Share Your Thoughts

India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

The Elephant Whisperers mesmerize viewers

A movie is a gem if it strikes the right chord with the audience. That’s true of the Oscar-winning documentary about Bomman and Bellie, ‘The Elephant Whisperers, which seamlessly delivers a mesmerizing experience to the viewer.

The 40-minute short explores the beautiful bond between humanity and nature and the symphony of emotions between elephant and carer. It’s a surreal and inspiring portrayal. The Elephant Whisperers team followed baby elephant Raghu’s story for five years and shot over 400 hours of footage before making their final cut.

The Elephant Whisperers won Best Documentary Short at the 95th Academy Awards making history for India. It’s the first time an Indian-made production helmed by two women took home an Oscar. Directed by Kartiki Gonsalves and produced by Guneet Monga and Achin Jain, The Elephant Whisperers is distributed by Netflix. 

The picture shows a group of people sitting on a jeep
The documentary team from The Elephant Whisperers (image courtesy: Karan Thapliyal)

Behind the scenes of The Elephant Whisperers

In an exclusive interview with Suchithra Pillai for India Currents, cinematographer Karan Thapliyal, reveals behind-the-scenes stories of the documentary, the incredible journey that led to its creation, and the experience of its protagonists. 

The picture shows a man sitting on the ground with a camera and playing with a baby elephant
Karan Thapliyal filming a baby elephant on The Elephant Whisperer (image courtesy: Karan Thapliyal)

Set in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris mountains, a pristine cradle of biodiversity, the documentary beautifully captures the unbreakable bond between two orphaned elephant calves – Raghu and Ammu – and their caretakers. The film illustrates the dignity of indigenous people and their sacred relation with the animals in picturesque frames throughout the film. 

Theppakadu Elephant Camp and Mudumalai Tiger Reserve where this film is shot are right at the foothills of Nilgiris,” explained Thapliyal. “So this amazingly beautiful landscape surrounded us with rich flora and fauna. In documentaries you are mostly depending on the natural light to shoot, so choosing the right time of the day according to the sun’s position is very crucial. The ambiance was perfect and once we got to know the daily routine of the elephants, the process became smooth to capture the best moments possible.” Thapliyal shares camera credits for the documentary along with Krish Makhija, Anand Bansal, and Kartiki Gonsalves

The picture shows a man and a baby elephant
Karan Thapliyal with baby elephant Ammu on the set of The Elephant Whisperers (image courtesy: Karan Thapliyal)

Taking care of elephants

A prime concern for the camera team was documenting the intricate emotions of the elephants and their caretakers without disturbing their daily routine. Each scene captures the raw energy and spirituality of indigenous people like Bomman and Bellie, who like their ancestors, have devoted their lives to caring for and nurturing elephants for centuries. Observing their day-to-day lives and understanding the patterns were vital, says Thapliyal. 

“I think it took at least a week for the crew to get acclimated with the surroundings, people, and elephants. Kartiki has been going to the camp for many years. She had a very good harmony with the people of the camp. That also helped us to break the ice quickly. Bomman and Bellie were also very warm and welcoming.”

“Our shooting process was very observational, and we kept a very respectful distance wherever it was required. The whole idea was to become part of their day-to-day life with no interference. We spent enough time observing Bomman, Bellie, and the elephants, which really helped us in framing our shots. It also helped those people to get comfortable around us with cameras. With Raghu and Ammu it took us a little more time and patience. But once they also became comfortable, then it was smooth sailing for us.”

  • The picture shows a man and a baby elephant by a river
  • The image shows a man, woman and bay elephant in a river
  • The picture shows two men holding cameras
  • The picture shows a room with pictures of elephants on a wall

Magical movie moments

The team’s rapport with the community and their elephants is clear. Some magical moments capture the intimate exchanges between the elephants, Bomman, and Bellie. Highlights include Bellie tenderly giving Raghu a bath, the elephants playing football, and grief at Raghu’s departure from camp. The protagonists share emotions in front of the camera with no inhibition.

“Amongst the two, Ammu was more playful and curious,” said Thapliyal. “Sometimes she just wants us to play and run. And on some occasions, she wants to snatch the camera or camera mic from me. When we used to film them bathing in the river, she always used to throw water on us with her trunk. It was indeed a fun experience to capture those magical moments with them.”

The picture shows a baby elephant playing with a camera that a man is holding
Baby elephant Ammu plays with a camera Karan Thapliyal is holding on the sets of The Elephant Whisperers (image courtesy: Karan Thapliyal)

Unpredictable animal behavior

One of the main challenges for documentaries involving animals is their unpredictability and zero scope for retakes – life depicted as it is with no filter. Securing those moments in the right frame at the right moment takes skill. Director Gonsalves and her team create an enchanting amalgam of human emotion, intimacy, and unpredictable animal behavior, almost effortlessly. 

Thapliyal explains, “Shooting a documentary film can sometimes be very unpredictable, and that’s what keeps it exciting for me. With Raghu and Ammu, it was all about having lots of patience and waiting to get those perfect moments. Every shoot day was full of surprises and new learnings. One has to be really alert with all your senses when you are filming around animals. Anything magical can happen. You have to be ready with your camera with the right lens and the right angle to capture that because there are no retakes.”

The picture shows a holding a camera and sitting by a river
Karan Thapliyal in Mudumulai on the sets of The Elephant Whisperers (image courtesy: Karan Thapliyal)

A nod at the Oscars

That unadulterated portrayal of unique family dynamics between humans, animals, and nature touched people’s hearts. To those who watched the film, the nod at the Oscars was no surprise.

‘The Elephant Whisperers’ is Thapliyal’s second project as a cinematographer at the Oscars. His previous work ‘Writing with Fire’ was nominated for Best Feature Documentary in 2022.

Tell-A-Story is a venture into video storytelling, founded by Suchithra Pillai, who comes with over 15 years of experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community...