Kartiki Gonsalves’ directorial debut, The Elephant Whisperers wooed international audiences and bagged the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Film at the 95th Academy Awards. Producer Guneet Monga accepted the award alongside her at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. When RRR’s “Naatu Naatu” secured the Oscar for Best Original Song, it made history. However, Indians also had their eye on The Elephant Whisperers in hopes that it would bring home another honour. The film was shortlisted by the DOC NYC film festival and the International Documentary Association (IDA). It is available for streaming on Netflix.
The documentary revolves around the bond between two orphaned elephants and their caretakers in Mudumalai, Tamil Nadu. This is Monga’s second Oscar after Period. End of a Sentence won Best Documentary Short Film in 2019.
“I stand here today to speak for the sacred bond between us and our natural world, for the respect of indigenous communities and empathy for other living beings we share our space with, and finally, for coexistence.” Gonsalves said in her acceptance speech. She also dedicated the award to “my motherland, India”.
With utmost gratitude, we are thrilled to announce that ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ has won The Academy Award for ‘Best Documentary Short’✨#AcademyAwards #Oscars #Oscars95 #TEW #TheElephantWhisperers #IndiaatOscars pic.twitter.com/sqBHOywGOO
— Sikhya Entertainment (@sikhyaent) March 13, 2023
The Elephant Whisperers’ win is a significant milestone, not just in terms of Indian cinema gaining global recognition. The film shines a light on the deep relationship that indigenous communities share with their natural environment. Bomman and Bellie, the film’s protagonists, belong to the Kattunayakan tribe in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserves of southern India. The community lives as hunter-gatherers and has been protecting the wildlife in their area for generations. Established 100 years ago, the Theppakadu Elephant Camp in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve is the oldest in Asia.
The film portrays beautifully how the two raise the calves like their own children. They nurse, bathe and feed them back to health. Through their story, the audience also witnesses the conflict between humans and animals that endangers wildlife and the natural habitat they live in. It takes a stance for co-existence and cohabitation in the face of threats posed by human activities.
As is true for human beings, elephants have close bonds with their family groups. Offspring remain dependent on their mothers. Raghu and Ammu, the baby elephant that the duo adopts, would not have survived in the wild without their care. Thanks to members of the indigenous communities in the area, the forest camps in Anamalai and Mudumalai boast high rates of survival of rescued orphaned elephants. Such efforts go unrecognised in the mainstream discourse surrounding conservation, especially internationally. The film seeks to change that by documenting Bomman and Bellie’s heartwarming story.
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Even within India, very little is known about tribes like the Kattunayakan who live in harmony with nature and help preserve the relationship between humans and the biosphere. It is even rarer for a film that documents these themes to receive the exposure and adulation it deserves. The Elephant Whisperers’ recognition on the biggest platform that celebrates cinema will be pivotal in bringing such untold stories into the mainstream.