Making “The Elephant Whisperers,” the Indian film nominated in the Oscars’ documentary short film category, was a five-year long journey for director Kartiki Gonsalves.
The film follows a couple, Bomman and Bellie, who devote their lives to caring for an orphaned baby elephant named Raghu.
The film marks the directorial debut of Gonsalves, a prolific wildlife and social documentary photographer, photojournalist and cinematographer. Gonsalves is from the Nilgiris Mountains region of southern India. On a trip back to her family home, Gonsalves met Raghu when he was three months old and forged what she describes as an “unbreakable bond” with the elephant.
“I observed that Bomman had a connection to Raghu like nothing else I had ever seen before. Raghu was a son to Bomman and much more. 2017-2018 was a very special part of my life. The beginning of a journey that will live on for life. The three of us would happily splash around in the river, I would spend hours scrubbing Raghu and patting his tongue (which he absolutely loved) while he enjoyed pulling my hair and splashing me with water. We would stick our tongues out at each other. They are such intelligent creatures,” Gonsalves told Variety. The filmmaker then began what would turn into a five-year documentation of their lives.
“Raghu being orphaned is the bittersweet beginning of the story. The Asian elephant is losing its habitat at a very rapid pace due to encroachment and climate change in a fast developing country like India. But I wanted the story to be positive. Why focus on all the depressing parts when there is so much beauty and such an unusual family dynamic,” Gonsalves said. “I wanted people to be able to understand these beautiful beings on a deeper level and recognize their similar traits and intelligence. I hoped to get people to want to protect them and their landscape. I also wanted to show the importance of indigenous people and their knowledge and most importantly to give them a voice.”
In January 2020, after gathering the necessary permits and completing a chunk of filming on the project, Gonsalves put together a trailer and pitched it to Netflix. It was acquired by the streamer and Sikhya Entertainment, led by Guneet Monga, who was an executive producer on Oscar-winning short “Period. End of Sentence.” (2018), boarded to see the project through.
“Meeting Kartiki and knowing more about her purist vision for the story was a highlight for me to come on board. Her visual sense of storytelling and the documentary concept were so incredible that I knew I had to be on board as a producer,” Monga told Variety. “The story felt like a sacred bond with such incredible imagery. Besides, who can say no to baby elephants!”
Gonsalves and Monga worked closely with the indigenous Kattunayakan tribe, which Bomman and Bellie are a part of, through the journey of making the film.
Monga, who is an AMPAS member, also served as producer on Oscar nominated short “Kavi” and has been a campaign consultant on India’s entries in the Academy Awards’ international feature category. Monga and Gonsalves are in Los Angeles working on the Oscar campaign for “The Elephant Whisperers.”
“Since the film is live on the Netflix platform, our aim now is to make sure everyone across the globe watches our film and experiences the beauty, the relevance of this sacred bond between an orphaned elephant and Bomman-Bellie, his caretakers,” Monga said. “This has never been seen before from the eyes of India on a global stage. I truly hope that my fellow Academy voters will see the merit, relevance and the soul of the film.”
Gonsalves added: ” ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ is a hopeful story of respect for and cooperation with nature in an era rife with conflict and denial of the threats to our beautiful planet. We hope this film helps create more awareness, empathy, and connection to elephants and other living beings that we share our spaces with.”