A primer on the many versions of The Jungle Book

  • Saudamini Jain
  • Updated: Apr 27, 2016 20:41 IST

In 1893, Mowgli made his first appearance in In The Rukh, a short story in Many Inventions, a collection of Rudyard Kipling’s work. Here, Mowgli is a young man, no longer with his friends in the jungle – he gets a job as a forest ranger, marries a Muslim girl, and the wolves babysit his child.

So one of Mowgli’s last adventures was the first to be published. Then, other short stories about Mowgli appeared in magazines and periodicals – and The Jungle Book was serialised in 1894.

What is it?

The Jungle Book is a collection of stories about Mowgli, the ‘man cub’ raised by wolves – and his romps with his friends: Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther, Kaa the python, and his nemesis: Shere Khan, the tiger. Within a year came The Second Jungle Book, and Kipling said, “That ends up Mowgli and there is not going to be anymore of him.”

Little did Kipling know that his hero would inspire films across the world – from Walt Disney himself to filmmakers in Russia and Japan. Most of these have little to do with Kipling’s stories, but only borrow the plot. (Tarzan, as it turns out, was also inspired by Mowgli.)

We take you through the best of the Jungle Book film trail.

1942: Although this was the first screen adaptation of The Jungle Book, it has little to do with Kipling’s stories.

Instead, this film made by the British-Hungarian Korda brothers, is a fantastical tale. This isn’t about Mowgli and his friends in the jungle, but about his interaction with the villagers, a love story, and grotesque encounters with the animals. Since it was filmed during the Second World War, it had to be shot entirely in Hollywood. Many of the animals in the film are real. The jungle scenes look lush and exotic. It was nominated for four Oscars.

In its review, The New York Times wrote, “The consequence is a picture in which wild and ferocious animals abound, in which some equally ferocious actors do some semi-barbaric things, all adding up to a semblance of a super-Tarzan film in Technicolor”.

Sabu Dastagir, who played Mowgli, became the first Indian film star on the international stage

Mowgli was played by Sabu Dastagir – the son of a mahout from Mysore, he had been discovered by an English filmmaker, and became the first Indian film star on the international stage, according to film historian Rachel Dwyer.

1967: This is the last film Walt Disney worked on himself – he died while the film was still in production. He had asked the writers to ignore the details of Kipling’s version because he thought it was too dark for children. The most striking thing about Disney’s Jungle Book was the music: Oscar-nominated The Bare Necessities, for instance.

You may remember That’s What Friends Are For, sung by four vultures flapping around young Mowgli. Originally, the idea was to have The Beatles sing the song (but John Lennon declined). The vultures were even made to look like the Fab Four – with mop-top hair.

Again 1967: Kipling, as it turns out, is wildly popular in Russia. And so, in the year Disney related its child-friendly cartoon version of The Jungle Book, Russia produced Adventures of Maugli – truer to the original. Except here, Mowgli is a tall, strapping Tarzan-like Russian lookalike; Bagheera is female, very graceful, and considers it her responsibility to discipline Mowgli.

In the Russia-produced Adventures of Maugli Mowgli is a tall-strapping Tarzan-like Russian lookalike.

1989: The version closest to Indian hearts: this is where we first heard lyricist Gulzar and composer Vishal Bhardwaj’s masterpiece Jungle jungle baat chali hai. What we didn’t know at the time was that the Doordarshan cartoon series was actually a Japanese anime called Jungle Book Shonen Mowgli, dubbed in Hindi.

1994: This is a strange adaptation. First, it’s actually called Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, but it is more like Indiana Jones, as The Chicago Sun-Times called it, “an action thriller that Kipling would have viewed with astonishment.” Mowgli, played by Jason Scott Lee, is a full-grown man hunting for lost treasure, along with his childhood sweetheart Kitty (Lena Headey, who plays Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones).

2003: There is nothing special about The Jungle Book 2 – the only people who liked it are aged five or younger. Mowgli is living in the village again – and he misses his jungle friends terribly, so he goes back to the forest for some adventures. The animation is adorable, but that’s about it.

2016: The trailer looks stunning. The entire film – other than Neel Sethi who plays Mowgli – is animated (just like Life of Pi). Judging by the latest trailer, Idris Elba-voiced Shere Khan is terrifying. And then there is Bill Murray as Baloo, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha and Scarlett Johansson as Kaa. We’ll probably watch it a second time, dubbed in Hindi, because Jungle jungle baat chali hai has been re-recorded for the film. And like the Doordarshan dubbing, Nana Patekar is once again Shere Khan. Irrfan Khan is Baloo, Om Puri is Bagheera and Priyanka Chopra is Kaa.

2017: Not sure why, but there’s another Jungle Book movie set for next year – and its cast is just as incredible as this year’s: Andy Serkis as Baloo, Christian Bale as Bagheera, Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan and Cate Blanchett as Kaa.

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From HT Brunch, April 3, 2016

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