A dog named Charlie – and other animals
Since June 10th, when Rakshit Shetty’s tearjerker ‘777 Charlie’ had its pan-Indian theatrical release, Bengaluru has gone quite comprehensively to the dogs. Instagram and Twitter feeds and living room conversations in the city are rife with references to the adorable Labrador that essays the titular role, and there is widespread jubilation that Kannada cinema, by making a simple, feel-good, animal-centric film, is breaking new ground in the Indian cinemascape, which has never had much time for animals or children.
And yet, it was a film that involved both animals and a child that gave a boy from the erstwhile Mysore state his big break in Hollywood, all the way back in 1937. Sabu Dastagir, the son of a mahout from Karapura village near Mysore, was only 13 when he was discovered by American filmmaker Robert Flaherty, the father of documentary filmmaking. Flaherty cast Sabu as the lead character, Toomai, in the British film Elephant Boy, based on a story from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’.
Elephant Boy went on to win director Zoltan Korda the Best Director award at the Venice Film Festival, and launched Sabu’s successful acting career. While still a teenager, he starred as Abu in Korda’s spectacular 1940 blockbuster The Thief of Bagdad, and was part of twenty other films besides. In fact, the 1957 film, Mother India, was supposed to star Sabu – it was only because the Hollywood star was denied a work permit that Sunil Dutt got to play the role of Birju!
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Sabu’s native village of Karapura was the setting for a different kind of human-animal interaction. For it was here that the Maharaja of Mysore’s hunting lodge, from where countless tiger-hunting expeditions and khedda (elephant capturing) operations were launched, was located. Today, the historic buildings are part of the Kabini River Lodge, ranked one of the top wildlife resorts in the world.
In 1901, young Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar, alarmed at the numbers of tigers and other wild animals being hunted across his state, passed the Mysore Game Laws, which criminalised shooting animals without a licence.
Bangalore was ahead of the game – the Bangalore SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) was established as early as 1888. By 1916, it was housed in a little building by the Queen Victoria statue on MG Road, right by the toll gates that regulated traffic between the British cantonment and the Maharaja’s Bengaluru (the building still stands – look out for it when you’re near Cubbon Park). Stories are told of how the Maharaja’s sentries at the gates, perhaps influenced by their proximity to the Bangalore SPCA, were given to roundly berating bullock-cart and tonga drivers who had overburdened their animals.
It would not be until 1972 that the Wildlife Protection Act brought an end to all game hunting in India. The so-called Last White Hunter, the Scotsman Kenneth Anderson, was an animal-loving Bangalore boy himself. All the hunting he did between 1939 and 1966 only involved tracking down and killing man-eating tigers and leopards at the government’s request. A great raconteur, he also wrote several bestselling books of his adventures in the south Indian jungles.
But back to Charlie’s fraternity. In the decades after independence, most pet dogs (and strays) in Bengaluru were descendants of British-owned dogs, mostly hounds, whose skills had been much prized during The Bangalore Hunt, held annually between 1930 and 1940. The route of the hunt proceeded from the West End Hotel all the way to the ‘wilds of Whitefield’, where the hounds drove hapless jackals from their holes to their deaths. All in the past now, mercifully.
Roopa Pai is a writer who has carried on a longtime love affair with her hometown Bengaluru