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‘The Elephant Whisperers’ Bomman & Bellie Allege Exploitation by Docu Makers

‘The Elephant Whisperers’ won Best Documentary Short at Oscars 2023.

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Bomman and Bellie, the tribal couple who starred in the Oscar-winning documentary The Elephant Whisperers, have alleged that the makers of the film failed to remunerate them and have been irresponsive after the historic win, as per a report by The Hindu.

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In continuation of the report, Bomman and Bellie, during an interview, said that they were subjected to difficult situations during the shoot of the documentary, and had to spend a large amount of money to cover the expenses of the shoot as well.

Bomman and Bellie issue legal notice

The couple has issued a legal notice seeking a ‘goodwill gesture’ of Rs 2 crore from filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves. In the legal notice, a copy of which was obtained by PTI, it is stated that the couple were promised a proper house and an all-terrain multi-purpose vehicle and sufficient financial support as a one-time lump sum payment (without mentioning the amount) as compensation for their time, based on the income generated from the project.

The legal notice also alleged that despite the couple being introduced as "the real heroes" to the elite, it was the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and the Prime Minister of India who gave them all the financial benefits, as per a report by PTI.

Pravin Raj who is a Chennai-based social activist and lawyer by profession put the couple in touch with a law firm in Chennai. He said:

“Both Bomman and Bellie are disappointed with Gonsalves, who had promised them monetary help as well as help with the education of Bellie’s granddaughter while making the film. But she now refuses to give even a fraction of the enormous profits made by the film."

Advocate Mohammed Mansoor, who is handling the case said that he received a reply notice from Sikhya Entertainment Pvt Ltd, four days ago, on behalf of Gonsalves. Mansoor said: “In that, she has flatly refused any more help stating that she has already given money to the couple. I will be sending her a rejoinder in a couple of days after consulting with my clients."

The makers' initial response

Sikhya Entertainment and the film’s director Kartiki Gonsalves have responded to the allegations. Their statement read:

“The goal in creating The Elephant Whisperers has always been to highlight elephant conservation, the tremendous efforts of the Forest Department and its mahouts Bomman and Bellie. Since its launch, the documentary has raised awareness of the cause and had a real impact on the Mahouts and Cavadis community. Our honourable chief minister of Tamil Nadu, MK Stalin, has made donations towards assisting the 91 Mahouts and Cavadis who look after the state’s elephants, constructing eco-friendly houses for the caretakers and developing an Elephant Camp in the Anamalai Tiger Reserve."

It went on to add that all claims were "untrue".

“The documentary has been celebrated by heads of state across India, and the Academy Award is a moment of national pride that has brought widespread recognition for the work of mahouts like Bomman and Bellie. All claims made are untrue. We have a deep respect for all of the contributors of this story, and remain driven by the desire to create positive change," the statement added.

Previous controversy

Kartiki Gonsalves and Guneet Monga's Netflix documentary won an Oscar in the Best Documentary Short Film category. However, the film has courted controversy in regard to Bommon and Bellie's absence during the award ceremony. Earlier, the lack of overt acknowledgement of the 'real stars' of the film during the makers' acceptance speech left many upset on social media as well.

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