Tag Archives: Mowgli

Oakland Ballet Company’s Presents Jangala

The story is a familiar one.  It begins with one lost boy. The boy is adopted by a pack of wolves. He is then kidnapped by a band of monkeys, rescued by his bear and panther friends, briefly cared for by a woman mourning the loss of her son and finally defeats the power hungry tiger that is determined to destroy him.  Of course, the boy is Mowgli and the story is from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”.

15 March 2018; San Leandro, California, USA: Members of the Oakland Ballet Perform Jangala at the San Leandro Performing Arts Center

While the story may be familiar, the Oakland Ballet Company’s presentation of this classic story is not.  In a reimagining of the standard narrative, OBC Artistic Director Graham Lustig – in partnership with Nadhi Thekkek and Nava Dance Theater – has created an incredibly innovative new work blending classical south Indian dance and modern ballet to tell a story of longing, friendship and acceptance.  Danced to an all-Indian musical score that includes classical ragas and bhangra, “Jangala” fuses the centuries old tradition of bharatanatyam with contemporary ballet. Drawing on the breath and the depth of Indian music plus the exquisite beauty of classical Indian dance “Jangala” is unlike any other performance of this well-known story.

Nava Dance Theater – a bharatanatyam dance company based in San Francisco – uses this classical Indian dance form as medium for artistic reflection and discovery.  The dancers of Nava believe that this classical form can be used to illuminate both traditional and contemporary themes. In addition to “Jangala” the artists of the Nava Dance Theater and the Oakland Ballet will be presenting a new work as part of this year’s program. This new work will be inspired by the poems of the Nobel Prize winning Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and the Pulitzer Prize winning American poet Mary Oliver.  Rabindranath Tagore was known and highly regarded for his sensitive, fresh and lyric verse while Mary Oliver was praised for poems that carefully observed the quietly meaningful moments of the natural world. Although of seemingly disparate backgrounds both poets shared a profound appreciation of nature as a source of spirituality. As with “Jangala” this new work will be performed to live Indian music. It will feature three of the women of Nava Dance Theater partnered with three male dancers from Oakland Ballet.  The Nava Dance artists will also present their own new piece showcasing their dancers in the classical style of bharatanatyam.

This program is family-friendly, colorful, exciting, and certainly a must-attend event.

Performances are:

San Leandro

15 March 2018; San Leandro, California, USA: Members of the Oakland Ballet Perform Jangala at the San Leandro Performing Arts Center

Wednesday, May 22, 7 pm
San Leandro High School Performing Arts Center
Free for San Leandro residents
Tickets available on a first-come-first-serve basis that evening

Tuesday, May 28, 7:30 pm
Bankhead Theater, Livermore
Tickets can be purchased at https://lvpac.org/event/oakland-ballet-company-jangala/

Thursday, May 30, 7:30 pm
Friday, May 31, 7:30 pm
Saturday, June 1, 3:00 pm
Saturday, June 1, 7:30 pm
Odell Johnson Performing Arts Center, Laney College, Oakland
Tickets can be purchased at http://oaklandballet.org/wp/jangala/

Children’s Classic or Colonial Fantasy

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.

Movie poster for Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1994)
Movie poster for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1994)

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.

A still from the 1994 movie of Jason Scott Lee as Mowgli and the real bear used to play Baloo
A still from the 1994 movie of Mowgli (Jason Scott Lee) and the real bear used to play Baloo

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!

A still of Colonel Geoffrey Brydon (Sam Niell) and Mowgli (Jason Scott Lee)
A still of Colonel Geoffrey Brydon (Sam Niell) and Mowgli (Jason Scott Lee)

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.