Kartiki Gonsalves, natural history and social documentary photographer-turned-director, has scored an Oscar nomination with her debut film, The Elephant Whisperers. The 40-minute Netflix film, up for an Academy Award in the Documentary Short Film category, is a profoundly moving and enlightening portrait of a couple, Bomman and Bellie, and their deep bond with Raghu and Ammu, two orphaned pachyderms that they raise in the Theppakadu Elephant Camp in Tamil Nadu. By highlighting the forest dwellers' instinctive affinity with nature and the creatures of the wild, the film showcases the beauty of man and animal working together. The 36-year-old first-time director made The Elephant Whisperers, produced by Guneet Monga's Sikhya Entertainment, in a forest that is 30 minutes from where she grew up in Ooty. Gonsalves started out as a documentary photojournalist, then turned into a cinematographer and finally became a director. Three weeks ahead of Oscar night, she talks about the process and purpose of The Elephant Whisperers.
Excerpts from the interview:
The Elephant Whisperers is a cross between a heart-warming relationship story and an environmental awareness film. Is that the combination you had in mind from the outset?
Raghu being orphaned is the story's bittersweet beginning. 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. There are roughly 35,000-40,000 Asian elephants left. The situation is grim. 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. Raghu's mother was electrocuted and died instantly as she and her herd wandered into a nearby village in search of food and water during a prolonged drought. I wanted people to be able to understand these beautiful beings on a deeper level. I also wanted to show the importance of indigenous people and their knowledge. Most importantly, I wanted to give them a voice. Bomman, Bellie and Raghu share a very special bond. That is what The Elephant Whisperers is about.
Did you spend a lot of time in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and Theppakadu Elephant Camp before the shoot began?
Yes, having grown up in Ooty and living in the heart of the Nilgiri Biosphere reserve, I have been visiting Mudumalai Tiger Reserve ever since I was three years old. I have walked through these very forests on foot and encountered many wild animals like the tiger, leopard and elephants up close with the help of the Kurumbas (an indigenous community). I went on to pursue wildlife photography and lived near the forests, where I would go hiking every morning and afternoon.
How did you discover Bomman, Bellie and Raghu?
In simple words, I fell in love with Raghu. Boman and Bellie are Kattunayakars. They are a forest tribe that inhabits the heart of the forest of the Western Ghats. Their homeland now falls in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Originally hunter gatherers, some have specialized in honey collecting and elephant care. Boman's father was an elephant carer. His new wife, Bellie, had less knowledge of the forests and a deep fear of wild animals. Bomman, apart from being an elephant caregiver, is also a Hindu temple priest. He worships Ganesha (the elephant God) in temples and looks after elephants in real life. One of his other sources of income is collection of honey.
How long was The Elephant Whisperers in the making?
Starting off in 2017 when Raggu was only three months old, we finished the documentary in September 2022. I spent a lot of time with him and Bomman and Bellie. Trust was the core of it. We developed an unbreakable bond in the process. Raghu is now almost 6 and Ammu is almost 4. They are both taller than me now. It's been the most special part of my life. Watching them grow up, I've been able understand this magnificent species.
To what do you attribute your innate love for the natural world and animals?
I was introduced to nature before I could walk. While many families might more often go out shopping, to the movies, to visit friends and relatives, we headed out to explore the forests, streams, beaches, mountains, zoos, natural history museums and aquariums. I first camped out in a state park when I was only 18 months. My mother was especially interested in animals. My father was a photographer. My grandmother was an amateur naturalist who guided school children through local nature reserves. So, I had a lot of information provided both on nature and on how to photograph it alongside a lot of knowledge on animal behaviour.
I ventured into advertising after my post-graduation. I eventually quit to pursue wildlife and social documentary photography, working as a tour guide to support myself financially. But I soon realized that photography in the area I was interested in didn't have much scope In India at this time. I realized filmmaking was a tool that I could use to reach out to the world... I believe that strong imagery has the power to change minds. I was a part of the filming crew (one of the camerawomen) for the episode "The Asiatic Black Bear" of the TV series On The Brink for Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. This show focuses on many endangered species across India together with the stories of researchers and scientists involved in protecting them.
Was cinema a part of your life in your formative years?
I am a self-taught filmmaker. Cinema wasn't a part of my life in my formative years. I would watch a few select movies when I visited my grandparents over the holidays. In fact, we did not even own a television while I was growing up. My parents encouraged my sister and I to read books and explore the outdoors. We got our first television when I was in Class 11.
Do you have any favourite documentary filmmakers?
I admire the work of (cinematographer) Emmanuel Lubezki, Terrence Malick, Louis Psihoyos, Orlando von Einsiedel, Jeff Orlowski, David Attenborough. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Ron Fricke, to name a few.
How was the musical score of The Elephant Whisperers developed? What was your basic brief to composer Sven Faulconer?
I wanted to begin with conveying the strong emotional connection that I felt to this film. A dear friend Tasmin Vosloo introduced me to Sven Faulconer. It changed the course of everything that lay ahead. Sven was someone who deeply understood my vision and style for this documentary and brought his everything to this. Having worked on so many different films in different styles and scales, Sven instantly understood my desire to make the score more intimate, personal and emotional and steer away from the grandeur that one might typically expect in nature documentaries. My vision for the score was that we had an intimate and unique family dynamic with a lot of love. I did not want to focus on having music that would overpower the beautiful footage that we had. My brief to him was that the music should speak to our audience in a very deep and powerful way - simple with beautiful synergy yet not overpowering. The emotion in Sven Faulconer's scores can sometimes come from an unexpected minimalist approach, which we actually chose in several scenes in The Elephant Whisperers. One example I would love to talk about is the scene when Raghu gets taken away. Sven and I came to the decision that less is definitely more. The music takes plenty of breaths in those scenes and does not try to 'push the emotion' as much. I'd say it's gently sitting right there with the audience, as if they're both going through the same experience for the first time together.
What are you working on next?
I will be working on Orca-human relationships next. I am hoping this will open a whole new dimension and perspective on the relationship between man and nature. I also want to delve deeper into the lives of Orcas and unravel the profound connection that the First Nations share with the world's biggest predator. Both are matriarchal societies. I would like to explore other parallels between the two societies.