“I cannot imagine a life without elephants.”
"Oh, my dear. Did you sleep, my child? How are you? Oh, my dear. Oh, my dear Raghu, my baby.”
These are some of the first words heard in Kartiki Gonsalves’ documentary short The Elephant Whisperers. The film opens up on Bomman, a native of the Kattunayakan tribe, crooning these phrases as he approaches a large structure covered in tarps and pulls back a reed covering. We expect to see a small boy or girl rising from their nap, for the father to embrace the child – until a trunk pokes itself into frame. The camera holds still as a sloping head and a gentle, behemoth eye emerge into view.
A baby elephant, coming to greet its mother.
A Life With Elephants
The Elephant Whisperers is the Oscars 2023 winner for Best Documentary Short and the directorial debut of Kartiki Gonsalves, an Indian filmmaker, nature history photographer, and native to the film’s location. It is a film that delicately portrays both the grim effects humans have on elephant habitats and the deep healing that’s possible when humans and elephants coexist.
Set in the Theppakadu Elephant Camp in Tamil Nuda, India, the film follows the day-to-day existence of two mahout (elephant caretakers), Bomman and Bellie, living and rehabilitating their calves, Raghu and Ammu. Theppakadu is the longest-running elephant camp in India, where abandoned and orphaned elephants are protected and reared. This is becoming a critical need in India, for baby elephants specifically. As climate change and encroachment increase, more and more Asian elephant babies are orphaned in forests as their herds rush to find new food and water sources. Many of them, unable to fend for themselves, die in the forest.
The film opens with Bomman and Bellie’s first child, Raghu, who showed up in the elephant camp after he was discovered abandoned in the forest, his tail bitten off and open wounds infected. Like many other babies, Raghu’s herd had wandered into a nearby village where his mother was electrocuted, leaving Raghu alone in the wild.
When the two mahout were given the baby to care for, they both noticed Raghu’s emotional vulnerability and desire for love. Bellie says when she first met him, he was clinging to her clothes “like a child.” They realized that what Raghu needed to heal was parental love. They decided to dote on and love Raghu as if he were their child – which in turn helped them heal from their personal sorrows. In an emotional moment, Bellie confesses that Raghu reminds her of her daughter who has recently died. “I feel like I am his mother . . . I remember what my daughter was like at Raghu’s age. Taking care of Raghu reminds me of taking care of my own daughter in so many ways.” Bomman expresses the same sentiments, saying that raising elephants is “just like raising human babies.” It is this degree of familial connection and emotional feeding that they believe helped Raghu survive – a success no one else in South India has had raising a baby calf in the wild.
The emotional connections between the three is beautiful to watch in the documentary. Raghu clings trustingly to the stick Bomman uses to guide him like a little boy holding his father’s hand. The two of them doze together in the fields until it begins raining, to which Bomman happily cries, “The rains have come! This will make the grass grow for you.” Bellie provides the maternal strokes, babying, and support Raghu craves – as is clear by how he holds her skirts and follows her around.
This giving, unprotected love is the brilliant center of the film – the shining hub around which the hard issues of climate change and animal deaths gently circulate. Director Kartiki, having grown up in this area, knew the dangers climate change and overpopulation posed to the Asian elephants’ habitats. But after meeting Raghu and experiencing first-hand the personal effect these crises had on his life, Kartiki was moved at a deeper level. She wanted to create a documentary that would motivate people to protect elephants and begin healing the planet – from a heart space.
“I think this positive story actually highlights the beauty of man and animal working together through coexistence. I strongly believe that coexistence is the way we need to move forward into the future. Only with mutual respect and cooperation can we help to save the planet.”
Kartiki’s film serves as a beautiful highlight of indigenous people’s knowledge and customs that are critical in protecting elephants and our planet. In tribes like the Kattunayakan tribe, being a mahout is a sacred service and involves caring for the entire habitat. Both Bomman and Bellie share that the forest is a sacred space – a place they walk barefoot out of respect and where they take only what they need.
For them, caring for Raghu is a deeply spiritual act. By protecting the keystone figures that elephants are to the habitat, they are helping restore the forest. Their love and protection for the elephants bring life and healing to them, which they continue returning to the land. This cyclical giving and receiving is central to indigenous beliefs that human, habitat, and animals are inherently bonded – a bond the rest of the world has chosen to forget.
This is truly a film the world needs right now as we learn more and more about climate change and how our actions are negatively impacting the world. The facts can often overwhelm us past the point of action. It is important to remember that we are not “other” from the planet – we are a part of the planet. All of us want the same thing: to thrive. And when we coexist, it is possible for love, mutual protection, and sustainability to exist. As Bomman put it, “I cannot imagine a life without elephants.”
We highly recommend watching The Elephant Whisperers, available now on Netflix. And if you want to learn more about the incredible women who created this masterpiece, check out this interview.