Safed Haathi (1977)

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!

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50 Comments to “Safed Haathi (1977)”

  1. Wow!
    I stopped reading the reviews midway because I want to see this film.

    I love animal films/stories and share your feelings about them, only amimals being second to children in my esteem(I can’t bear their abuse).

    Airavat is hindi (sanskritized) for elephant.

    • I gotta admit that I greatly prefer animals over children too (although I hate to see them abused as well). Do see this, you will like it :)

      • Ditto. And I prefer trees to animals. So its trees, animals, maybe children but definitely not their parents. And like you I too don’t like circuses (unless it’s with humans like Hrithik in Bawaare the Luck by Chance song) zoos or even horse-riding.

        • I can’t watch horse racing…I just live in fear of seeing one of them break a leg.

          I do love rodeos—but it’s much more of a fair competition, and the animals mostly win over the humans.

          I like trees that don’t make me sneeze :D

  2. I watched this as a kid, and all I remember now is the evil Maharaja, and that I enjoyed the film a lot! I’ve been meaning to rewatch it, ever since it showed up on Rajshri, but it keeps getting put off for some flashier product on DVD. :-)

    National Award-winning children’s film (as rare a thing in Indian cinema as the albino elephant it features)” – did you mean that children’s films are rare in Indian cinema, or that award-winning ones are? There are quite a few lovely children’s films that I remember watching as a kid – there was a movie theatre in Delhi (Sapru House) that used to show this kind of kid’s movies on Saturday mornings. I remember watching Nani Maa (Leela Mishra as the eponymous Naani Ma and lots of magic and evil magicians and thieves) there. And there was Shyam Benegal’s Charandas Chor which was (I think) Smita Patil’s Hindi debut. Most of these films, though, seem to have disappeared into the vaults of the Children’s Film Society of India – no DVD copies! :-(

    • “did you mean that children’s films are rare in Indian cinema, or that award-winning ones are?”

      Yes! :) I haven’t seen many children’s films and I look for them (I’m not counting cartoon films that suck)…Would love to see the ones you mention, but have never heard of them. I’ll see if I can find them!

    • Yes, the CFSI vaults. They do have VCDs and DVDs of some of the films. But you can only buy them from their office. Things are looking up there though, with a new Chairman, Nandita Das, and a new Marketing Head, Monica Wahi who seem determined to send the films out into the world.

      • Nandita Das, the actress?

        That’s good news Banno, although if all they do is give the rights to Shameroo or fIENDS or their ilk it might not do the films justice :(

        • Yes, the very same. :)

          I’m optimistic. Will hopefully meet them when my film is being screened, and find out more. Though Monica has been quite forthcoming with her plans, and actually answers mails and phone calls.

          You can’t believe how welcome that is, after the lumbering bureaucracy one has become accustomed to at their office.

          • Make sure you tell her that! She probably still has to deal with a lot of lumbering bureaucracy herself…it helps a lot when you are a shining light of reason in a dark hole of dysfunction when people tell you that you’ve helped them (do I sound like I know this from experience? Cause I do.) ;-)

  3. Awww I remember this one.
    Airavat is a mythical elephant in Hindu scriptures. It is Indra’s(king of the Gods) elephant

  4. WOW! A white elephant AND Shotgun Sinha?! This one I have to see – I am a sucker for elephants.

    In fact, when I first learned who Tom Alter was, I was like, “Oh! Stephen Alter’s cousin!” Because Stephen wrote one of the best elephant books around: Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant

  5. Thanks for a lovely review, Greta.
    Airavat, in Hindu mythology, was the white elephant that used to carry Lord Indra.

    This movie is close to my heart because I have a personal association with it. Some scenes of the movie, particularly the ones with the water/streams were shot about 20 min from where I grew up in my childhood in Orissa. The producer of this movie, Mr. Jalan, was one of the local industrialists of my area. He was into other businesses, not really movie-making. I think he just felt like making a children’s movie and roped in Tapan Sinha to direct it for him.

    During the shooting, there was a lot of excitement in my village/town. This was small-town Orissa, not Bombay. Film shooting was unheard of. Lots of people went to get a peek during the shooting. Somehow I did not. (I think some of them even hoped to get a scene or two :-) ). There was a buzz about Vijay Arora and Shatrughan Sinha being present.

    I remember it being a fairly picturesque place – hills, streams and all that. Did not realise the value of the fresh air I was breathing till I landed up in Indian cities.

    Have not been there for 25 years. One part of me wants to visit, the other part dreads the visit a bit. I fear that modernisation may have taken a toll of some of the things of nature that I grew up with and took for granted at that time.

    As for Mala Jaggi, I am myself interested in knowing more about her career. I may be wrong but I think she was either from Orissa or from Bihar. Not one of the “regular” states for the Bombay film industry person. That may explain, to some extent, her limited acting career in Hindi movies. Am not sure of this though. Maybe somebody here knows more.

    • When I am talking 20 min in my above comment, I am talking 20 minutes walking distance. :-)

    • You could have been in here Raja, how much fun that would have been to see!!! It is such a beautiful landscape, you are lucky to have grown up there. Did the forest have bears, tigers, leopards and elephants too like it does in this? :)

      Mala Jaggi is really very beautiful, and a good actress. She was one of the bright spots (figuratively, not literally because there were plenty of actual *bright spots*) in Surakksha.

      • Well, elephants were not that uncommon. No bears, tigers or leopards though. But plenty of snakes. Especially in the monsoon, they would be quite active. :-) As for mynahs, plenty of them.

  6. I think I’ll have to check this out for my kids. It sounds like something that’s up all of our alleys!

  7. I remember watching this as a kid. One of Doordarshan’s Children’s Day Special.

  8. I loved this movie when I watched it on DD as a kid. At that time we didn’t have a TV and I watched it at a friend’s place. And since there was a small sort of forest (in fact it was just an overgrown mango orchard) near our place, I used to day dream about my own ‘safed haathi’ and naturally gold coins!

  9. Dear me.
    What was I thinking – re: airavat.
    The word I had in mind was the not generally used word – ‘gaj’ गज

    I was thinking of one word and reading and writing another. :-/

    • Well, Airavat is gajendra (king of elephants) so maybe that is what you were thinking.

      Airavat is white alright but he has many trunks–octupus style. I wonder if they painted the elephant white. That’s what I think they did.

  10. Ah, one of my childhood favourites! :-) The director of this film, Tapan Sinha, is one of the biggest names in Bengali cinema, along with Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. And among the four, it was he who made the highest number of Hindi films.

    • Yes, I’ve seen a couple others of his Hindi films too. It would have been fun to see this one as a kid, I imagine :)

      • Quite a few of his films have been remade in Hindi by directors like Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar, e.g. ‘Mere Apne’, ‘Arjun Pandit’, ‘Bawarchi’, ‘Aalap’ and ‘Ijaazat’. If you can, please get hold of his ‘Ek Doctor Ki Maut’ – a riveting (if somewhat depressing) film based on a true story, starring Pankaj Kapoor and Shabana Azmi.

  11. Hi Greta,

    Ha! all this reminds me in fact of my first contact with India. About thirty years ago, there was a programme (a series, I believe) on French TV called “Maya l’éléphant”! and I used to enjoy watching it, ignoring totally that it might well, somehow, somewhere, have triggered a chain of events which makes me today write this mail to you!

  12. Thanks for the review. I don’t think I have ever seen this movie. Must look for a copy!

  13. Dear Memsaab,
    I saw this film as a schoolgirl during the summer holidays!!! It was a treat…visual and emotional!! Alas!! Children of today don’t get to see such lovely films that are both educational and entertaining!!! I see you are a great lover for old Hindi my friend Abhinay Dey says. I simply adore them too and my blog is also on them…If you have time you can visit this link,
    I’m relatively new to blogger’s park but I’m enjoying myself. Will definitely keep myself posted on your entries…Till then, happy watching old movies.
    Take care,

    • I love old Hindi films, classic or (many times preferably) NOT! :) Welcome to the world of blogging, I see you also write about Hollywood classic films—check out my friend Madhu’s blog at dustedoff (link in the sidebar) :)

  14. Tapan Sinha, the director, is one of the most revered Bengali film directors. He didn’t make too many Hindi films, but in West Bengal his name is often mentioned along with the likes of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. I would encourage you to try to get a hold of some of his Bengali films too.

    • I note that Caesar has mentioned this too along with the comment about the Hindi remakes. Notwithstanding the fact that I am Bengali, I like the original Tapan Sinha versions better than the Hrishikesh remakes.

  15. Hi from Romania (East Europe) ! I saw this movie twice : once when I was 15 years old (this means almost 25 years ago) and once a few days ago. I have read this beautiful presentation and I can say , if I hadn’t seen the film, it would have made me want to see it at all costs. Unfortunately, I must tell you the still about Shibu’s dream with the singing animals was skipped in the version they offered us here, in Romania. :( I am sure I would have loved to see it… Apart from this, I love animals more than a lot of humans that I know. Be they wild or domestic animals they have one great quality : they can never be hypocritical.

  16. And oh, when I saw this film at the age of 15 I did not like it as much as it would have deserved , but two days ago I simply adored it ! I think I know the reason too : as a teenager, I was as much mature as to be a fan of love stories exclusively, but not mature enough to understand a complex message if conveyed through a simple unsophisticated storyline. About the music of the film, I find it terrific, and my favourite song is “Utho Hey Laal Utho Hey”. Yesudas is a musical genius, I couldn’t fail saying it even if the fact is not new to anybody.

  17. I must really watch this one before I suddenly die. I listened to the radio programme on Vividh Bharati, Sunday afternoons – Shotgun’s voice threatening, `Agar apne dost ki zindagi chahte ho toh saamne aao!’ And the title song, Hamara Safed Haathi, Safed haathi. I think I even saw an article on this movie being made in a children’s magazine of those times – can’t remember if it was Children’s World or Target, will surely post it, if I find it.
    Nandita Das as chairman of the Children’s Film Society of India – I hope I’m justified in feeling optimistic (Jaya Bhaduri too was one, at some point).
    Thank you so much for reviewing this one, it’s an extra special childhood listening memory.

  18. This is my favorite hindi film. I had the pleasure of watching this film a few times as a child and I loved it. I love the boy shibu, his innocence is one of the most beautiful captured on film, to date. In fact I love all the characters in the film, it has the sweetest innocence and softness that cannot be manufactured today. Shatrughan Sinha is himself, but looks different from his other bollywood films. The story flows well, there is no melo drama, the songs are very tasteful. A really touching film.

  19. Memsaab do you happen to have any more information on this actress Gayatri (Rani’s character)? Apart from Safed Haathi I will always remember her due to this hilarious song with Asrani from Hamare Tumhare:

    IMDb says she appeared in very few films.

    • If I am right, Gayatri is the wife of Anant Nag, a Kannada hero. She has acted in quite a bit of Kannada movies. (Her brother-in-law is the late celebrated Shankar Nag, husband of Arundathi Nag, who acted as Vidya Balan’s mother in Paa).

    • Wow! Am hearing this song after 35 years or so. Last heard it when I was in high school – and completely forgot about it. I didn’t know which movie it was from, it was just one of those songs you’d hear and a bit would stay somewhere in your subconscious. Thanks so much, Anirban, for this. Indeed the lyrics are funny.

    • Gayathri was also acted as a child artiste as Baby Gayathri, I remember her in Victoria no.203(1972)with Saira bano.
      According to gossip magazines, at first she married an assistant director(I am not able to remember his name-He used to assist hindi movie director Late Prakash mehra.)
      And then she married again Anant Naag

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