Interview | Kartiki Gonsalves on The Elephant Whisperers: ‘Bonds I will have for life’
First-time filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves spoke about her Oscar-winning Netflix documentary short in an interview with Hindustan Times. She discussed the message that viewers can take away from the bond between man and animal.
In an exclusive interview with Hindustan Times last month, director Kartiki Gonsalves, who won an Oscar for her first documentary short film The Elephant Whisperers on Monday (IST), had shared that what drew her to make the project was the "extremely unusual family dynamic" between a man, a woman and a young elephant. For her, the core idea of the documentary was to document the sacred bond between man and nature. With her background in documentary photography and cinematography, she worked hard to get the film's subjects comfortable to the point where the production team were almost invisible.
Watch: India celebrates historic Oscars win of 'The Elephant Whisperers' | 'Two Women Did It'
(Also read: Guneet Monga on The Elephant Whisperers' Oscar nom: 'Wanted to do everything to nurture this film')
For her passion project, she picked cinematographers that had previously worked with animals and weren't scared of being in the forest. Krish Makhija, Karan Thapliyal (who had worked on Oscar-nominated documentary Writing With Fire), and Anand Bansal, along with Kartiki on second camera, became a tight family to capture the emotions behind the story between man and animal.
In an interview with Hindustan Times, the first-time filmmaker spoke about her reaction to being an Oscar nominee, the unbreakable bond she shares with Bomman and Bellie, the elephant caretakers of Raghu, the orphan, and the message she hopes people will take from the Netflix film. Excerpts below:
Congratulations on the Oscar nomination for The Elephant Whisperers. How does it feel to get this recognition for your directorial debut?
It's really special and I'm just really hoping for the best. We've come a long way since the beginning of 2017 when we began the movie. On behalf of Bomman and Bellie and elephant friends Raghu and Ammu, I think we're all really thrilled to receive this great honour. I'm also thrilled for the extra publicity that will help spread the message of the film.
How did you first come to know about Bomman and Bellie and the elephant camp in Tamil Nadu?
I grew up in that same space. I was driving on my way Ooty to Bangalore to shift and bring my things back to my hometown in the Nilgiris of the Western Ghats. I saw Bomman walking with Raghu and he noticed my curiosity and beckoned me to come. I pulled my car over and I jumped out of the car and joined them. They were going on to the river and he was going to take his bath. I didn't hesitate at all. I've been visiting the sanctuary since I was three years old but this experience was really different. Over the course of that evening, I just forged this unbreakable bond with [three-month old] Raghu.
It brought me so much happiness to be able to share this beautiful connection with a being so wild and so young, and extremely vulnerable. I observed that Bomman had this really special connection with Raghu like nothing else I'd ever seen before. Raghu was a son to Bomman and so much more than that. There were moments where Raghu would just be holding on to Bomman's arm and he would just not want to let him go. I think that comes from the fear of when he was orphaned as a young calf. I think 2017 and 2018 was a very special part of my life and the beginning of a journey that will live on for the rest of my life.
What made you decide to make a short documentary out of this?
I think it happened very organically. There wasn't a specific moment that made me want to start documenting. It was a correlation of a lot of years of storytelling and photography. I was existing with Bomman, Raghu and Bellie and just building trust. And now that I look back on it, I realised that those times were just so special because it was just being with them with no agenda. I was just being there because I wanted to be there. I had been to the park, I had walked through the forests on my own. I've encountered tigers and leopards on foot and done so many other things, but this was just very special. I've seen wild elephant calves but never one I could get this close to or observe on such a deep level. It all blossomed from that part.
What do Bomman and Bellie think of the Oscar nomination?
I've been talking to them very regularly. They've been getting a massive footfall at the elephant camp to see the elephants. They're all over the news. I've been trying to be the middleman and passing by everything that we come across. There's a massive following internationally and locally of people just falling in love with Bomman and Bellie, their values, the simplicity of the story and how passionate they are about looking after elephants and doing their bit for the planet and its conservation. They are just really happy and almost in tears every time I speak to them about how happy they are that their lives have gone out to and have touched so many people. I think it's my duty to keep sending them all the messages and emails of people from across the world.
How are Raghu and Ammu doing?
They are doing very well. In fact, Raghu has become very obedient now. He's much taller now. When I first met Raghu, he was about the height of my knees and now he's much more than me. In fact, Ammu herself is much taller than me at this stage and I met her when she was three and a half - four feet tall. It's just really special that they are very healthy, doing extremely well. These are bonds I will have for life.
What do you hope people will take away from The Elephant Whisperers after watching it?
While most films have focused more on humans being cured by a bond with an animal, humans being harmed by wild animals or wild animals suffering from human expansion into their territory, The Elephant Whisperers lets viewers understand both the elephant and the human carers with minimal, outside interpretation. It portrays the dignity of both the magnificent elephants and the indigenous people who have lived with them and cared for them for centuries. I also wanted the audience to stop seeing animals as the other and start seeing them as one of us. Indigenous people have such an in-depth ancient knowledge and respect for the land they live on and share their space with. There's so much we can learn from them, respect for the land and only taking what they need.