‘What does Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book mean to you?’
When asked this question during a mid-morning coffee break, I did not speak about its stunning visuals or reflect on Neel Sethi’s portrayal of the man-cub Mowgli. Without batting an eyelid, I said ‘poha’. Indians of a certain age would understand my answer, though their answer may vary from jam sandwich to omelette or idli.
After all, those were the breakfast fixes with which we settled down in front of box set TVs every Sunday morning at 9 – waiting for Doordarshan to begin trilling that theme song we were all so familiar with: ‘Jungle jungle baat chali hai’. The 90’s TV show was an integral part of our childhood, and its characters Mowgli, Bagheera, Baloo and Shere Khan (yes, even you, O despicable beast) as dear to us as our very own chaddi buddies.
Why does The Jungle Book hold a special significance for India? It is nostalgia, silly. Disney understands this well and has brought forward the movie’s India release date by one week. So what if the Jungle Book TV show we saw all those years ago had nothing to do with Disney?
Japani, phir bhi Hindustani
It was actually, wait for it, Japanese! Yes, it was the anime version of Rudyard Kipling’s classic, and called Janguru Bukku Shōnen Mōguri. Can you even pronounce it? Yeah, thought as much. The show was a big hit across the world and was shown in many countries. So, there may very well be a Hungarian or a Kurdish or a Polish human being out there who feels exactly the same about Mowgli, but in an entirely different language.
But yes, the genesis of Jungle Book is entirely Indian. Madhya Pradesh lies at the very heart of The Jungle Book, and Kipling’s characters – Kaa, the rock python; Hathi, the elephant; Tabaqui, the jackal; Ko, the crow; Mao, the peacock; and Shere Khan, the feral tiger – actually inhabited the dense jungles there.
The names, the themes and the atmosphere... every single aspect of the tale bears an Indian imprint.
Who’s afraid of Jungle Book?
But The Jungle Book you will see in theatres this Friday is a world apart from the kiddie fest of the 90’s or even Disney’s unimpeachable animated version from half a century ago. This one is actually darker, and may even scare your tiny tot. Gone is the fuzzy friendliness with which you looked at the jungle – it is a place to be feared now, full of predators and hapless prey.
We have the word of that foremost commentator on all things cinema, CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani, in this regard. Explaining why the censor board gave the film a U/A certification (parental supervision necessary), he said: “Please don’t go by the reputation of the book. See the film and then decide on the suitability of the content for kids. The 3D effects are so scary that the animals seem to jump right at the audience.”
Stars and their spirit animals
The film’s CGI animals are beguilingly credible, helped along by live action. If you have seen Disney’s Cinderella (2015), you already know how awesome this experience can be. The A-list voice cast doesn’t hurt either. The film has Neel Sethi playing Mowgli, a man-cub who has been raised by a family of wolves. (His mother Raksha has been voiced by Lupita N’yongo with heart and spirit). Mowgli finds he is no longer welcome in the jungle when fearsome tiger Shere Khan (voice of Idris Elba), who bears the scars of Man, promises to eliminate what he sees as a threat.
Urged to abandon the only home he’s ever known, Mowgli embarks on a captivating journey of self-discovery, guided by panther-turned-stern mentor Bagheera (voice of Ben Kingsley), and the free-spirited bear Baloo (voice of Bill Murray). A seductive Kaa with the vocal cords of none other than Scarlett Johansson and a Christopher Walken-voiced King Louie are some of the other characters to look out for in this film.
Hindi, English same same
In case you are watching the film in Hindi, you won’t miss the experience of listening to big names voicing their spirit animals. The dubbed version has Priyanka Chopra as Kaa, Irrfan Khan as Baloo, Om Puri as Bagheera and Shefali Shah as Raksha. So, here’s one similarity between the 90’s Jungle Book and this movie – Nana Patekar is Shere Khan again.
Just like Iron Man, whaat?
If you still needed another reason to go and watch the film, director Favreau just gave it to you. He thinks the movie’s theme and central conflict are exactly like that of Iron Man, also of his making. “The idea of belonging or being pushed out, fitting in, coming of age, facing fear… those are very strong general themes. It’s very easy to find examples of it in every generation – certainly ours.”
Elaborating on the wolves’ mantra that “the strength of the wolf is the pack and the strength of the pack is the wolf”, he says: “That’s key. It’s a strong theme that seems to emerge in everything I’ve worked on, even the Iron Man films – the individual versus the collective and faith versus fear.”
Chaddi pehen ke phool khila hai
We have saved the best for the last. The film has the same anthem as the TV show – Jungle jungle pata chala hai – and made by the Gulzar-Vishal Bhardwaj team too! We bet you will find this new version as fascinating and memorable as the first one. If you haven’t watched it yet, here goes…