Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Haathi ras - on an elephant trail

[From my Business Standard column, and a sort of extension of this post about animals in films]

“Just think – in India, you would be worshipped,” says William Gull, the royal doctor, to Joseph Merrick, a patient so severely deformed that he is mockingly known as the Elephant Man. The scene, depicting a fictional meeting between two real-life people in London in the late 1880s, is from one of my favourite books, the graphic novel From Hell. Gull is consoling the unhappy social outcast Merrick with a reference to Ganesha the elephant-headed God, but there is also a dark subtext, in the linking of a benevolent, twinkling, pleasingly rotund deity – the remover of obstacles – with a “mission” that leads to a long trail of blood in the streets of the East End. When Gull seeks the Elephant Man’s blessings later in the story, he is embarking on a very macabre act, one that most Ganesha-worshippers would decidedly not approve of!

Which may be a reminder that elephants can mean very different things to different people. (So can Gods, of course, and elephant-Gods.) A famous manifestation of an elephant as a blank slate is in the parable about a group of blind men, each with a very different idea of what the animal must look like. There is also Jose Saramago’s novel The Elephant’s Journey, in which an Indian elephant makes a long, dangerous journey from Portugal to Austria in the 16th century, becoming a symbol of what is possible, and inviting a range of perspectives from various observers.

A few days ago I attended a talk by the writer and academic Rachel Dwyer, about elephants in Indian cinema. Using stills and clips, Dwyer touched not just on relatively objective elephant depictions in such films as the 1937 Elephant Boy (originally shot as a documentary, later re-edited into a narrative-driven feature) but also on such filmi archetypes as the “moral elephant” (the one pursing bad guy Pran through the jungles in the 1955 film Munimji) and the “secular elephant” – as in the ending of Haathi Mere Saathi, where the dead body of the elephant Ramu is taken on a sort of multi-religion pilgrimage, past a mandir, a masjid and a church.

Many of us tend to patronise films like Haathi Mere Saathi these days. We laugh, or cringe, at some of the cheesier animal depictions from old Hindi cinema, such as the revenge-seeking dog Moti in Teri Meherbaniyan (sample of such mockery in this old piece), the resourceful, infant-rescuing hawk in Dharam Veer (likewise), the snake who thinks of a human woman as its maa in Doodh ka Karz, and the pigeons who have flashbacks in Maine Pyaar Kiya. And there is sometimes a reasonable cause for cringing: these are simplistic forms of anthropomorphising, of imputing human emotions and deeds directly to animals.

But as Dwyer pointed out, there is also something immediate and moving about scenes like the one where a number of animals, including tigers, emerge from their cages to mourn Ramu’s death and there is a remarkable series of close-ups of animal and human faces. In this light, perhaps the most interesting part of the post-talk discussion was the idea that the use of animals in Indian art was rooted in a closeness to the pastoral way of life, where (as one attendee put it) “touching the skin of an animal” was a natural, desirable sensory experience, and where observing animals became a way for humans to understand or articulate their own feelings and relationships.

The only real way for humans to emotionally relate to an animal is by anthropomorphising, and we see this in our traditional storytelling forms that stress the interconnectedness of life, such as the Jataka Tales, about the Buddha’s animal forms, or the myths about Vishnu’s avatars, which blur the lines between God, human and animal. There may have been a natural transition from these forms of oral and written storytelling to the heightened emotions of Sanskrit and Parsi theatre, and thence to the distinct forms of expression in commercial cinema. 

And in this context, it is notable how a film like Haathi Mere Saathi – which, on the face of it, is just lightweight entertainment for children – stresses the importance of animals in the ideal of a “Pyaar ki Duniya” (the name given to the private zoo established by the Rajesh Khanna character) and even shows a distrust of sterile modernity, as represented by the big, flashy car that breaks down and has to be pushed by elephants in the film’s title song. As Dwyer pointed out, Ramu displays many of the emotions from the Indian tradition of navrasa, including shringaar (aesthetic appeal), karuna (compassion) and haasya (laughter). Elephants can be even bigger and more capacious than they first appear.

[Also see: this post about the birth of Ganesha and the bathroom battle; this one about elephant-headed transcribers in Ekta Kapoor's Mahabharata, and this one about Temple Grandin's book Animals in Translation. And some elephant photos from a Sri Lanka trip]


  1. That's two Doodh ka Karz references in two posts! :D

  2. And two Saramago references in the last five posts. But cannibalising myself is what I do best these days!

  3. Pigeons having flashbacks in Maine Pyar Kiya, lol, that film is full of such funny things...including different background scores/songs for different characters. For Salman Khan, it was, "I love you", for the actress it was, "Dil Deewana", for Mohnish Behl it was, "Hey, hey hey" and for Alok Nath it was, "Twinkle Twinkle little star" :)