A lyrical lament for the passing of elephants from the jungles of India, the Canadian production “Hathi” features photography of the grand beasts and their habitats that is so gorgeous, and occasionally startling, that few viewers will soon forget its images. While pic’s poetically spare narrative may prove too slight and undramatic for some, limiting its broader commercial chances, sheer visual magic alone should make it a strong contender in tube and fest situations.
Tale’s first section transpires in the 1970s, before the present widespread eradication of elephants in the wild. Makbul, a teenager living with his family on the edges of the jungle, grows increasingly fascinated with the work of his father, Sabu, a mahout, or traditional elephant trainer. Although it’s clearly against the wishes of his mother, the boy eventually leaves home and school to join his father and learn his trade.
A newborn elephant calf named Vikrama becomes Makbul’s. As the boy trains his charge, a process the film observes at length and with an appreciative placidity , the two develop an emotional closeness common to mahouts and their animals. But their world is not to last, as the death of Makbul’s father implicitly announces.
Come the 1990s, the local economy has been modernized to the point that foresters have little need of elephants for felling and dragging trees, so the local authorities decide to sell Vikrama at auction. The forced separation is not only a devastating blow to Makbul; the elephant, who is mistreated by his new owner, runs wild and kills the man.
The tale’s ending is not so much tragic as quietly elegiac, affirming the beauty of a way of life that is rapidly being lost.
Pic has long sections with virtually no dialogue, an advantage for young viewers and those interested primarily in its nature-documenting aspects. But Prajna Chowta’s oblique script also leaves the meanings of some actions and events unnecessarily murky, and avoids dramatic emphasis so scrupulously that, in some sections, it runs the risk of sacrificing viewer involvement.
Compensation comes in pic’s breathtaking views of the elephants, which are given extraordinary impact by Ivan Gekoff’s exquisite lensing and the fascinating, how-did-they-do-that intimacy with the animals achieved by helmer Philippe Gautier and his crew. The French-born Gautier has worked as an assistant to the likes of Helmut Newton, David Hamilton and John Boorman, schooling that pays handsome dividends in the highly refined sense of visual expressiveness and subtlety seen here.
Gautier also elicits fine performances from his Indian cast, especially Jamedar Sabu Saab and Kawadi Makbul, real-life mahouts who were models for the characters they play.