September 17, 2017

The Jungle Book is a children’s book written by Rudyard Kipling about a little Indian child Mowgli abandoned in the jungle and brought up by the animals, chiefly wolves but also a bear Balu and a black panther Bageera. Kipling’s book has been widely interpreted and one interpretation is that it allegorises hierarchical society in India – each animal occupying its place, the boy Mowgli the Britisher placed right at the top. Mowgli’s feared adversary Sher Khan, by this interpretation, is the Pathan at India’s borders who represented a threat to the British.

When Disney Studios made The Jungle Book as an animated cartoon in 1967 they made it as a comedy with the animals representing racial types quite different from Kipling’s book. The elephants became the British army, the vultures were cockney – a take-off on the Beatles and an Orangutan King Louis modelled after Louis Armstrong and producing jazz trumpet music through his pursed lips was introduced.

The inauthenticity of the film worked because the film pushed the whole scheme as far away from India as was possible. Everyone knows that Orangutans are not Indian and its all only fun!

The new Jungle Book is a different proposition altogether because of the attempts at authenticity.

The jungle is not any jungle but imitates actual jungles in Madhya Pradesh. King Louis (now a giant ape resembling King Kong), lives in a temple that has the shape of an actual Hindu temple. The ‘authenticity’ of the film is evidently necessitated by marketing compulsions since audiences want to see the ‘real thing’. But what happens in the process is that the authenticity, although visually impressive, is only partial. Balu/Baloo is not a bear found in India and the monkeys are not recognisable from India. Sher Khan climbs a burning tree in his pursuit of Mowgli, quite contrary to known tiger behaviour. Much of this makes us irritated because the film-makers are clearly indifferent to what India is actually like – even as they try to reproduce its look ‘authentically’. After ‘lovingly’ recreating every animal and every leaf, they also burn the whole jungle down casually as though they didn’t care.

But what should be especially irksome is the episode dealing with King Louis in his temple hideout. The temple was apparently modelled after the one in Ellora but here again, as though it didn’t matter, the giant ape casually destroys the ancient temple, which is reduced to a heap of rubble in a matter of seconds.

This should be offensive – especially to Indians who treasure their architectural heritage. What this points to is a distinct lack of respect for things Indian on the part of the film-maker/ producers. While showing artifacts that one associates deeply with one’s culture one cannot but be offended when they are treated so lightly, destroyed casually on screen when there is a perpetual battle going on to preserve them in the actual world.

MK Raghavendra

MK Raghavendra is a film/literary scholar, theorist, critic and writer. He contributes to numerous newspapers and periodicals in India and abroad, and has authored six books on Indian Cinema. He received the Swarna Kamal, the National Award for Best Film Critic in 1997.