One of my major philosophies in life is that non-human animals are better people than humans can ever hope to be. I am a complete sucker for films which reflect this belief back at me, especially when I don’t have to see any animals suffering in the process—the sight of animals suffering at the hands of man is something I truly find unbearable. I dislike circuses, and am ambivalent about zoos (at their best they facilitate the survival of species that we are trying our level best to eradicate, at worst they are giant cages filled with bored and distressed animals). So when this National Award-winning children’s film (as rare a thing in Indian cinema as the albino elephant it features) came to my attention I was *cautiously* excited.
And wah! what a film it is. As with all well-told stories for children, there is plenty for adults to enjoy as well. I still read my old Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale volumes, and I revel in the dark undercurrents that are part of them as much as I love the happy endings. This movie is very much a part of that same tradition: a small boy abused by greedy and selfish relatives finds solace in the friendship of a rare white elephant living in the surrounding jungle—a friendship which endangers the elephant when his existence is discovered by a restless and unhappy Maharaja obsessed with hunting and his own machismo.
I do have some minor quibbles, but they are very small. There is no need for the opening gambit of an unsuccessful movie director (Vijay Arora) looking for a story to film, for instance, although it is fun to see Utpal Dutt as his exasperated producer.
The director and his crew wind up in a jungle, where they come across young Shibu (Ashwani). Shibu is an orphan who lives with his older sister Rani (Gayatri) under the spurious “care” of their Mamaji (Sadhu Meher) and Mamiji (Mala Jaggi: this woman is gorgeous! Why was her career so apparently short?!). Rani is treated as a household servant while Shibu—who longs to go to school—is responsible for watching Mama’s small herd of cows. Brother and sister are routinely beaten and starved, and life is pretty miserable.
Their only comforts are a secret beau for Rani in the local postman, and a mynah bird who speaks to Shibu as he watches the herd near the forest.
The local villagers know how mistreated Shibu and Rani are, but do nothing much to stop it although we do find out that their father had gotten Mamaji out of jail before he died. We also meet the local Maharaja (Shatrughan Sinha), a very bored and discontented man whose preferred form of entertainment is killing wild animals from a safe position atop a tame elephant. I absolutely love the song which accompanies this introduction, “Shikari Raja Aaya Re” (all the songs are very melodious, by Ravindra Jain) and I’m putting part of it here because I can’t find it anywhere online.
When Mami gives Shibu a sari she has bought for her mother and instructs him to take it to her one evening, four miles away through the jungle, it is a very scary thing. Shibu knows that tigers and leopards inhabit the forest and he begins the long walk with trepidation. And sure enough, he is soon chased as an evening meal by a leopard—scary! His friend Mynah directs him up a tree to safety (and tells the leopard to “Get out!”) where he falls asleep as we are treated to footage of a mongoose fighting with a snake and other natural delights.
As with most films of this period, action taking place at “night” is often illuminated by sunlight, mostly I expect because other types of lighting were too expensive and unwieldly for location shooting. Shibu is startled awake by the roar of a tiger, and falls out of the tree practically into its lap.
Oops! Luckily a large albino elephant arrives now and the tiger prudently if reluctantly walks away. Loquacious Mynah introduces Shibu’s rescuer as “Airavat” (is that Bengali for elephant? it is subtitled as “elephant”):
Airavat shakes a bunch of blossoms from a tree, making a lovely fragrant (I imagine) bed for Shibu to finish out the night on. He falls asleep with his new friend nearby and has a spectacularly fantastical dream populated with singing forest animals (sister Rani appears too). Most of the lyrics go untranslated—and the subtitles which are there startle me a bit—but it’s really of no consequence against the cracktastic school play ambiance of it all.
The next day Mamiji’s mother is much nicer to him than her daughter ever is, and gives him some money for delivering the saree. He spends it on some bananas and returns to the forest to thank Airavat.
Airavat gives him a Mughal-era gold coin, which Shibu takes home to his sister. She warns him to keep it hidden from their aunt and uncle, but Mamiji sees it in his hand the next morning as he is still sleeping.
She rushes to tell her husband, and they decide to shower Shibu and Rani with love and kindness in the hopes of finding out where the coin came from.
Rani, knowing her uncle and aunt very well, takes the coin from Shibu and gives it to her boyfriend. She wants to send Shibu to school, and asks him to find out how much the coin is worth.
He takes it but has no intention of returning with it to Rani. He resigns from his post (no pun intended) and sets off for Calcutta and riches—until he is met in the forest by our tiger pal. Dropping the coin, he flees. Rani, when she discovers his perfidy, is heartbroken. I want to hug her and say “At least you found out now, before he married you and knocked you up.”
Shibu gets the coin back from Airavat and Mama-Mami continue to bribe him with sweets and affection. Eventually Mamaji discovers that the friend Shibu meets in the forest is an elephant, and an albino one at that.
Knowing that the Maharaja will pay lots of money for a lead on a trophy like this one, Mama-Mami go to him and tell him about Airavat.
This strikes me as more than a little hypocritical: he won’t kill “innocent” birds but shoots everything else! This impression is deepened when he jumps onto his horse and whips it into action. Director Tapan Sinha seems to agree with me though and I feel better. I do really like the Maharaja’s theme song!
He is thrilled to hear about the white elephant and determines to trap Airavat and keep him captive. He will stop at nothing to make it happen.
Can Airavat escape a circus freak fate? Will the Maharaja learn anything from his theme song? What will happen to Shibu and Rani? Will greedy Mamaji and Mamiji get their just reward? Did our elephant hero survive being whitewashed everyday with no ill effects (I seriously did fret about that)?
This is essentially a really sweet movie for kids and adults who like a simple, nicely plotted fairy tale with evil scheming adults and lots of animals and an innocent boy and his sister to root for. I’m not a big fan of Shatrughan Sinha, but he is great in this (well, the whole cast is very good). The photography and settings are lovely although the washed-out print could use some restoration (and removal of Angel’s gaudy logo). Plus maybe it will bring me one step closer to becoming a vegetarian. (Or maybe not. Sigh.)
I only wish Gemma hadn’t slept through it—she would have enjoyed it too!