The Jungle Book is much better than you think it is.
Rudyard Kipling had taken creative liberties while writing the Jungle Book. The original movie took Kipling’s liberties while designing the characters of the Jungle Book. The new movie has been touted to be a masterpiece with developed and necessary characters weaving together a story that is as smooth as Mowgli’s Parkour-on-a-banyan-tree skills. Universally, the story has been acclaimed to be poignant, the characters soulful, and the setting dark enough to treat you as an adult.
To us, having been to Central India on recces and trips, the Jungle book was a bit different. While we were hooked onto the story, we were also looking for natural accuracy. How accurate were the scenes depicted? Did this really take us back to the Central India that Kipling had heard of from his colleagues?
In a word, yes.
Sure, it was never supposed to be exactly accurate. The Jungle in the Jungle Book was an imaginary land where an imaginary Mowgli lived. Sure, India does not have orang-utans and Baloo looks more like an American Grizzly than a Sloth Bear. But those are liberties taken before Jon Favreau and he has to live with them.
Where he did have the liberty, he stayed true the Indian landscape – or landscapes – as much as he could to create an ambience. Small elements in the movie make all the difference. At the beginning of the draught, the Narrator mentions that “even the Mahua did not flower this year”. The Mahua flower is ubiquitous in the Central Indian National Parks and if you take a safari towards Mar-Apr, you cannot but miss its heady smell. As you drive along you will see deer and other herbivores congregating around watering holes and nearby Mahua trees, whose flowers are intoxicant for the wild animals.
When Baloo and Mowgli meet, the meeting is not just funny. It is also a reflection on the research done by the director. From Bagheera stating the obvious that sloth bears do not hibernate, to Baloo threatening a Pangolin that he will be more endangered than he already is (black humour, considering that the Indian Pangolin is the only Pangolin variety listed as endangered), the scene is a naturalist’s delight – equivalent to the depiction of the little-known fact that animals can wriggle through narrow gaps in branches.
As the movie goes on, among the Bandar Log, the giant Orangutan might seem to be the only incongruity. All others, from Rhesuses, to Gray Langurs, to Hoolock Gibbons (that live in Eastern India) have been portrayed with amazing accuracy. But Orangutans do not exist in India and apparently, the producers did face this challenge. As a result, Louie has been created as a giant Orangutan – as best a semblance as possible with the Gigantopithecus an ancient ape that once roamed the forests of South and South-East Asia.
Throughout the movie, when Kaa, Shere Khan, Louie, and Bagheera refer to the red flower that destroys all in its path and that is used so effectively by humans, they are indeed referring to fire.
Here again, is where the team’s in-depth research is reflected. Of course, the animals do not know that the element is called fire. But then, what do they call it? Why do they call it the red flower? A trip to Central India in April, and you will see why. As the water evaporates and the summer sets in, almost all deciduous parts of the forest are bone-dry. A single leaf here and there is brown as well – merging seamlessly into the brown landscape. In the middle of this, you will see the Flame of the Forest. While the rest of the forest is brown and dry, the Dhak brings on a show of fiery red flowers. It is, as if, that part of the forest has been set on flame. The red flower would have surely derived its name from here.
The real magic though is in the little things. In the midst of the darkness and the warmth of the Jungle Book is the optimism and joy of a movie, as if it is a little boy at his village home, on summer vacation from school. It shows through the misadventures that Mowgli has with the bees (we have all been stung by bees on summer vacation in our village homes), the wanton abandon with which Mowgli and Baloo sing Bare Necessities out of tune and sync, and the last scene where Mowgli, Baloo, and Bagheera relax on the boughs of a Banyan Tree. You can’t but imagine yourself on a hot Indian Summer afternoon similarly stretching yourself out on a strong branch of an old mango or Banyan tree.
And that’s why the Jungle Book scores.