The Elephant Whisperers opens with a shot of Bomman, an elephant caretaker in Tamil Nadu's Mudumalai forest, who belongs to the 'Kattunayakan' tribe – or the 'kings of the forest'. The forest is his home – the home of his ancestors.
And here, in this forest, humans coexist with animals, he says.
The bond between humans and the wild has long been explored in cinema, but The Elephant Whisperers does more than 'explore' it – it delves deep into its nuances.
So, when the documentary, directed by Kartiki Gonsalves and produced by Guneet Monga, won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short, there were many reasons to celebrate.
Gonsalves' acceptance speech at the 95th Academy Awards gives us a glimpse into why the film (and the Oscar win) is an important one.
"I stand here today to speak on the sacred bond between us and our natural world, for the respect of Indigenous communities, for empathy towards other living beings we share our space with. And finally, for coexistence."
A Bond Like No Other
The Elephant Whisperers is a heartwarming story about a couple named Bomman and Bellie, who are charged with taking care of two orphaned baby elephants, Raghu and Ammu.
Bomman, who has been an elephant caretaker all his life, can only take care of elephant calves due to his age. And Bellie, who would marry Bomman later in the film, is the first woman in Tamil Nadu to become an elephant caretaker.
Bellie lost her ex-husband to a tiger attack and had developed a fear of wild animals. But Raghu and Ammu, who were sent to the couple after they were orphaned, managed to win her over.
The Elephant Whisperers does not paint the tribal couple as messiahs or activists who fight for the rights of animals. Their relationship with the elephants is far more organic and symbiotic – Raghu and Ammu become a part of their family.
When Raghu is taken away from the couple, we see the intricacies of their relationship – how Ammu wipes Bellie's tears, how the whole family refuses to eat for days.
And despite the deep bond they share, the documentary does not make a case for animals being raised in enclosures, with no contact with others of their kind.
Bomman and Bellie, in fact, point out that there are some things that animals can only learn from their kind – illustrated by the way an older elephant teaches a young Raghu some crucial life skills.
Indigenous People & Their Absence From Stories
James Cameron, in Avatar: The Way of Water, introduced a new tribe (in the Avatar universe), the Metkayina. The Metkayina's bond with Tulkuns, whale-like creatures in the Avatar universe, is one of the best aspects of the film as it explores how Indigenous people live in harmony with nature.
The Elephant Whisperers brings that idea alive in the world around us. For the longest time in cinema, indigenous people have been absent from stories about nature.
Films would often deal with a hero's bond with an animal, their adventures, or an animal as a distant threat to the human world.
Even off-screen, indigenous people all over the world have to fight to keep their forests and their lands safe – often from encroachment and/or corporate greed.
With that reality in mind, the work of tribal communities in Tamil Nadu in protecting endangered Asiatic elephant deserves more recognition.
So, the very fact that a documentary about a tribal couple and their elephants made it to the Oscars and won amid stiff competition is noteworthy. This is also the first-ever Oscar for an Indian production.
India in 'The Elephant Whisperers'
"…(this award is dedicated) to my mother, father, and sister who are up there somewhere, you're the centre of my universe. To my motherland India," Kartiki Gonsalves said in her acceptance speech.
The documentary paints a beautiful picture of 'motherland India' – be it the forests, the sense of community that Bomman and Bellie share with those around them, and the way the animals are held in reverence.
The elephants are worshiped next to Lord Ganesha – and they even attend important ceremonies (including the couple's wedding).
The tribe doesn't view the animals as dangerous, in spite of their majestic presence. In fact, they are considered so safe that even children are entrusted with their upkeep.
The elders also talk about how the act of caretaking is something they want to pass on to future generations, as is the case with Bellie and her granddaughter.
But is this really how the 'motherland' is?
NDTV quoted Gonsalves as saying, "The situation is grim. But I wanted the story to be positive. Why focus on all the depressing parts when there is so much beauty and such an unusual family dynamic."
Even as the documentary paints an image of peace and tranquility among humans and the wild, it is still rooted in realism. Through minor references, the dangers that human encroachment poses on the forest and animals are addressed.
A film that puts nature in the forefront in such a sensitive (and gorgeous) way is not complete without references to climate change. The Elephant Whisperers talks about how climate change also plays a huge role in the way wildlife is adversely affected.
With the human population continuing to grow and more forest land being used for agriculture or settlement, elephants (among other animals) increasingly come into contact with humans. Prolonged droughts only add to their woes because elephants, as a species, require large spaces and resources to meet their ecological needs.
In worst cases, this aforementioned contact can lead to conflict that ends in loss of life; sometimes human, sometimes animal.
'Future Is Women'
The documentary's win holds more significance as both its director and producer are women. Shortly after the win, producer Guneet Monga took to Twitter to say:
"To all the women watching…. The future is audacious and the future is here Let’s go! Jai hind."Guneet Monga, Twitter
A similar message was echoed by other women during the ceremony. Michelle Yeoh, who took home the coveted title of 'Best Actress', said, "Ladies, don't let anybody tell you that you are ever past your prime."
Objectively speaking, the Oscars this year have honoured women for their work and their stories.
For instance, Women Talking, a film about a Mennonite colony where women were raped by men for years, won 'Best Adapted Screenplay'. The film's director and screenwriter Sarah Polley is only the seventh woman to win the award.
These wins are heartening to see especially in the wake of big award ceremonies being called out for lack of diversity in nominations and in awards (#OscarsSoWhite trends every year including 2023, and for good reason).
The Elephant Whisperers is already a striking, mature, and timely documentary. But its win at the Oscars signaled change – and history was made at the Academy Awards in more ways than one.