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The Oscar award for The Elephant Whisperers, a documentary short film, is a global tribute to the tribal people living in harmony with nature and wildlife in the Nilgiris.

The film tells the life story of the couple Bomman and Bellie of the Kattunayakan tribe, who work at an elephant care centre of the Forest Department in the Mudumalai biosphere in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu.  The tribal couple’s emotional bond with elephants, particularly with an elephant calf named Raghu is the central theme of the short film.

Using rich visual vignettes of Bomman and Bellie’s life in the lush background of Theppakadu village in Mudumalai, the 41-minute film captures the bond between them and the elephants, in an ode to human-animal harmony. The film’s global recognition and honour comes at a time when human-animal conflict is a raging worldwide issue.

The documentary in a way jolts the human consciousness out of its complacence and development-oriented haughtiness and makes one realise the significance of the tribal way of life — in communion with nature. The forest dwellers win the love and affection of animals and maintain an honest and sincere symbiotic relationship with them. The harmony is palpable, and a stark contrast to the rat race run by the industrialised population.

The film tells the life story of the couple Bomman and Bellie of the Kattunayakan tribe, who work at an elephant care centre of the Forest Department in the Mudumalai biosphere in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu.  The tribal couple’s emotional bond with elephants, particularly with an elephant calf named Raghu is the central theme of the short film

Asked about the Academy award the film has received, Bomman said, “It’s amazing. I never expected to become so popular in a single day.”

When the shooting of the documentary was taking place, he said he and his wife didn’t realise it was for a film or that they were acting in it. “They filmed our day-to-day life with the elephant calf. This (work) is not new to us. Taking care of abandoned wild animals at home is something our families have been doing for ages,” he said.

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Bomman was excited about being recognised by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin and hoped it would benefit his community as well. “I am very happy that the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has invited me and given me a gift. This should benefit the tribal people,” he said.

The film Elephant Whisperers, released on Netflix on December 8 last year, captured beautifully the natural visuals of Bomman and Bellie’s harmonious everyday life with Raghu.

The Elephant Whisperers was released on Netflix on December 8, 2022 and cast a spell on everyone who watched it. The way the tribal couple care for the elephant calf as their family member has been naturally filmed without cinematic frills and gimmicks.

Thanking the Academy of Motion Pictures in her Oscar speech on stage, for recognising the documentary on indigenous people and animals, Director Karthiki Gonsalves said she put in six years in the making of the film.

“It was a pleasure to work with the tribal people as part of field study for this film project. We can learn from the tribal people the art of living in harmony with wildlife,” said. “The film will also be the voice of the tribal people,” she added, signing off by dedicating the film “to my motherland”.

Contacted by inmathi.com, Bellie spoke about how the elephant calf Raghu came to be in their care. “The three-month-old elephant calf, Raghu, was brought from Dharmapuri. The forest department invited us to raise the calf,” she said.

Bomman was excited about being recognised by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin and hoped it would benefit his community as well. “I am very happy that the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has invited me and given me a gift. This should benefit the tribal people,” he said.   

“Its tail had been cut off,” Bellie said, talking about horrors the baby elephant had had to endure as its mother died when the two of them got electrocuted by an electrified fence put up by a farmer.

“At first I thought it would be difficult to bring up the calf. But my family gave me encouragement. They advised me to try as much as possible. Accordingly, we raised Raghu with care and love,” Bellie said.

Also Read: EV to the rescue of tribal children bound for school off Anamalai tiger reserve

Sikbomman, chairman of Mudumalai environmental development committee, said, “The film tells the world about the lifestyle of the tribal people who live in close proximity to the forest and wildlife. The government should understand this and implement development projects for the tribals.”

Now that the world has started to hear the voices of Tamil Nadu’s tribals, it is time for the government to come up with concrete plans to improve their lot while preserving their way of life.


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