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Have Animal Centric Films Lost Their Appeal in Mainstream Indian Cinema?

Have Animal Centric Films Lost Their Appeal in Mainstream Indian Cinema?

Rajesh Khanna's Haathi Mere Saathi was a huge hit 50 years ago, but Bollywood films have hardly focused on animals ever since.

One of the most endearing characters in Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do was a Bullmastiff, who was the narrator of the film. The dog was given Aamir Khan’s voice. While it definitely added to the humour, the dog was nothing more than just a fun way of increasing the film’s comic appeal. Bollywood has often used animals as tools to increase the entertainment quotient of a film and melt the audience’s heart. Dhanno the mare in Sholay and Tuffy the dog in Hum Aapke Hain Koun did the job very well. But how many films have been made on the bond between man and animal, or on the need to conserve their environment?

In 1971, Rajesh Khanna’s film Haathi Mere Saathi about an orphaned boy’s bond with four elephants had won hearts. The film was the biggest hit of 1971 and also won critical acclaim. That was probably the last time a film on man-animal bond had been so successful in Bollywood. Directed by MA Thirumugam, the film at that point in time was the biggest hit ever made by a South Indian producer in Hindi.

50 years later, another south director has made a film on elephant conservation, using the same title for the Hindi version of the film. Prabhu Solomon’s latest film Kaadan is a Tamil drama film produced by Eros International, starring Rana Daggubati, Vishnu Vishal, Pulkit Samrat, Shriya Pilgaonkar and Zoya Hussain. The film was simultaneously shot in Telugu as Aranya and in Hindi as Haathi Mere Saathi, each with slightly different cast members. While the release of the Hindi version has been postponed, Aranya and Kaadan have opened in south markets on March 26.

WHY ARE ANIMAL CENTRIC FILMS RARE IN INDIA?

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Solomon has been making films on animal and environment conservation for a while. The director doesn’t want to restrict himself to making hero-centric love stories, his films need to have purpose. Ask him why is there a dearth of animal-centric films in the mainstream, and he says, “Because there is a confusion running in the industry that making films with animals is complicated business and it’s hard to get a Censor clearance. I have made three films with elephants. If you have proper pre-shoot order and permissions, the Animal Welfare Board of India gives a clear certificate.”

IS THERE AN AUDIENCE FOR ANIMAL CENTRIC FILMS?

Vidyut Jammwal starred in the 2019 Indian Hindi action-adventure film Junglee directed by American filmmaker Chuck Russell. The film revolves around a veterinary doctor who upon returning to his father’s elephant reserve, encounters and fights against an international poacher’s racket. The film was praised for its intentions and action scenes, but the plot failed to impress.

Solomon’s previous attempts of making films with animals have been successful. “Films on animals guarantee a minimum business, OTT platforms welcome films on such subjects. My film Kumki made huge business in Tamil Nadu, equivalent to any film with a big star,” he says. The story of Kumki (2012) is about a mahout and his trained Kumki elephant, who is used to guide other wild animals to minimize the destruction of properties and fields of nearby villages. The film was a critical and commercial success, winning several awards.

HOLLYWOOD CONTINUES TO BET ON ANIMALS

Life of Pi (2012), based on the relationship between tiger Richard Parker and a boy named Pi stranded on a boat in the ocean, was the highest grossing film of director Ang Lee. Classics like the Jungle Book have been remade time and again to tell the stories of Mowgli’s adventures. Rudyard Kipling’s story never loses its appeal. Disney released The Lion King’s live action version in 2019. They released The One and Only Ivan, co-produced by Angelina Jolie, last year. The film is inspired by the true story of Ivan the gorilla, highlighting the plight of animals kept captive and used for entertainment.

Chronicles of Narnia, Planet of the Apes, Dr Dolittle, Marley and Me, and Homeward Bound are other successful Hollywood films with animals in focus. Fantasy monster dramas like Jurassic Park or King Kong have their own fandom, but more realistic portrayals of animals in man’s world too appeal to a global audience. We spend hours watching cute cat and dog videos on social media, maybe it’s time more Indian filmmakers thought of putting them on the big screen.