Bomman and Belli, the human stars of The Elephant Whisperers, are not your typical parents. Then again, their “children” aren’t typical either—weighing in at roughly 300 lbs. by the time they turn three months old.
The couple has proven unusually successful at raising orphaned elephant calves—bringing up two “kids” so far, Raghu and Ammu, in the Theppakadu Elephant camp within the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in South India. Director Kartiki Gonsalves spent five years following this human-elephant blended family for her Netflix film, an Oscar contender for Best Documentary Short.
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“I met Raghu when he was exactly three months old,” says Gonsalves, who hails from a mountain village in South India. “He was so young and extremely vulnerable at that point. I spent about a year and a half with him when he was a tiny baby before this became a documentary.”
Raghu’s mother had been electrocuted at a fence surrounding a village, leaving her baby little chance of survival. He was put under the care of Bomman and Belli, and seemed to gravitate toward Belli as a surrogate mom.
“When I first met the baby, he was tugging at my clothes like a child,” Belli says in the film. “I felt his love.” The couple return that love in abundance. The documentary shows their intense bond with Raghu as they play with him, feed and bathe him, and decorate him with flower garlands (which Raghu has a tendency to eat).
“Bomman and Belli, not only did they do the hard work that comes with looking after a baby elephant, the emotional care and the love and affection and the family unit that they provided around Raghu, I think, was sort of like a wild herd to Raghu,” Gonsalves observes. “He felt like he was with a mother, he had a father. And that gave him that family feeling, which they usually have because elephants are very emotional, sentient beings and they emote so much love and care toward their babies.”
Bomman and Belli are members of the ancient Kattunayakan Indigenous tribe, a group whose name means “king of the jungle.” The primeval quality of their environment is illustrated with stunning photography shot by Gonsalves and fellow cinematographers Krish Makhijas, Anand Bansal, and Karan Thapliyal.
“I loved using natural light for the documentary,” Gonsalves tells Deadline. “We were in this pristine landscape which is just really beautiful and also we were working with elephants so I didn’t want to have blaring lights and things like that… The story was about the Kattanuyakan community–they use candle lights, they use tiny bulbs. I wanted to go with that because that was their life. I didn’t want to make it brighter than what it was in natural life.”
Gonsalves and her team also photographed other denizens of the jungle, including leopards, tigers, and monkeys. Inherent dangers come with filming in that setting, the director says, noting a time when she and a colleague encountered a roaming herd of wild elephants.
“Suddenly, they all came rushing down to go to the water and after that they came back and we were still on the ground. And then one of the elephants tried to come charge at us. The camera guy had to jump in [the car]. I said, ‘Jump!’ He jumped onto the bonnet [hood] with the camera and we drove off and we made it just in time,” she says, adding with a laugh, “We’ve had a lot of run-ins this entire documentary.”
One of the challenges facing elephants in this area is drought, which can drive them closer to human settlements in search of water. And in search of food, they sometimes avail themselves of crops, angering villagers. But there are humane workarounds.
“In some places, [people] have built trenches around the villages so that the elephants can’t come in,” Gonsalves explains. “So, they’re finding ways to live alongside elephants because a lot of these villagers live on the periphery of the forest. We’re looking at elephants walking in almost every day.”
She adds, “I also made this movie because I really wanted people to understand elephants, that they are very similar [to us] and they don’t mean harm in any way.”
For baby elephants who tragically become orphaned, Bomman and Belli can provide a lifeline. Along with Raghu the film shows them raising a baby female elephant, Ammu, who comes to them at five months of age. (Raghu exhibited some initial jealousy at this addition to the family, but later adjusted). Eventually, as Raghu entered adolescence, he had to move to the care of other handlers. It’s a safety issue, Gonsalves explains, owing to the size of the elephant and the need to make sure he doesn’t inadvertently trample smaller creatures around it, including humans.
“As it gets into its adolescent years, it’s difficult for the same people who were showing so much love to be strict and stern with the same elephant,” she says. “It’s different because when you have a pet dog, you can just be like, ‘No!’ and you have control. But when it’s something like an elephant that’s growing so rapidly, it’s very difficult because they live in such close proximity [to humans]. So, it’s something that they’ve got to be really careful about.”
The Elephant Whisperers premiered on Netflix a week ago.
“The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” Gonsalves shares. “I’ve got a lot of feedback saying that it portrays the dignity of both the magnificent elephants and the Indigenous people who’ve lived with them and shared with them for centuries. And [viewers] said that they understood elephants on a much deeper level, and some people just said it was so calming to see coexistence in the best way.”
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