest? Not to mention how a metaphor of elephant carcass has also been given in the documentary.


Some silver lining is that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin at the Secretariat on Wednesday Honoured Bomman and Belli with a cheque of ₹1 lakh each. He also ordered payment of ₹1 lakh each to all 91 mahouts and their assistants at Mudumalai and Annamalai elephant camps. Stalin also gave a ₹1 Crore check to Kartiki Gonslaves for winning an Oscar which is problematic on an another level altogether. The government also sanctioned Rs 5 crore towards improvement of Kozhikamuthi elephant camp at Anamalai Tiger Reserve. It also announced setting up of a new elephant camp at Sadivyal in Coimbatore with necessary facilities for maintenance of elephants at a cost of Rs 8 crore, a press release said.


 


During the visit to Nilgiris last year, Stalin had announced setting up a state-of-the-art elephant conservation centre and eco-complex at Theppakkadu elephant camp in MTR. A detailed project report has been prepared in this regard to move forward, the release added. The following changes are very heartwarming to see because it is our moral duty to live in harmony with nature, to promote sustainable development, to take only what is required and the lives of the voiceless certainly do not fall in that category.


 


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