As 'The Elephant Whisperers' Shines at Oscars, Meet the Women Behind Its Magic

The film about a tribal couple and their elephants was directed by Kartiki Gonsalves and produced by Guneet Monga.

4 min read

The story of Bomman and Bellie, a tribal couple in Tamil Nadu's Mudumalai Forest, and their intense bond with two young elephants has moved the world in the form of a 40-minute documentary – The Elephant Whisperers.

The Netflix film, directed by Kartiki Gonsalves, won an Oscar this year in the Best Documentary Short category.

Speaking at the 95th Academy Awards on 13 March, Gonsalves, who received the award alongside producer Guneet Monga, said:

"I stand here today to speak for the sacred bond between us and our natural world, for the respect of indigenous communities, and for empathy towards other living beings we share our space with... To Bomman and Bellie, for sharing their scared tribal wisdom... To my motherland India."

Shortly after the win, Guneet Monga took to Twitter to say: "Two women did this! I am still shivering."


The Elephant Whisperers is a lesson in co-existence – how two elephant caretakers gave a new lease of life to two orphaned jumbos, Raghu and Ammu, and raised them as their own children.

Bomman and Bellie's story is truly special, but what makes it even more magical is how it is told – with love, empathy, and a little sense of humour. Here's all you need to know about the women who made it happen.

Kartiki Gonsalves & Her Tryst With Nature

A natural history and social documentary photographer and filmmaker, Kartiki Gonsalves is currently based out of the Nilgiris and Mumbai.

In an interview with Onmanorama, 36-year-old Gonsalves said her tryst with nature began at an early age. Her father was a wildlife photographer and her mother loved animals – she would often go camping with them as a child.

After her post-graduation in professional photography, Gonsalves took a brief detour from her career as a wildlife photographer and worked as a salesgirl and gym trainer.

She, however, quickly returned to her passion and grew into a cinematographer and director.

"The entire process was organic. On the whole, my focus has always been the environment, nature, and wildlife, and the need to raise awareness on the diversity of nature and indigenous people," she told the publication.


'How I Met Raghu...'

Gonsalves was driving from Ooty to Bengaluru one day when she noticed Bomman walking with Raghu, who was three months old at the time. Bomman saw her and called her to them.

That was the beginning of a friendship, which would prompt her to make The Elephant Whisperers.

"I fell in love with Raghu the moment I laid my eyes on him... I joined them [Raghu and Bomman] at the river for a bath. It was beautiful to spend those special moments with Raghu. Over the days, I would sit and observe them and realised they had a very special bond between them," she told Onmanorama.

Through The Elephant Whisperers, Gonsalves hoped to break the perception that elephants are dangerous. She wanted viewers to get to know Raghu and Ammu through their caregivers – and show that they can be as emotional and perceptive as human beings.


'Can't Say No to Baby Elephants'

When Kartiki Gonsalves and Netflix approached Guneet Monga, who runs a production house called Sikhya Entertainment, she received them wholeheartedly.

"Who can say no to baby elephants!" Monga told Open Magazine in an interview. She said she was impressed with Gonsalves' passion for the film and even invited her to stay with her for over a month so they could get to know each other.

"When you start, you don't know where the story will take you. It's not like making a fiction film, shooting for 30 days, editing, done. Verite documentary work is long, you have to follow a story and wait for it to come together. We just showed up with integrity, passion, and honesty. It was karmic."
Guneet Monga to Open Magazine

The film was shot on a GoPro and then a DSLR camera. Over 400 hours of footage had to be crunched to nearly 40 minutes.


A Meteoric Rise

Thirty-nine-year-old Monga is, however, not new to the Oscars. She is the executive producer of Period. End of Sentence, which won the 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. In 2018, she was amongst the first producers from India to be inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

But her phenomenal rise is something she worked towards over the years.

Monga grew up in Delhi, and after her graduation from the Madhubala Institute of Mass Communication, she began working as a production coordinator for international films.

In 2009, she began working with filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, giving rise to films like Gangs of Wasseypur, Part I and II (2012), That Girl in Yellow Boots (2011), Trishna (2011), Shaitan (2011), and The Lunchbox (2013). In the meantime, she also launched her own production house, Sikhya Entertainment.

She received a BAFTA nomination for The Lunchbox in 2015, which was considered one of the best films of her career. She was also named in The Hollywood Reporter's top 12 women achievers in the global entertainment industry in 2012.

In 2021, Monga was conferred with the Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters) by the French government in recognition of her contribution to the entertainment industry.

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