Poster for the short film, Vicky

Irfanimals | V for Vicky

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My first post for AnimApp, an animal rescue and rehab app / organization based in Chennai. This one’s on the short film, Vicky, that’s been getting a lot of wows and bows ever since it went on online air. AnimApp carries the edited piece. Below’s my original one.

This piece on AnimApp

Freedom for animals. An idea that, perhaps understandably, animals seem to grasp, but not humans.

This is at the heart of Vicky, the short film by Kerala-based editor-turned-filmmaker, Manu Antony, that released on YouTube, appropriately enough, on August 15, and has been quietly winning hearts and views ever since.

While you can of course view the short below, here’s a synopsis. Vicky’s a young Golden Retriever in what seems a Kerala village. Vicky is gambolling around, though through the chain coiled around the wooden pillar at the entrance of the house, you get the feeling he is sometimes chained up. Vicky’s human companion calls for him as the film begins, he comes running, gladly receives his morning petting, and then the companion leaves. Vicky assumes this is to get his meal for the day – you see him dreaming of fish bones and chicken leg-pieces and then drooling in anticipation. However, his companion returns with a cage bearing a couple of lovebirds (or a lovebird couple?).

A lovebird in a cageVicky wonders at the presence of the new beings, but is soon happy to go back to his own actions (or inactions), whether scampering or lazing around. Suddenly, he hears a sound and runs in the direction, only to fall into a deep hole. He howls for someone to come rescue him, then not finding anyone doing so, begins getting morose. Fret not. The next scene, he is back home, though just a bit roughed up for the experience. Now, though, he begins looking at the caged birds in a new light. Would they too be feeling as frustrated in the cage as he felt in the hole? What follows will warm and win hearts.

Apart from Vicky and the lovebirds, the film at intervals shows other sentient beings in their habitats, all free, and freely doing their thing – whether ants scurrying across, or dragonflies flitting around. The only restrained being shown is a tethered buffalo, but this country is presently at a sensitive space when it comes to bovine rights, so maybe we’ll discuss that some other time.

Nelson Mandela's famous quote on freedom

The film ends on a couple of sombre notes. The first is a quote by Nelson Mandela: ‘There is no such thing as part freedom.’ We couldn’t agree more. Then, you have graphics of various animals having lost their freedom of various sorts – whether that of habitat (through the razing of forests), of space (through being confined in cages in zoos and circuses), or of lives (through poaching, culling, or as food).

For bringing up all these issues, and in a soft (rather than militant) manner, Vicky tickies all the right boxes.

Cover pic for this post, featuring a young healthy Beagle on the left and an old sick one on the right

Irfanimals | New Dog, Old Thinking

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I was about to cross the road yesterday, on the way to one of the places from where I begin my morning walk / jog, when I spotted a morning walk-jog (I start with a walk and end with a jog; should I just call it ‘wog’?) regular cross over from the other side. However, something, or rather, someone was missing. His doggie companion, a Lhasa Apso by the name of Fido.

Pic of Lhasa Apso

Representative pic only. Fido was shaggier and greyer.

As we started approaching each other, I gestured about Fido’s whereabouts. He gestured back the reply. The reply indicated that… Fido had passed away. However, I wasn’t sure, or I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear that. So, I waited until we came up to each other and asked again. He confirmed it. He told me Fido got sick some days back, started throwing up, and then passed away some hours later. He had appeared silent for sometime before (I nodded at this, as I had observed one young streetie too pass away with this indication a couple of years ago). The man’s wife was at home, and she took Fido to the vet (after some resistance from the auto-guy who wouldn’t take in a dog, that too, a sick one). The vet though had made his announcement.

Hope Fido is in a happy place, right up there with Rai, Tiger and Ginger (some of my streeties who have passed away, though I’m not sure about Ginger – she might just have got swept away in the floods and landed up in Chengalpet).

The man went on for some time, talking of how Fido was like his son, and how he had hoped Fido would outlast him. The man isn’t particularly old, at least doesn’t look it, and I told him so. He smiled and continued about Fido: Fido had been around for quite a while, at least 10 years or so.

Graphic of a cute-looking dog "humping" a man's legI have had some sweet moments with Fido too. He would recognize me through this shaggy drooping hair, lick me, and the last time, did the old doggie chestnut of humping my leg. Guess that was his way of saying goodbye: leaving me with his, and every doggie’s, favourite action.

I know what folk who’ve had doggie companions for a long time typically do, so I asked him, “So, do you plan to bring home another dog?” His response was pat – faster than you could say say, ‘RIP, Fido.’Yes. In fact, I’ve even paid the money.”

Pic with text of a female beagle with enlarged mamaries thanks to breeding for commerceI have bumped into this man quite a few times in the morning now, have spoken about doggie love and my work, and believe we are at least cordial with each other, so I felt I could take the opportunity to educate him. Starting with a disclaimer (“If you don’t mind, may I say something…”), I ventured what educated animal lovers know: the cruelty of puppy farm-bred dogs, the scores of dogs (puppies and adults alike) up for adoption at animal shelters, the shelters specifically offering breed dogs for adoption if you are looking only for one such…

He does tend to look surprised at most things about me, I guess (my wog attire, my conversation, my views; but then, most people do), and this time too, his eyes opened wide: like I was giving him breaking news, or that I had said that I was the one who had poisoned Fido.

Female adult BeagleThe invisible-cruelty angle didn’t seem to be cutting much ice with him (as with most people, even vegetarian – he is), so I asked him a conversation-continuer, “So, which breed are you planning to get?” Again, pat: “Beagle.” I jumped at this too. I told him about how Beagles especially are put through the greatest cruelty for lab experiments, but added that recently, many have been rescued and are up for adoption – though after stringent checks of the human companions, mercifully – through Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (CUPA) of Bangalore, via a cutely named programme, Freagles (Free Beagles). I reiterated it to him, and he did check a few things with me.

However, I’m not sure I may have succeeded. I’m fairly certain the next time we meet on a morning wog, there will be a small little Beagle with him. He might even appear embarrassed or uncomfortable at not having taken my suggestion (and thus not helped get one shelter dog out of the overworked shelter). But that’s ok: there’s only so much you can do. The biggest piss though: Don’t say your dog companion is like your son after having paid for him. That’s way crueler than bringing home a puppy-farm-bred dog not suited for a certain climate.

I may not have been able to help this man see better. Hopefully, I’ll do better with the folk reading this piece. Find out more about puppy farm cruelty here. And if in India and interested in adopting a Freagle, know more through the CUPA site here.

Cover pic for this post, also the logo for the series, with a cartoon dog wagging its tale fervently with the name broken into two parts and written on each of his sides

Irfanimals | Wags in a Name | Here’s Wagging…

Irfanimals LogoChaining them. Caging them. Thrashing them. Training them (for the circus, where this practice still goes on, or training them beyond limits if at home). However, something equally “criminal” we can do with a dog is… giving them a commonplace name.

Pic of one of my street dog friends with some meme text of sorts

One of my many street dog friends, Johnny, who I’d love to rename, but who’s stuck with this name since he was a tot

I won’t go into home-dog territory (as I’m more of a street-dog lover), but I’ve lost count of the Tigers, Leos, Brunos and Caesars I’ve heard). Even among the streeties, the few that some folk deign to name, they show equally lazy thinking. Moti, Raja, Sheru, among the Hindi vernacular; Tommy, Rocky, Johnny, among those who know English; and down South, Lakshmi, Mani, and well, Mani. (Coming to this in just a bit.) Lakshmi (the Hindu goddess of wealth / prosperity) is such a popular name for street dogs in Chennai / Tamil Nadu that almost every second dog I come across that I haven’t named seems to be called so, including… the male ones. Arrey, at least check properly and then call him Lakshman, no? But no, a goddess has higher standing than a god’s brother, right? As for that double Mani thing, it’s a prime example of the height of laziness (and that’s why the double hyperbole). Two dogs who hang around together are both called Mani. How does which Mani know which Mani is being called? And with the equal number of men who seem to be called that, how mani, sorry, many men will also turn when I shout that name?

Well, I’m here to correct this anomaly. An ad guy, especially a branding aficionado, and a (street) dog lover, I’ve decided to put these two powers together to put together a primer of sorts on how to name a dog you come across (on the street, who you decide to become friendly with) or one you decide to bring home (if doing so, do bring one from the shelter; there’s too much cruelty in buying a breed dog, but more of that some other time).

Cover pic for this post, also the logo for the series, with a cartoon dog wagging its tale fervently with the name broken into two parts and written on each of his sidesSo, dog-loving ladies and gentlemen, I give you… Wags in a Name. A short sub-series within my animal series, Irfanimals, on how to name a dog, so that, as the name suggests, you’ll see their tail wagging. Another way of looking at it is, the name should sit well on the dog, just like their wagging tail. I’m so clever, no? That’s why I’m in advertising, I guess.

Anyway, wag, er, watch this space. Woof!

Cover pic for this post, with a faded pic of Shere Khan growling and the words 'Villain?' and 'Victim?' written on the two sides

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.

Composite graphic of a dog seeming romantic

Irfanimals: The Heart Is Still Young

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There’s a saying in Hindi: Rassi jal gayi, par bal nahi gaya. Translation: The rope has burnt, but not lost its strength.

I get proof of this once every few mornings, when I stop by Zuzu, this weather-beaten street dog around this bank where I pause to tighten my laces before starting off on my morning walk. Zuzu is a mix of white and light brown, though the white is more like light grey due to the dust and his age. He looks like he’s seen many winters, and perhaps lost his tail in one of them – all he has now is a stump. Which he nevertheless wags like a swing when he spots me from his morning haze. Much like that rope, he may not have his tail, but wags the vestige nevertheless.

By the way, I’ve given him that name (like almost all my street dog friends). Because the first few days I came to know of him, I would always found him either fast asleep or looking quite dazed (after waking up from his haze). Even now, when I approach the bank steps, I find him often still in La-La-land, his tongue drooping through his mouth and canines. Zzzu-zzu.

But Zuzu loses much of that droopiness when we reconnaise and I variously pat, pet, tease him. And then, when I part for my walk, he parks himself on his behind, looking a mix of haplessness and hopefulness: perhaps the best part of his day is over (who would want to touch an old, dirty-looking, street dog?), but hey, it’s coming again in a few days.

Zuzu is not always the first street dog I meet and greet on my morning walk, though. Depending on which route I take and which of my street besties has woken up by then and not yet gone on their marking/foraging spree, there are at least two-three others. Zuzu of course senses their scents on my hand and then gets even more excited, his mind wagging as much as his tail. ‘Oh, there are others before me?’ ‘How many others?’ ‘Who are they?’ ‘Any one I know?’ ‘Is this guy an ichchadhaari dog?’ (A human able to take the form of a dog)

It’s only in the past few days that I’ve noticed Zuzu getting super-excited some days (rather than merely excited) on smelling my hand with its streetie scents. So super-excited that he first bounds around, jumping back and forth on his fore and hind paws, and then bounds away, unable to control that steroidish excitement. Should I change his name to… Kuku (cuckoo)?

And I got it today. As he rolled over, baring his belly to me, I spotted his teeny reddish weeny emerge out of its casing. Zuzu was horny. Neutered Zuzu was horny. (Have checked for the clipped ear.) And then it descended on me. I had been touching a young she-dog (Velli) just before approaching Zuzu all those times.

Time to make up my own saying. He may have lost the surge, but not the urge.

Close-up of eye of Moby Dick from the movie 'In the Heart of the Sea'

Irfanimals | In the Heart of Animals

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Call me Ignoramus.

I love reading. I love animals. But… I… haven’t… read… Moby Dick. (A moment of silence.)

[I do know its opening line though, as you can see – that’s an old chestnut in school and college quizzes.]

Coming back, so, what I miss in books, I watch in the screen version – to figure out in 2-3 hours what the book/story is about. That way, if I like it, I try and ensure I go back and read the book.

So, while ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ didn’t work for me as a movie – found it yet another movie about American chauvinism (“Our whale, and oil, are bigger than yours”) – I could answer the question my friend posed me: “Why doesn’t he (first mate, Owen Chase) kill him (Moby Dick)?”

Chris Hemsworth with a hand-harpoon in the movie 'In the Heart of the Sea'

As an animal lover and one who believes, unlike what many people say, animals aren’t “voiceless” (they do speak, but in a language we don’t understand; and there’s also that other thing called non-verbal language), the answer to my friend’s question is simple, and based on what Moby had been doing all along.

The “whale farmers” have been plundering these giants of the sea for their gain (“to light their lamps”), and Moby, being the big bull he is (his body carries a sea of scars), fights back. “Get off the seas, stop killing my brood.” And when it becomes a matter of vendetta (One Man vs One Whale), Moby rises up and looks eye to eye with the first mate for 30 screen-seconds. “How is my family here, which you’re killing without any remorse, any different from the one you have back home, all those leagues away? What’s it going to take to stop? Seriously?” The first mate gets it. The tri-harpoon remains static in his hand. Moby goes back into the depths and the distance.

At the end, when Herman Melville, the author of the book, has got the narration he wanted from the last survivor, the cabin boy on the ship, Thomas Nickerson, the latter tells him in parting, “Someone’s struck oil in the desert. Oil from the earth… Who would have thought?”

And then, man stopped plundering the whales for oil, and started plundering the earth. No, wait, he continues going after the whales, now for many more reasons. We need another Moby Dick for this century.

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Irfanimals: Feathering, Flocking

When it’s raining…

And you see the pigeons coupling

(Cooing, grooming, romancing)

And the mynas wildly chirping:

Hey there, find me interesting?

And the crows furtively collecting –

Twigs, broomstick sticks, anything

And on trees and window-sills, you find nests cropping…

You know ’tis the season of birds mating, nesting, egg-laying!

(Sights, sounds, suppositions from my house over the past week)

Here’s to more birds – in the air, not in cages.