Irfanimals: Tiger, Tiger, Burning (B)Right?

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My latest piece for thREAD, The Hindu’s online segment, this time around The Jungle Book and around my two big interests of movies and animal welfare. Go on, rrread!

This piece on thREAD

If you’ve seen the new Jungle Book, you’ve done one, some or all of the following things.

You’ve watched it at least twice, and at least once in IMAX. I have too, and it’s without doubt, an IMAX movie.

You’ve agreed with its U/A certification. It is scary in parts: Kaa’s sssequence, Louie the gigantopithecus’ introduction through his gigantopithecal arm, Shere Khan lunging toward Mowgli on the plains…

You’ve gone back and watched the 1967 cell-animation version and revelled again in its simple joys and buffoonery: Colonel Hathi and his bumbling troops, Baloo with his bouncing belly, the monkeys and that era’s version of Temple Run…

You’ve listened to your kids hum the ditty, ‘Jungle-jungle pataa chalaa hai, Chaddi pehenke phool khila hai’, and then gone and hummed ‘Look for the bare necessities’ yourself.

If an animation lover, you’ve been enthralled by its technical genius. To the best of my knowledge, almost everything in the movie – apart from some water and mud, and of course, Neel Sethi and his chaddi – has been created on the computer.

The iconic image of the tiger in the water in 'Life of Pi'Likewise, you’ve compared it with the other big animal animation movie in recent times, Life of Pi, and fought with other cinephiles over which is better. Theme-wise though, apples and oranges. Life of Pi was more philosophical-spiritual; Jungle Book is more socio-anthropomorphic and even moralistic (and more of this very shortly).

If a really huge movie lover, apart from the 50-year-old animation version, you’ve also gone and watched the popular live-action versions available online, the 1994 one starring Jason Scott Lee as an adult Mowgli and the first one from 1942, featuring Sabu, again as a boy lost and grown into an adult in the wild. These two were closer to Kipling’s books (there are two) in some ways (the focus is more on the hunt for some long-lost treasure than on Mowgli vs Shere Khan, plus there is a snake protecting the treasure chamber), but also dissimilar in certain others (Mowgli kills Khan early on in the first version, but in the 1990s’ version, they have a stare-down at the end, but after acknowledging respect for each other, head their separate ways).

If you’ve seen all these movies, you would have marvelled at how Disney seems to have watched all these versions themselves before coming up with the new avatar. The new Jungle Book has a terrific screenplay (they’ve taken a single, solid premise – Tiger vs Man, or Man-cub – and stuck to it from beginning to end, from growl to howl), is high on octane (Shere Khan in frightening pursuit of Mowgli, the bounding of the buffaloes, B&B – Baloo and Bagheera – fighting the monkeys), has a mesmerising mood and feel (delving, dark, dire); is, in short, lip-smacking story-telling and ultimately, smashing movie-making.

If your pursuits are more literary, you’ve bought the book(s), compared it/them with the movie(s) and – surprise, surprise – proclaimed #TheBookIsBetter. To the best of my knowledge again, the movies are based not on all, but a composite, of the stories in the books.

And if an animal lover, or more precisely, one who campaigns for animal welfare, such as myself, you’ve asked yourself one, some or all of the following questions: Was Shere Khan really that wrong in whatever he said and did? Did he really have to die? Was he the villain… or the victim?

Now, before you remonstrate that this is only a movie, and doesn’t need so much of cogitation, let’s consider its target audience. Kids. An audience that picks up much of its information and attitudes from mainstream media these days, especially attitudes to others, and those ‘others’ could well be another species. Actually, with parents having to accompany minors for this movie, it may even temper grown-ups’ outlook toward “lesser species”, especially to already-endangered striped big cats. The ongoing debate over Ustad is a case in point.

Ustad on the cover of India Today magazineTo fill you in, Ustad, or T24, is an adult male tiger from Ranthambore National Park who has been classified a maneater after he was spotted near the body of a guard in deep jungle and has subsequently been snared and relocated to a more constricted space in Sajjangarh Biological Park, about 500 kilometres from Ranthambore. The issue has gotten even wildlife experts divided (“he killed the man” vs “he was just found sniffing the body”), but animal activists have been campaigning for Ustad’s innocence and therefore release. Why, it seems like a ‘Talwar case for tigers’, not just for the seeming injustice but also because the officials were quick to incarcerate him based on circumstantial evidence and after mounting pressure on them to swiftly nab the perpetrator.

Coming back to Shere Khan, who is regarded by one and all viewers as the villain of this piece. How about we give at least the on-screen tiger a fair trial?

Bad Tiger…

Close-up of Shere Khan, with his bad left eyeCharge one: “Killing for pleasure, hunting for sport.” Actually, there is just one being who hurls these accusations at Khan – Raksha, Mowgli’s wolf-mom. (Though this could well be because the others are too scared of him.) Now, could these be mere inter-species aggressions? After all, we don’t see Khan actually indulging in these, though of course, if the movie began showing all this, it would be a very tedious movie. So, let’s just accept he does it; he doesn’t deny it himself. Could it be because he’s an injured tiger? He lost his left eye when he was torched by – the plot thickens – Mowgli’s father, when the latter took refuge in a cave while passing through the jungle with Mowgli was a child. Injured, weakened big cats are known to go for soft targets. Or maybe Khan does it to vent his frustration over becoming less of a tiger, due to no fault of his. And even if he terrorises for “pleasure and sport”, does that make him bad… or flawed?

TV grab of a report on the Uttarakhand forest fireThen, Khan kills Akela, the alpha of the wolf pack. Apart from being a stratagem to get Mowgli out of his presumed hiding-hole, Khan does this “to send a message to everyone that a man-cub is not welcome in the jungle, for a man-cub becomes man, and man is FORBIDDEN.” (You go, Idris Elba.) For Khan only knows too well the destruction man can cause to a jungle, especially with the power of his ‘red flower’ (fire). Come to think of it, don’t we too? Consider what’s been scorching the news recently: the Uttarakhand forest fire. Regarded in part to be caused by the wanton ways of the wood trade, this comes so close on the heels of The Jungle Book’s release, it’s almost a foreboding. Coming back to the charge, could it only be par for the course? If you know enough about wild animals, you’ll know big cats kill lesser predators to protect their turf, be that a physical one or a mind-game one, as in this case. What’s that jungle law again? Survival of the…

Good Tiger…

Shere Khan and good? Let’s see, doesn’t he respect the truce of the Peace Rock? (No predator can kill a prey animal at the watering hole when the Rock is revealed at the time of drought.) But once the Rock is submerged again after the rains, he returns to his mission: getting the man-cub eliminated from the jungle. (Which is why Bagheera has to force Mowgli to go to the man-village. With all the plot churns and turns, this is a veritable jungle-resident’s GoT.) Also, to begin with, Shere Khan perhaps just wants Mowgli out of his fur and forest, but as the wolf pack increasingly stands up against him, his ego is stoked and he begins baying for the man-cub’s blood. Unreasonable? Human pride has done far worse.

Wise Tiger?

In the final tussle, when Mowgli rushes back into the forest with a flaming torch, Khan is the first to point that Mowgli is the one who has actually brought destruction to the jungle, just as his ancestors before him: turning back, you see the embers that Mowgli carelessly spilled on his run have turned into ravaging fires that are eating up the wood and causing the animals to flee their terrain. Khan may very well have had great foresight in The Jungle Book. But just as it happens in real life, far-sighted people, or in this case, animals, are often witch-hunted.

Good Man-cub (?)

Mowgli in the climax from 'The Jungle Book', with the forest fire raging behind himAnd finally, Mowgli. Is he all good, in his cute chaddi? Crushed on knowing Akela is dead, Mowgli’s anguish turns to fury when he learns who the murderer is. Incensed, he runs to the man-village to get the fuming flame. Mowgli wanting to avenge his father-figure’s death… How different is that from Khan wanting to get back at a man-cub for a man making him a minnow tiger? (He doesn’t know Mowgli is the same man’s cub; else, hell would have hath no fury like a feline knowing the truth.) And if things haven’t turned grey enough, let’s look at how Mowgli kills Khan, or rather, causes Khan to be killed. By using his “tricks”, something Bagheera has been ceaselessly reproaching him over. The panther keeps exhorting Mowgli to be more natural, more animal than man. Mowgli, well, the man that he is, doesn’t listen. Sure, one time, he saves a life this way (the baby elephant’s), but the other time, he takes a life. And when that life is that of a fear-inducing, human-threatening big cat, no one has cause for complaint, right?

I think Disney, the maker of saccharine-loaded movies with even sweeter moralising, lost out a bit here, by killing the tiger. Odd, since in the two versions before this, tiger and man go their own paths. So, did Disney sacrifice great messaging for great story-telling? If they had let Khan live, there could have even been opportunity for a sequel, and perhaps further story-telling. It would have been fascinating to see Mowgli grown-up and pitting his strength and wits, and not tricks, in battle against an older Khan or his progeny. It would have also been interesting to know if a grown-up Mowgli continued to do good for the jungle, with or without his misguided man ways, or if he let the power of his tricks go to his head and caused eventual devastation to the jungle. Without Khan being around as a voice of reason, or fierce caution, we just wouldn’t know.

Or, keeping Ustad, Uttarakhand and the unabated poaching of this mighty, majestic mammal in mind, maybe Disney was merely reflecting reality. Grr.


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