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An Oscar for 'The Elephant Whisperers' — a love story about people and pachyderms

Caretaker Bomman with Raghu. "I feel like getting Raghu was a gift from God," he says.
Netflix/Screenshot by NPR
Caretaker Bomman with Raghu. "I feel like getting Raghu was a gift from God," he says.

Updated March 12, 2023 at 10:00 PM ET

A tribal woman called Bellie walks barefoot through the lush forests of the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, a national park in the state of Tamil Nadu, hot on the heels of a baby elephant.

In a soft voice, she says, "I have experienced many losses in my life. My ex-husband was killed by a tiger. This left me feeling scared of the forests. I get scared when I see a tiger." But, she says, "I am a tribal woman, and our people come from the heart of the forest."

She is part of the Kattunayakan community, a tribal group that, for generations, has devoted itself to caring for elephants. "For us Kattunayakans, the well-being of the forest is all that matters," she says.

With stunning visuals of Tamil Nadu's nature, The Elephant Whisperers tells the story of this loving relationship — and won the Oscar in the documentary short film category.

It was a chance meeting with that same baby elephant in October 2017 that changed filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves's life and spurred her to make the film.

Gonsalves spent her childhood in and around nature in southern India. "My family explored streams and beaches, natural history museums and aquariums. My parents would bundle us up — my sister and I — and would take us out to state parks and camping sites," she says. Her mother loved animals and her father was a photographer. Her grandmother led school trips to local nature reserves. Gonsalves followed in their footsteps.

After graduating with a degree in visual communications from GRD College of Science in the southern Indian city of Coimbatore in 2007, Gonsalves went on to study photography, specializing in wildlife, travel and culture. She then worked in advertising and other jobs but yearned to get back to her passion — photographing nature and wildlife and telling stories of indigenous people and their role in conservation.

The chance elephant encounter came when Gonsalves was making that career transition. "I was in the process of moving back to my hometown of Ooty," she says. And she stopped at the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, close to the Theppakadu Elephant camp. It was established more than a hundred years ago, and she'd been visiting it since she was a child. "While driving home, I met Raghu as a three-month-old calf," she recalls.

Gonsalves was pleasantly surprised by how playful Raghu was. She started talking to Bomman, Raghu's other caregiver, who invited her to return and get to know the animal.

"This documentary was made because I fell in love with Raghu first," she says. "The three of us would happily splash along the river, and I would spend hours scrubbing him and rubbing his tongue. He absolutely loves his tongue being rubbed. He enjoyed pulling my hair and splashing around in the water. We would stick our tongues at each other."

In the film, Gonsalves steps aside and takes viewers to the heart of Theppakadu Elephant camp in a landscape that is the one of the largest undisturbed spaces for the Asian elephant. Here, the Kattunayakan and forest rangers work together to care for abandoned elephants. The documentary follows the journey of Bomman and Bellie and baby elephant Raghu, whose herd wandered into a village searching for water where, after his mother was electrocuted, he was abandoned by the herd. Climate change has caused water supplies in the region to dry up, sending the elephants into areas of human habitation in search of a drink.

The forest department found Raghu in a dire state--he'd been attacked by stray dogs and had maggots in open wounds. The forestry workers tried, unsuccessfully, to reunite Raghu with his family. No one thought Raghu would survive, but they gave him to Bellie and Bomman to try.

Bomman and Bellie with Raghu.
/ Netflix/Screenshot by NPR
Netflix/Screenshot by NPR
Bomman and Bellie with Raghu.

As Bomman and Bellie nourish Raghu, their own relationship thrives. The 40-minute documentary was whittled down from more than 450 hours of raw footage and painstakingly filmed over the last five years, says Gonsalves.

She wanted people to understand what beautiful beings elephants were and to recognize and respect their intelligence. That understanding, she hopes, would help protect their habitat — which the Asian elephant islosing at a rapid pace. Studies cite encroachment, climate change and India's hunger for development as reasons.

In The Elephant Whisperers, Bomman and Bellie care for Raghu and one other abandoned calf – sunny and bright Ammu. When elephants reach adolescence, just like human teenagers, they can go through a phase when they're stubborn and don't tend to listen. "If they're allowed to continue that behavior, it doesn't end well in the long run," says Gonsalves. An elephant calf needs love and affection while growing up, but even in a wild herd, the adult elephants discipline the adolescent elephant, Gonsalves says. The forest department takes Raghu away from Bomman and Bellie to give him to another caretaker who had more experience handling adolescent elephants. The separation anxiety, however, is intense, and Bomman and Bellie miss Raghu desperately.

And just like their human partners, the animals show great emotion. In one scene, baby elephant Ammu wipes away Bellie's tears when she is heartbroken over Raghu moving away. In another scene, Ammu reaches out and curls her arm around Bomman's, who is about to fetch her some milk in the early hours of the dawn, drawing him closer. These are some of Gonsalves favorite moments in the footage.

The elephants are a part of the tribe's larger community, too. Raghu even plays football with neighborhood kids.

"A lot of these moments were unexpected and that is the true beauty of telling a story as it unfolds," she says. "With a documentary, there is no script. Only spontaneous moments caught when life is lived."

"I wanted the audience to stop seeing animals as the 'other' and start seeing them as one of us," she says. "The Elephant Whisperers helps people understand more about the elephants and their human caretakers, how they love and understand each other, how they've learnt to adapt and co-exist. I chose to focus on the positivity of that co-existence, rather than the negative aspect of man-animal conflict. I wanted The Elephant Whisperers to reflect that selfless cooperation, to be that beam of hope."

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, Southern India. She reports on global health, science, and development, and her work has been published in the New York Times, The British Medical Journal, BBC, The Guardian and other outlets. You can find her on twitter @kamal_t

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Kamala Thiagarajan