Movie Review – Chandani

5 Jan

Chandani: The Daughter of the Elephant Whisperer, is a children’s movie by German Film Maker Arne Birkenstock that was released last year after being filmed from 2006 – 2009.

It is a children’s film based on the true story of Chandani, daughter of the chief mahout of the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. The film, styled like a documentary, showcases many aspects of Sri Lankan village life of a unique type – that of a girl who descends from generations of mahouts and comes from a village of mahouts. It would prove interesting and educational for both the urban Sri Lankan and a western audience to whom the entire movie would be extremely exotic. Other children get kittens and pups as pets, Chandani got her own baby elephant.

It’s an innovative film that has won many awards. My main quibble is that it’s quite evidently, heavily scripted; so while it might be a ‘true’ story, there is something fake about some of the actions and reactions of the main characters – they are ‘playing’ themselves – but at the directions of a film director and they are not professional actors to quite pull it off. The thickly accented voice-over in English for Chandani is also difficult to follow in places. Perhaps subtitles even in the English narration / voice over parts would be better.
Quibbles aside, the film tells an interesting story – unique perhaps to this part of the world, on the interactions of elephants and men – but universal in the theme of a woman wanting to break through in a man’s world.
The Chief Mahout has only daughters – five of them, of whom Chandani is the eldest. Despite her sex (no woman has been a mahout before), she wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and he is surprisingly understanding and supportive – surprising considering the reactions of most of the other males in the village.

“Girls, these days,” “Pretty soon he will teach all his daughters and we’ll lose our jobs,” “Next the women will be herding elephants and we’ll have to do the housework” are some of the lunchtime concerns the other mahouts share amongst themselves when their chief is not around.

Some things are the same, no matter which part of the world though perhaps, in more emancipated parts of the world, these clips of conversations would seem highly archaic.
Meanwhile Chandani’s father takes her with him to work to see and observe the elephants, shows her how to handle them and care for them and even hands down the book of ola-leaf texts on elephant care and medicines that has been in his family for generations. It is quite an educational experience for the viewer as well, to see the elephant whisperer showing step by step how to deal with and command elephants.
As part of the training process, he procures for Chandani her own baby elephant, Kandula. She learns that having an elephant calf for a pet is not the same as having a puppy. While she is at school, he breaks free of his chains and makes a mess of the family’s garden, as well as numerous clothes hung out on the lines.
Lesson No.1 as her father amusedly tells her – Make sure you chain him right! So while Chandani and Kandula get to know each other – providing some of the most endearing scenes in the movie, the film also showcases other aspects of her life – helping out at home, getting ready for school – and visiting the Udawalawe National Park with the ranger Mohamed, a qualified wildlife academic as well as a man of the soil, someone who truly empahises with Chandani and shares her love of elephants.

He takes her to areas where elephants and men are in heavy conflict – part of her education which educates the viewer too – subtly and effectively without being preachy. While the viewer falls in love with the elephant on one hand, watching their tame interactions with humans, he/she will also see the devastation that elephants can cause – and the fear that humans living on the borders of forests / newly cleared forests live with. Yet even in scenes showcasing devastation and an elephant carcass that had been shot down for killing a child, one doesn’t lose empathy with the elephant. It is clearly getting more and more hemmed in with nowhere to go.
But humans are not the ‘villains’ either – at least as shown on this film. The ordinary villager is shown as a humble but compassionate man. They might not be highly educated but they have an intrinsic ability to emapthise and bond with their huge four legged peers.
The movie showcases effectively the compassion of the average Sri Lankan to animals. Mohamed is a good ambassador to the rest of the world on this. He genuinely seems to care about the elephants and their wellbeing –it’s obviously not just a job for him.

Paradoxically, he is also the cause of the slightly unhappy ending in the movie. Since this is styled along the lines of a documentary, I’ll reveal the ending – he takes her pet elephant away from Chandani when he comes to know of it. The European director wanted a tear jerker / conflict to make the movie more interesting. He thought he had it over Chandani’s heartbreak at being rejected as a mahout by the government official who supervised her father. But she weathered that reasonably well, Mohamed having come to the rescue, telling her she could always have a job at the Udawalawe National Park if she wished, where she could make valuable contributions to elephant welfare and care with her knowledge.
But then, Mohamed comes to know of her pet and invokes the law which says wild animals cannot be had as pets – it’s not to their ultimate benefit. And so Chandani and her playful charge have to part ways. If you are at all sensitive, you are likely to tear up at this scene; Chandani’s bonding with her pet had been genuine and touching to watch. Now the two were parting ways, Chandani is grief-stricken, being very much aware of the circumstances while Kandula just cheerfully munches on the sugar cane he has been given. He doesn’t realize that he is being taken away permanently.

And so the film has a tear-jerker at the end as well – nearly all the ingredients necessary to make an ‘interesting’ film – exoticism, newness, women’s liberation, history / anthropology / animal rights / human-animal interactions with an interesting beast, and plot, drama and climax as well.

Some of it seems a bit contrived but that’s Ok, all in all, it is still a movie worth watching!

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