By Shweta Parande
The Netflix documentary The Elephant Whisperers brought home an Oscar Award for India at the 95th Academy Awards held in Los Angeles, USA on March 12, 2023. Directed by Kartiki Gonsalves and produced by Guneet Monga of Sikhya Entertainment, the heartwarming film tells the story of Bomman and Bellie who became human “parents” or foster parents to rescued elephants in Tamil Nadu, India.
The first press conference of The Elephant Whisperers team post their Oscar win was held in Mumbai on March 23 at a five-star hotel not far from Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s home Mannat in Bandra. Guneet, upon being asked about SRK’s tweet of a hug to Kartiki and her, said she had replied to the tweet saying she wants the hug “in person”. The film producer said she would love for that to happen and is waiting for it.
But at the press conference, there was no Bollywood superstar present. The women behind the film and in the film were the real superstars – Guneet Monga, Kartiki Gonsalves, Bellie and Monika Shergill.
Who are the women behind The Elephant Whisperers and what did they say?
As mentioned, Guneet and Kartiki are the producer and producer-director of the film respectively, and Bellie is the foster mother of the baby elephants Raghu and Ammu in The Elephant Whisperers. Monika Shergill is Vice President, Content, Netflix India and she’s the one who backed the project from the word go along with Guneet.
Also on stage were the men – Bomman, Achin Jain, partner, Sikhya, and RJ Hrishikesh who was the emcee at the event. The gentlemen were all heart and cheered on the women. Another important man missing at the event was Aloke Devichand, former Netflix Head of Asian Original Documentaries, who greenlighted The Elephant Whisperers.
What Bomman and Bellie said
Bomman, who is Bellie’s husband and co-parents the elephants with her, was shy with his answers and let Bellie do the talking. It was heartening to see a fully confident Bellie speak to the media in Mumbai on stage – and her heart was still thinking of how her babies must be missing her back home! That was certainly more important to her, but she made it a point to express that she was pleased to meet everyone at the press conference!
Bellie coming from the jungles and speaking with supreme confidence in the cinema capital of India was a treat to watch. Both husband and wife spoke in Tamil, which was translated by the emcee.
Bomman gave a heartwarming response, saying, “I am a Kattuanayakan (the tribe). I am a protector of the forest. I feel immense pride that the stories of my babies have been put in front of the world. I want to thank Kartiki madam for actually bringing my story and the story of my children to the entire world. That is so important to me…beyond the prize, the pride I feel as a father.”
Bellie said with full confidence, “Bomman might feel a little shy, but I have no fear because I’ve lived in the forest. You might think Oscar is a big prize, but for me, the real prize is coming and meeting all of you wonderful people who have given me so much respect as a mother. I want to thank everybody here. It’s wonderful to be able to come to a big city and meet people,”.
Bellie added that she will be looking after another baby elephant, Dharmam. “It is sometimes painful when I bring up elephants and they have to be left in the wild (once they grow up). As a mother, you bring up children and then they go away. As a mother, I was apprehensive about bringing up another child. But when they brought Dharmam to me and they told me his mother had passed away. How could I say no to bring up the baby elephant?” she said, overwhelmed with emotion.
What Kartiki Gonsalves had to say
Guneet and Monika have always been articulate and make their point clear. It was good to see Kartiki speak so confidently at the press do and even at the Oscars and various events in the US and India. She said, “This is my debut film. I was a salesgirl at FabIndia (Indian indigenous products brand), I worked at a gym, and I was in advertising for a couple of years…and here I am today! There is a whole generation stepping out of the world showcasing the diversity of India, as local documentarians.”
On women in film, Kartiki said, “In the wildlife industry, there has been a massive change already. We have women who have stepped out who are cinematographers, directors, and it is beautiful to see this change. And in the coming years we will have a strong women force in the wildlife industry in India.”
And what inspired her to make The Elephant Whisperers? To which, Kartiki said, “I’m a natural history photographer and filmmaker, and I’ve always had this beautiful connection with the natural world. While I was making this documentary, I was really just drawn to Raghu and Ammu and the connection they had with Bomman and Bellie. The relationship has always been there, this documentary just added a different layer. More than my relationship to animals, I was blown away by the power of storytelling in this because, being with animals has been a part of life ever since I was 18 months old. But what really changed things in this documentary is to see how a small story from the heart of south India can really reach out to the world in so many ways, and how it can ultimately make change in a place – that’s what really stood out for me in this entire journey. And, of course, spending all the time that I did with Bomman and Bellie, and being a part of this beautiful relationship and bond.”
She also revealed that she is very clear she does not want to get into directing commercial cinema, as of now and wants to stick to her genre of filmmaking.
What Guneet Monga had to say
Guneet Monga humbly confessed that one of the reasons The Elephant Whisperers had a good chance at the Oscars was that it is backed by Netflix and already had a buzz in the US before its release in December 2022 on the streaming platform.
“I have said this thing during The Lunchbox (her 2013 acclaimed film), it’s very important to understand that the film should have solid American distribution if you are aiming for the Oscars. Because we had solid American distribution, the film was seen more, heard more, celebrated more. We are here because of the incredible experience with Netflix USA. I am hopeful for many more now.”
But that surely can’t be the only reason for their win at the Oscars 2023? Guneet said that they could only guess what made them win The Academy Award, but definitely everyone felt an emotional connection with the film.
“It’s a very fair voting process, with 10,000 voters around the world, and we’re not really allowed to directly ask them or The Academy as to who voted and who didn’t. But I think if the film has appealed to so many people around the world and the voters also, it’s the beauty of the film, the beauty of Kartiki’s vision, and Bomman Bellie and their selfless abundant love that transcended boundaries and age groups. We’ve had two-year-old babies looking at the film spellbound, and the kids are calling each other Raghu and Ammu, brother-sister twins. Our DMs (direct messages on social media) are full with the love (of fans). I don’t think The Academy voters are anyone else, they’re all excellent filmmakers and the beauty of The Elephant Whisperers spoke to them above and beyond everything. We stand here as testimony of that and of Kartiki’s work.”
On women in film, Guneet said, “There’s still five percent women who are directors and the stats are against us but as producers at Sikhya most of our work is female centric stories. There is a lot of work and celebration happening. The change, the push and the stats will not be immediate but in this decade it will be significant…Netflix has a huge push with women stories, most of their shows are amazing and big-budget shows, and also, empowering producers and companies led by women…”.
What Monika Shergill had to say
Monika revealed that Netflix India wants to give voice to more women storytellers in order to narrate female-driven stories. The company has 50 percent women in the workforce. “There is no reason why we should not be represented (and) stories being told. It is a fairer representation when we have more women telling stories of women, by the women, for women, and for the men. And there are so many men out there, who also want the same. It is a journey we are on,” she said.
Guneet Monga, Kartiki Gonsalves, Bellie and Monika Shergill – these four represented the self-assured women of India today. Their presence, confidence, flair, fearlessness, talent and their content certainly make a difference for little girls watching or reading about them and their films, and being inspired. More power to the ladies and to the future gems they would create!