“Tiger zinda hai,” a friend posted in a social media group. It was in response to jaw-dropping pictures of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in khaki trousers and a safari-jacket, worn over a half-sleeved camouflage shirt. If that was not enough, there were jungle boots to boot, with designer shades and Texan hat. As part of play-acting, to broadcast that he was no less than a ‘man tiger’ (apologies to Rudyard Kipling), he was photographed by a bevy of camerapersons to immortalise every moment of the sojourn – peering into the jungle through binoculars and camera with a zoom lens protruding out, he on a safari jeep or standing, pose perfect with the neatly folded jacket dangling from his folded forearm. He petted and fed elephants in captivity besides making a few condescending pats on the shoulder of Bomman while Bellie – the better half of the by now famous tribal couple – looked on distractedly.
Indians are now habituated to Modi ‘dressing up’ for events because this has been publicised repeatedly since 2014. This was done in his chief ministerial days too, but its scale was significantly lesser. The trait of ‘looking good’ was picked in childhood and became a lifelong characteristic. One of his school teachers, while opening up, spoke about his love for the proscenium and lead role in plays performed on annual days and other functions. Unlike the just-out-of-bed look which political activists of all leanings most commonly had till the 1990s, Modi was particular about his ‘look’.
The progression to the style he flashed during the recent visits to Bandipur and Mudumalai Tiger Reserves in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu was but natural. Unlike the majority of similar performances in the past, where emphasis was either on enabling aspirational Indians to see themselves mirrored in Modi’s persona, or being considered as sage or guru steering ‘his’ people out of torment – like during the pandemic with flowing hair and beard, the performance in the two forest reserves was in three Acts.
In the first Act, Modi was in the role of a wildlife expert extolling that although it had been 50 years since the launch of Project Tiger under the premiership of Indira Gandhi, ‘real’ progress was made only over the past 10 years. This was because Modi “had the benefit of (my) long experience in Gujarat as far as these wildlife conservation efforts are concerned. When I was the chief minister of Gujarat, we worked on the population of the lions…” You would know the rest.
Act 2 of the performance is what made my friend recall the Salman Khan film and was similar to several previous enactments. Innumerable instances were choreographed and fables circulated, with the purpose of establishing Modi as both as derring-do leader, as well as an animal welfare activist and humanist. His bravado in carrying a baby crocodile to the shore, the committed premier performing his daily chores while peacocks tip-toe past him in the prime ministerial residence.
Modi has also expressed concern on “issues related to environmental change”, so much so, that he stuck to completing the filming with Bear Grylls for Discovery Channel’s Man Vs Wild episode even after news of the Pulwama terrorist attack broke out. Lest misunderstood, these are not darts of sarcasm but are part of the effort to ‘read’ messages radiated by the behemoth that the advertising machinery is.
Act 3 was hinted at in the first one itself. Addressing physical and TV audiences, he explained reasons for holding them up by more than an hour: “I also got late as I was talking to many colleagues who are working in this direction (understanding tribal belief in give and take with nature).”
He elaborated, quickly moving to the third ‘projection’ of the day: “The Elephant Whisperers, (the) documentary, which won an Oscar, also reflects our heritage of the amazing relationship between Nature and Creature.”
Later, in social media posts, by far the most important platform, insofar as engaging with supporters, he wrote: “With the majestic elephants at the Madumalai Tiger Reserve”. Further, he wrote: “What a delight to meet the wonderful Bomman and Belli, along with Bommi and Raghu.”
An escape route
In a nation where taking pride in achievements of their own is a routine, it was apt that the prime minister praised a film and reached out to people that were part of it. Regrettably, however, the elephants and the tribal couple featured in the film were mere props to solidify Modi’s image.
Selecting The Elephant Whisperers to re-establish the image of the prime minister as an ecologically sensitive and aware leader, also caring towards animals – the ‘fondness’ when stroking the elephants’ trunks, or feeds them pre-cut and specially placed pieces of sugarcane – is an escape route, for it enables him to skirt life-threatening and heart-wrenching realities of contemporary India besides critical frailties of his regime.
Documentary films like The Elephant Whisperers have legitimate space within the wide range of Indian cinema but it is only the politically motivated who will single it out for reflecting the national heritage and the symbiotic relationship between nature and animal. The film has an all-is-well approach despite its concluding tinge of pathos over the separation of the lead elephant protagonist from the carer-couple. The film mentions how the baby elephant got orphaned in the first instance – mother was electrocuted. But what was the need for an electric fence in ‘wild’ territory?
Neither does the film raise such a question, nor do prime ministerial publicists clarify why freshly painted barricades separated him from the elephants. The truth of the Indian jungle, environment, and human-animal and animal-nature relations is far from what The Elephant Breathers depicts. Instead, the reality is what is depicted in All That Breathes, the film made in the city where Modi too lives and which starkly depicts the same environment and the air that the prime minister too breathes – after all, he too is just one among the all who breathe.
Modi would do well in not just commending All That Breathes, a film that is not short on accolades showered on it – although it missed out on the Oscar – but also having a similar ‘interaction’ with the protagonists in their dingy East Delhi (rings a bell?) basement. It is here that they nurse eagles or black kites that literally fall from the skies – either choking on polluted air or after injury by flying into the paths of (Chinese) manjha used to fly paper kites.
But, such an interaction could be politically problematic because it would mean lavishing praise on the efforts of two brothers, Mohammed Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, and their younger employee, Salik Rehman, who feature in the film.
An interface with them could be tricky for Modi because they are symbolic non-stakeholders in today’s India, part of the people whose belongingness to this nation is questioned incessantly. More importantly, their intense philosophical orientation adds further meaning to the unsaid. Confronting this can be intensely discomforting.
The basement is emblematic of the pressure on their community to invisibilise themselves and not ‘perform’ practices that hurt the sentiments of the dominant community.
It is difficult to imagine Modi being as comfortable inside the space of All That Breathes, like he was at the elephant camp, because this cinematic space also belongs to animal species used to derogatorily label a community of humans who wished to be politically delegitimised – rats, vermin.
Shaunak Sen, the film’s director almost included a parallel human protagonist he filmed substantially, but dropped from the film eventually – the termite killer. He initially intended to juxtapose between the ones who love sickly, falling by the wayside, birds, and the one who makes a living by killing insects, infamously introduced into India’s political vocabulary by none other than the Union home minister, Amit Shah.
It is nothing but duplicitousness to speak of animals and insects, however tiny, and regardless of whatever they eat for survival in two breaths. It’s akin to claiming Sabka Saath as one’s political credo while letting loose the politics of exclusion.
Likewise, the accusation of hypocrisy would be inescapable if anyone keeps listing securing Vishwas or trust of the ‘other’ as an objective, while allowing storm-troopers to spread hate, suspicion and prejudice.
All That Breathes is no ‘political’ film, but ominousness of the moment and space is evident without a pause, be it when eagles drift in a monochromatic sky, or when the carer of an injured kite goes about his task with visible tenderness, while the air is rent by slogans against a people targeted because of a matter of faith.
This is what makes the film as one that underscores everything that’s wrong and wretched in India between nature and creature, between one set of humans and another set.
The question, however, is after asserting that the documentary on elephants exemplifies diverse Indian traditions, will Modi bestow carnivorous birds, the carers and their people with a similar commendation?
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin.