The Elephant Whisperers

The Elephant Whisperers Kartiki Gonsalves

It took five years for Kartiki Gonsalves to make her debut documentary The Elephant Whisperers which was a long personal journey from the place she calls home. Kartiki was introduced to nature before she could walk. While many families go out shopping, to the movies, to visit friends and family, hers headed out to explore the forests, streams, beaches, mountains, zoos, natural history museums and aquariums. Growing up with naturalists, photographers and a mother who was especially interested in animals, Kartiki was handed over a lot of information both on nature and on how to photograph it alongside knowledge on animal behaviour. As an avid explorer, Kartiki’s work has two foci. ‘One is environment, nature and wildlife, where I seek to raise awareness about the marvellous diversity of nature and wildlife and the importance of conservation. The other is cultures, communities and their connections. My journey of exploration involves capturing the diversity of cultures and tribes across the world along with the beauty of natural world.’ Kartiki aims to do that by using the power of storytelling with strong imagery and meaningful stories.

The Elephant Whisperers follows the life of Bomman, Bellie and the special, strong familial bond they share with a baby elephant, Raghu. ‘It developed over time as we started our five-year documentation of their lives in a place that is also home to me. This is how The Elephant Whisperers came into being.’Winner of the Academy Award for the Best Documentary Short, the film is playing on Netflix through which it has reached two hundred and thirty one million subscribers in a hundred and ninety countries and multiple languages.

What drew you to the subject matter of the film?
In this time, there are so many stories of animals being killed and species dying out - and this is a positive story that highlights the beauty of man and animal working together. I believe co-existence is the way to move forward into the future, only with mutual respect and co-operation can we save the planet. The story needed to be told now because of current climate change situation and human encroachment on the habitat of wildlife. We need to learn to respect other animals. The elephant is a very intelligent, emotional and social animal - so it was a good place to start. Humans can relate to elephants because elephants share many human traits.

The documentary was in the making for almost five years. And it was one evening in Ooty when you first encountered the calf who has inspired this film. What moved within you when you first saw that?
In simple words, I fell in love with Raghu. It began when I was driving on my way from Bangalore, India to shift back home to my family house, in the mountains called the Nilgiris, in the Western Ghats of South India. I first met Raghu when he was three months old. Bomman noticed my curiosity towards the elephant calf and beckoned me to come with them for their morning bath in the river. I didn’t hesitate. It was a dream to be able to spend time with such a young calf. I had been visiting the sanctuary since I was three years old but this was different. Over the course of that evening, I forged an unbreakable bond with Raghu. It brought me so much happiness to be able to share this beautiful connection with a being so wild yet so young and so vulnerable.

I observed that Bomman had a connection to Raghu like nothing I had ever seen before. Raghu was a son to Bomman and much more. 2017-2018 was a very special part of my life. The beginning of a journey that will live on for life. The three of us would happily splash around in the river, I would spend hours scrubbing Raghu and patting his tongue (which he absolutely loved) while he enjoyed pulling my hair and splashing me with water. We would stick our tongues out at each other. They are such intelligent creatures. I learnt almost all I know about elephants by just existing with Raghu, watching him go about his life, his moods, his fears, his fun times. It took me by surprise that they were so capable of so many things I had never imagined. Raghu was orphaned, is the bitter- sweet beginning of the story. The Asian elephant is losing its habitat at a very rapid pace due to encroachment and climate change in a fast-developing country like India. There are roughly thirty five to forty thousand Asians left and the situation is very grim. We are losing elephants at alarming rates due to poaching and human-elephant conflict. 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? Raghu’s mother was electrocuted and died instantly as she and her herd wandered into a nearby village in search of food and water during a prolonged drought. It was depressing and happening frequently in the space I live close to. I wanted people to be able to understand these beautiful beings on a deeper level and recognise their similar traits and intelligence. I hoped to get people to want to protect them and their landscape. I also wanted to show the importance of indigenous people and their knowledge and most impor- tantly, to give them a voice. This is how The Elephant Whisperers came into being.

The documentary also has dreamy visuals, by you, Karan Thapliyal, Krish Makhija and Anand Bansal, that capture the beauty of the reserve. What were the conversa- tions you had with them? Did you have a mood board at hand that you stuck by? How did you go about that?
I started out working with Krish Makhija. He believed in me and my idea, long before it was a thing and alongside, also helped me with the beginnings of my directorial debut. He is extremely passionate about storytelling and documenting our natural world and capturing human emotions. Krish had experience filming other animals before but never anything as large as an elephant. We set out each day to document the daily lives of Bomman and Bellie and Raghu. We set out together documenting the pathway to what is now an Oscar winning film and has been a constant source of support throughout. Then we came upon Karan Thapliyal and Anand Bansal. Karan brought his expertise from the great outdoors having already worked with conservation filmmaking with many years of experience of documentary work. Anand Bansal with his beautiful work with storytelling and capturing the beauty of light. Being a cinematographer myself, I was looking for a team whom had a similar style to mine. It is a challenge to find someone who can understand animal behaviour and also capture human emotions well. That was what I was striving for. Each of my Directors of Photography has something so special to bring to the table. This was a five-year film and a lot of documenting filmmaking happened over this period and we had roughly over four hundred and fifty hours of footage. Everything captured is important. This is a documentary that was unfolding as we lived it alongside Bomman and Bellie, Raghu and Ammu. It was a very special part of all of our lives.

The Elephant Whisperers

What do you hope audiences to take away from the film?
I am hoping that people will be able to relate to Raghu, so many films these days show the danger of animals but I wanted to show the love and connection to animals. An elephant is a large animal and they need to be treated with respect but they also are loving, capable of lifelong bonds. They seem to have sense of humour and I hope that people will switch from seeing them as other and start seeing them as like us. 

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Words Hansika Lohani
Date 29-07-2023