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.