In 1998, Robert Redford directed and acted in a film called ‘The Horse Whisperers’ based on a novel of the same name by Nicholas Evans. It explored the story of a man who could “speak” to horses and cure them of injury and sickness. It was a good film, but it was a feature film playing on the fantasies of the romantic imagery of the audience.

‘The Elephant Whisperers’ is different. It is not a feature film inspired by fiction. It is based on the raw truth, and takes us along with it to step into a different world.

I could not utter a single word for at least four hours after I watched the film. I am no animal lover but here I was watching how an unknown world, captured on camera and sound and music through the medium of cinema, if it is honest, good and convincing, can transport an ordinary viewer to a different universe, peopled by two innocent, uneducated, tribal adults and two elephant babies.

That, in short, is ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ for you. Let us take a closer look. Guneet Monga produced and Karthika Gonsalves directed ‘The Elephant Whispers’ is a 39-minute documentary that mesmerises by transporting you into a world you never knew existed.

The word "documentary" poses many challenges in providing definitions. “The use of the term ‘document’ is a contentious matter, though the other nomenclature, non-fiction, is even more problematic. The moral insinuation of both of these has been plaguing the genre since its very inception.

The former implies proof of authenticity, while the latter asserts the privilege of being factual. These implications, in turn, lead us to a kind of linearity – a fixed text, a representation of 'the' truth, which comes from the tendency of treating 'fact' or 'authenticity' as truth,” writes activist-documentary filmmaker Madhusree Dutta.

Through this film, you slowly get deeply absorbed into the lives of Bomman, Bellie, Raghu and Ammu. Of this close-knit family, Bomma and Bellie are humans while Raghu and Ammu are baby elephants, and they all live together as one happy family.

Set in the forests of the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, a national park in the state of Tamil Nadu, the film revolves around the bond of its two human protagonists, Bomman and Bellie, with their two elephant calves Raghu and Ammu. The tribal couple, not married in the first half of the film, belong to the Kattunayakar community and we see them taking care of the orphaned elephant Raghu abandoned by his herd in a village after his mother was electrocuted. Later Bellie and Bomman adopt the three-month-old orphan elephant, Ammu.

The film depicts how humans coexist with nature, with Bellie describing the elephant calves as her children in the film. Bomman and Bellie are the principal protagonists in the film, and the pachyderms are no less than their own children. We see them caressing or scolding the baby elephants in the same manner human parents treat their own children.

The way the technical team, including the director, has handled their respective instruments and brains and artistic intelligence, has to be seen to be believed. It appears to be a longitudinal documentary which means that the team took its own time and shot Raghu and Ammu with their adoptive “parents” over their biological growth through the film.

Bomman decorates their foreheads with beautiful coloured designs, perhaps as identity marks to distinguish them from the other 150-odd elephants that inhabit the green forests with a tiger peeking from behind the bushes time and again.

The film unit consisted of two cinematographers and two editors. One of the editors, Sanchari Das Mullick, an FTII post-graduate in editing, is a Kolkata girl and daughter of a noted documentary filmmaker Subha Das Mollick. The first film she edited was her mother’s ‘Crosswinds Over Ichamoti’.

The two cinematographers too, have shared their innovative ideas on this film, which speaks more about the uniqueness of the project, distanced from usual documentary filmmaking. You get to watch the beautiful sun setting across the blue skies as the camera pans over the lush green mantle of the deep forests focusing on a colourful bird on a tree branch. The camera comes down and rests on Bomman applying oil on Raghu’s head, or Bellie feeding little Ammu milk through a transparent rubber tube.

A special mention must be made of Raghu not quite liking Ammu’s entry as he is possessive about his human parents. Gradually, he begins to like his much younger friend. When Jaggu is to be taken care of by another caregiver, we can notice tears rolling down its tiny eyes.

‘The Elephant Whisperers’ functions on several levels and not just at the level of the close bond these two mahouts have with their two “children’. It focuses on a little known tribal couple who actually get married which is filmed, with a whole ‘crowd’ of elephants gathered around the couple as the unique baratees. Each one has a garland around their neck similar to the ones the couple is wearing.

So we get a glimpse into a ‘living together’ relationship which exists in the community they belong to and no one raises an eyebrow. Bellie and Bomman wear shy smiles as they exchange garlands and are acknowledged as man and wife, with other local mahouts and their families in attendance.

Jaggu was hurt when he was brought to the couple and though they felt he would die, the couple managed to heal him through great care, physical, medical and emotional. “We could only take care of these two. There are many more baby elephants in the forests who have lost their way but we are given only these two children to take care of. So many of them die as they cannot find their way,” says Bomman.

When the film ends, we see the couple living with Ammu, and get another baby elephant to take care of. The ‘Elephant Whisperers’ is an incredible film which blends all the functions of cinema. It is entertaining, informative and tries to initiate social change, if not among ordinary people then at least among documentary filmmakers like Kartika and Guneet.

The independent documentary film-makers today finds themselves on the horns of a dilemma: whether to mirror the impact of dramatic social change on the people in general and the marginalised in particular, whether to reflect the change itself, or, whether to use the language, the technique and the aesthetics of cinema as a medium of self-expression, which encompasses change within the filmmakers themselves.

In my personal opinion, the Oscar has been celebrated, by bestowing it on ‘The Elephant Whispers’ instead of it being the other way round!