Oscar-winning film The Elephant Whisperers, a poignant tale of a tribal Indian couple who dedicate their lives to an orphaned baby elephant named Raghu, is at the centre of attention once again.
The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short this year, and its protagonists – real-life couple and elephant keepers Bomman and Bellie – have accused its director, debutant Kartiki Gonsalves, and studio, Sikhya Entertainment, of reneging on their payments.
In a recent interview with The Hindu, the couple said they were exploited while shooting the 41-minute documentary set in Mudumalai National Park in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
They further allege that the filmmakers did not remunerate them or deliver on the promises made, and that the director, who was amiable during the shoot, became distant after the movie won fame.
Numerous media outlets this week reported that the couple had filed a legal notice seeking a "goodwill gesture" of about $240,000 from the director and studio for the time they invested in the film. The notice is also said to claim the couple were promised a house, an all-terrain multipurpose vehicle and a one-time unspecified lump sum payment based on the income generated from the project.
The legal notice, published by the news agency Press Trust of India, said that despite the couple being presented as "heroes" to prominent figures, it was the filmmakers who reaped all the financial benefits from Tamil Nadu chief minister and the Prime Minister of India.
Bomman has since told India Today he did not want to take the matter to court, adding: “I did not say I would take back the case if my demands were met. I don’t know what happened there. I don’t know who sent the legal notice or the advocate. I don’t have any pieces of evidence. Kartiki spoke to me well and said that she’d help me. What will I do with the case? They have promised to help me and given this job.”
In response to the allegations, production house Sikhya Entertainment and Gonsalves released a statement, asserting that the principal aim of the movie was to shine a spotlight on the need for elephant conservation and to acknowledge the efforts of the Forest Department and the mahouts, Bomman and Bellie. However, the statement does not address any of the specific accusations presented by the couple about the non-payment of dues and violation of contract terms.
“Since its launch, the documentary has raised awareness of the cause and had a real impact on the mahouts and Cavadis community," the statement reads.
"Our honourable chief minister of Tamil Nadu, MK Stalin, has made donations towards assisting the 91 mahouts and Cavadis who look after the state’s elephants, constructing eco-friendly houses for the caretakers and developing an Elephant Camp in the Anamalai Tiger Reserve.
"The documentary has been celebrated by heads of state across India, and the Academy Award is a moment of national pride that has brought widespread recognition for the work of mahouts like Bomman and Bellie. All claims made are untrue. We have a deep respect for all of the contributors of this story, and remain driven by the desire to create positive change."
The National has reached out to both the couple and the director, but so far both have been unavailable for comment. The couple's legal advocate Mohammed Mansoor told The National they had already issued a statement and had "nothing more to add".
However, a source with knowledge of the production said, on the condition of anonymity, that the couple were paid according to a contract signed by them and "the promises of a house, a car or lumpsum money are fictional as no such offer was extended".
The Elephant Whisperers fracas isn’t the only project where relations between Indians featured in films and production teams have soured. Director Danny Boyle’s 2009 Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire also got into a legal tangle after relatives of some of its cast members accused the former of failing to sufficiently remunerate them after the film garnered global acclaim.
More recently, Writing With Fire, an Oscar-nominated documentary from India about Khabar Lahariya, the country's only major news outlet run by marginalised communities, found itself in the eye of a storm last year. The reporters charged the film’s directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh of wrongful portrayal, an infraction the duo deny.
Those in the industry say that given the high stakes, exploitation and violation of contractual terms, especially if the stakeholders are among the underprivileged, are fairly common.
“Unless everything is specified on paper, it is tough for the wronged party to prove anything or get its rightful dues. It is always the privileged filmmakers who control the narrative in such cases,” said Gautam Ratna, executive producer and owner of Gautam Films from Delhi.