I am glad I come from that vanishing generation which actually read books in­stead of waiting for the movie. Other­wise I might have thought that The Jungle Book was the story of the romance between a young man brought up in Indian jungles and the British woman who brings him to civilization.

Actually, the book Rudyard Kipling wrote was about a boy named Mowgli brought up by wolves and his battle with a tiger named Sher Khan. But the new Walt Disney movie tosses that story to the wolves and comes up with its improved 1990s version, complete with a treasure hunt, some romantic interest, and in­evitably the Indian rope trick. The folks at Disney still call it Rudyard Kiptillg’s The Jungle Book, though Kipling would probably have not recognized the story as one he wrote.

He would not have recog­nized the hero either. Mowgli, the little Indian man-cub, has grown into the strapping Jason Scott Lee. While Mr. Lee’s glis­tening pectorals and flat abdo­men (developed no doubt at the Walt Disney Jungle Gym) are in­deed impressive, he is no Mow­gli-for the simple reason that he docs not look Indian despite the liberal daubs of shoe polish.

While I am aware that the studio conducted several open casting calls for Mowgli, it is un­pardonable that they could not come up with a South Asian to play the role. It is amazing that the Indian-American commu­nity–which now numbers al­most a million, a not insignificant size-has not protested this. The East Asian American community was vociferous in its condmena­tion of a similar casting mishap for MissSaigon.

What is even more unpar­donable is that this film’s produc­ers and executive producers count a few Indians among them. I believe they owe us all some answers. Would the same pro­ducers give the role of a classic American icon like Dennis the Menace to a South Asian actor? But for Mowgli, anyone with tawny skin and black hair is deemed good enough. One Asian is as good as another anyway!

The film uses real animal ac­tors (in fact, it has more animal trainers than animals in the cast). While the animals art: very ex­pressive–from the monkey hordes to the dancing bear–they cannot do as much as they could in Kipling’s imagination. So the story is changed into Mowgli’s introduction to civilization, his learning to speak, dress, and dance.

As this story slowly takes cen­ter stage, we are sometimes left wondering if we are watching The Jungle Book or some curried version of My Fair Lady with Monty Python alumnus John Cleese attempting to provide some comic relief by playing Henry Higgins to Jason Scott Lee’s Eliza Doliltle.

While racist and imperial­ist overtones color much of Kipling’s work,The Jungle Book was less tainted because the original story did not have any sahibs or mern­sahibs in it. In this new version, British India comes gatecrashing into the story, and here the film­makers, perhaps unwittingly, in­troduce their own brand of ra­cism.

The Indians in the cast are the foot soldiers of the movie, the fillers in the crowd scenes. Apart from two slimy villains, we hardly meet any of them, let alone remember their names. In­terestingly, while the evil Indians have the “wery vickcd” accents, the few good ones like Mowgli’s father sound like they went to missionary schools.

But when not doing things all genuine Indians are supposed to do-like walking over burning coals or rope-charming-the In­dians in the movie sometimes do the most unlikely things. In an initial scene we see Mowgli’s widower father offering a red hi­biscus to some nameless woman and then attempting to kiss her–­in full view of everybody, includ­ing his son! Gosh, those hot­blooded natives-and in Victo­rian times, too!

The scenery is breathtak­ing. The deaths gory. The treasure fabulous. The Jodhpur palaces majestic. Ele­phants trumpet and tigers roar. The British maiden is winsome. And in deference to our politi­cally correct times, Mowgli deliv­ers little homilies on the evils of hunting for pleasure and asks wide-eyed soul-stiffing ques­tions like “What is hate?”

Director Stephen Sommers pulls out all stops–from a little cuddly bear cub to a dancing orangoutan to death-defying stunts. Watching little Mowgli’s edge-of-the-seat ride into the jungle on his flaming horse-carriage, I felt I was on a Disneyland ride. Perhaps next summer visitors to Disneyland will in fact get the Jungle Book ride. And with that the Jungle Book experience will be complete. You’ve seen the movie. Now experience the ride.

But once there was a man named Rudyard Kipling and he wrote a book, a very different book.

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