They’re on sky high. Kartiki Gonsalves and Guneet Monga couldn’t have asked for a better moment than this as they walked the red carpet at the 95th Academy Awards and swept the Oscars away. They are elated beyond words and their smiles say it all. The Netflix film, The Elephant Whisperers directed by Kartiki Gonsalves, won an Oscar this year in the Best Documentary Short category. Producer of The Elephant Whisperers, Guneet Monga is a firm believer in the power of women and has been on a roll ever since they took home the biggest honour in the world of cinema.
The heartfelt, intense and emotional bond that Bomman and Bellie, a tribal couple from Tamil Nadu’s Mudumalai Forest share with the two young elephants is special and evident in the 40-minute documentary – The Elephant Whisperers. Ootacamund-based Kartiki Gonsalves has been an ace documentary filmmaker and photographer, specialising in nature and wildlife photography for many years. Younger daughter of Priscilla Tapley Gonsalves and Timothy a Gonsalves from New York, she grew up in Ooty. She received her formal education in photography from the Light & Life Academy in Ooty, but was born with an innate talent that landed her the most coveted award in the film industry. After a chance meeting with Bomman Kattunayakan, a caregiver at the elephant camp, on one of her drives back home, Kartiki spent 18 months with the tribal couple, Bomman and Bellie, who adopted two orphaned elephants Raghu and Ammu. The result is there for the world to witness – the heart-warming documentary shot at the century-old Theppakadu Elephant Camp inside the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu, at close distance to where she was born and raised.
Here are excerpts from an exclusive interview with Kartiki Gonsalves.
1. What were some of the challenges you faced while making the film, particularly in terms of working with elephants?
I think the biggest challenge of all is working with a real live story. It’s hard to not get emotionally invested into what’s happening on ground. Our entire team had tears in our eyes when Raghu was taken away. Also working in the wilderness for five years is a challenge in itself. There were months with no signs of elephants. How does one make a film on elephants without seeing them? We worked with natural light, natural light is absolutely stunning and with it come challenges of changing exposure with movement from light to shade. Working in a space with wild tigers, leopards, sloth bears and wild elephants is quite an experience too.
Elephants are beautiful beings and extremely intelligent in so many ways. They were not challenging to work with. Each moment is going to be treasured forever. It’s deeply spiritual to look deep into the eyes of a being as magnificent as an elephant. Of course they are wild animals and you have to respect them and their space but being a natural history photographer and cinematographer it was always part of the deal.
2. What kind of research did you do in preparation for the making of Elephant Whisperers?
I connected with Dr. Sreedhar who is our scientific advisor on the film. Vijayakrishnan, a wildlife biologist by training, has had research interests, over the last decade, in behavioural ecology, wildlife endocrinology, population ecology, movement ecology, and human dimensions of wildlife conservation, with particular focus on the Asian elephants. Growing up watching elephants and listening to never-ending elephant tales, Sreedhar developed a deep passion for the species, which motivated him to choose a career in conservation biology, closely following and observing them, both in the wild and in captivity. He has been particularly interested in understanding behavioural adaptations in elephants using human-modified landscapes and has studied them in the Western Ghats and the Western Himalayas.
I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. I wanted to know everything about the lives of Raghu and Ammu and what it was alike for the other elephants. Everything I understand of elephants today is from my experiences and also learning from Sreedhar from the many years of his experience to better understand these sentient beings. Although I documented scientists over the five years filming The Elephant Whisperers, I wanted to make this film for the mass audience to get them to see and understand elephants on a whole new level. I hoped that this would get them to fall love with them which would in-turn help protect the wild spaces they live in and not only that but help protect the species and turn around their current situation of being endangered.
3. Can you talk about your approach to storytelling in the film and how did you balance educating audiences about the elephants by telling a compelling story in a very simple manner yet something that became Oscar worthy?
I am a debutante director and I didn’t think it at all. I didn’t think about an Oscar. It was simple really. I had a two beautiful people and a 3 month old pachyderm calf in one the most stunning landscapes that I call home here in the Western Ghats. I come from a natural history background of storytelling. I am also a cinematographer and sometimes I feel the key is to keep things simple and don’t overthink. I think the key goal is to just be honest and tell the story in-front of you and with a message to the world that you feel so strongly about and believe in it. With documentary storytelling the story evolves and you have no control over it. You need a heart to feel and empathy to understand what you are being showed and tenacity to follow it and finally patience and hope to believe that there is a newer better world out there waiting for us.
4. How did you go about deciding if the couple in the film would do justice?
It’s a personal bond you form with them over time. It wasn’t a business transaction. The moment I met Bomman and Bellie I knew they were from a world we knew very little of and I wanted to share their ancient indigenous values to the world.
5. What was the most rewarding aspect of making Elephant Whisperers, besides of course winning the Oscar?
I have to admit that more than the Oscar it was getting to be a part of the Bomman and Bellie’s life, watching Raghu and Ammu grow up and learning about the landscape they live in alongside their values. It’s been the best five years of my life. I am also very grateful for meeting many wonderful people during the making of this film. Douglas Blush my mentor who has been my guiding light on such a new career, working alongside my mother which is a once in Lifetime opportunity. Sven Faulconer, music composer and friend Aloke Devichand, Sarafina Defelis, Guneet Monga and Achin Jain, Raunaq, Mandakini. And finally, Krish Makhija, Karan Thapliyal and Anand Bhansal whom I treasure with all my heart.
6. How did you choose the music for the film, and what role do you think it played in the final product?
When I started my search for a music composer, to handle what would be the finishing touch and most crucial aspect to my five year journey, I wanted to begin with conveying the way I personally felt and that emotional connection that I felt so strongly to this film. A dear friend Tasmin Vosloo introduced me to Sven Faulconer which I am forever grateful for. That very call changed the course of everything that lay ahead. I felt an instant connection and Sven was someone who deeply understood my vision and style for this documentary and brought his everything to this.
Having worked on so many different films in different styles and scale, Sven instantly understood my desire to make the score more intimate, personal and emotional and steer away from the grandeur that one might typically expect in nature documentaries. He truly believes that every project should be about finding its own sound and style. The more versatile a composer can be, the closer he or she can get to what each filmmaker is looking for. My vision for the score in this documentary was that we had an intimate unique family dynamic with a lot of love. I did not want to focus on having music that would overpower the beautiful footage that we had. My brief to him was that the music should speak to our audience in a very deep and powerful way – simple with beautiful synergy yet not overpowering, and complimenting it instead.
Sven Faulconer, who was originally born and raised in Belgium, is now based in Los Angeles. I liked how his work employs a wide and unique range of musical styles, which is also reflected by the variety of projects he’s worked on in the past, getting him credits on movies like Top Gun: Maverick, Aquaman, Ad Astra, Abominable, The Hunger Games series and Nightcrawler. In addition to The Elephant Whisperers, he’s recently also been composing the music for Scream VI (with Brian Tyler), ‘Unstable’ (a Netflix comedy series with Rob and Johnny Lowe, which he’s co-composing with Mark Foster from Foster the People), and he’ll soon start writing the score for ‘Lost and Found in Cleveland’, a dramatic comedy, so again that’s a testament to the range of his musical toolbox.
With all the experience that Sven has built over time, his scores have had a very different approach and instrumentation; some can be purely acoustic (string ensemble, woodwinds, guitar,…) and some can be purely electronic, some can be an interesting blend of both. His beautiful scores can sometimes be very thematic, and sometimes not at all, again depending on what’s required/desired by the story. I think that’s the beauty of working with someone who understands the depths of what music can do and the power of it. The emotion in Sven Faulconer’s scores can sometimes come from an unexpected minimalist approach, which we actually chose to do in several scenes in ‘The Elephant Whisperers’. One example I would love to talk about is the scene when Raghu gets taken away. Sven and I came to the decision that less is definitely more. The music is definitely taking plenty of breaths in those scenes and not necessarily trying to ‘push the emotion’ as much, instead I’d say it’s gently sitting right there with the audience, as if they’re both going through the same experience for the first time together. It’s all about the smaller details in those places. When Bellie starts talking about her growth the score does get bigger, so there are two different approaches really. We have worked together on each and every aspect of the music for this documentary film to bring out the best and connect with our audience in a whole different way.
I was so excited when the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack for ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ by Sven Faulconer was released by Netflix Music in 2022. The album features the film’s original music and is available on Amazon, Spotify and other streaming platforms worldwide. His score also got a nomination at the ‘Hollywood Music in Media Awards’ awards.
7. What do you hope your audiences take away from The Elephant Whisperers?
In this time, there are so many stories of animals being killed and species dying out – and this is a positive story that highlights the beauty of man and animal working together. While most films have focused more on humans being cured by a bond with an animal, human beings harmed by wild animals, or wild animals suffering from human expansion into their territory, The Elephant Whisperers lets viewers understand both the elephant and the human carers with minimal outside interpretation. It portrays the dignity of both the magnificent elephants and the indigenous people who have lived with them and cared for them for centuries. I wanted to get the audience to stop seeing animals as ‘the other’ and start to see them as one of us.
I am hoping that people will be able to relate to Raghu, so many films these days show the danger of animals, but I wanted to show the love and connection to animals. An elephant is a large animal and they need to be treated with respect but they also are loving, capable of lifelong bonds. They seem to have a sense of humor. They have many similar traits to humans and I hope that people will switch from seeing them as other and start seeing them as just one of us.
Indigenous people have such in-depth ancient knowledge and respect for the land they live on and share their space with. There is so much we can learn from them. Respect for the land and only taking what they need. There is a short story I would like to share with you all today – about Bomman collecting Honey, how he took some hives and left some. After taking some, he’d pick up baby bees and go put them back. It comes to the question of what is sufficient. Taking only what’s needed. It’s a way of life for them. It supports regeneration. ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ offers a beam of hope of mutual respect and cooperation and to a way forward through coexistence! I believe co-existence is the way we need to move forward into the future. Only with mutual respect and co-operation can we save the planet.
Guneet Monga, Producer,
The Elephant Whisperers
Referred to as the changemaker in the film industry, Guneet Monga, producer of The Elephant Whisperers, founder of Sikhya Entertainment, a Mumbai-based production house, has produced close to 30 feature films that include the ground-breaking The Lunch Box, Monsoon Shootout, Masaan and Gangs of Wasseypur, all of which received critical acclaim at prestigious international festivals such as Cannes, TIFF, and Sundance. She was one of the executive producers behind the documentary short film Period, End of Sentence, which won an Academy Award in 2019. She has many awards to her credit, including the prestigious French Honour “Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres”, the prestigious Sloan Science and Film grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, besides others.
Passionate about issues of representation and diversity in the film industry, she founded the ‘Indian Women Rising’, a cinema collective aimed at discovering, amplifying and distributing the work of Indian women filmmakers across the globe. Many of her feature films have been screened at the Cannes Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and other such prestigious film festivals. Sky is the limit for this talented film producer.
Here’s more from Guneet Monga… How does it feel to be recognised by the highest authority of achievement in the film industry?
Oscars has been an absolute dream. It is the ultimate win. This also marks to be India’s first Oscar for any Indian production, which is beyond amazing and I beyond imagination. It’s still sinking in and it’s almost a month and it feels like yesterday. I’m so humbled to the Academy, to Bomman and Bellie, to Raghu, to Kartiki, the entire team at Sikhya and to the entire team at Netflix to make this dream come true happen. It wouldn’t have been possible without the support of each of them. Bomman and Bellie opened their hearts and let us their experience their abundant love. I hope this film inspires more and more people to pick up a camera, to follow their dreams and tell their stories. I hope many more Indian films win.
How did Kartiki get the inspiration for The Elephant Whisperers and how did you bring her dream to fruition?
My director Kartiki Gonsalves was driving down one day. She grew up around the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve where she found the story. She found Bomman and Raghu on the corner of the road and was inspired to follow their journey. For almost a year, she shot with them and shot a trailer, added music, made it like a promo film and sent it to me. That’s how I got attached with the story and the rest is history. But the story was started by Kartiki and I’m happy that it came to us at Sikhya and we could do our bit to nurture it, work on it with Kartiki over the last few years and to take it all the way to the Oscars.
Tell us more about how you both met each other.
Kartiki worked on a promo film as a pitch trailer and sent that to the Netflix Singapore team and from there the Netflix team sent it to me. I had just come off being an executive producer for Period, End of Sentence, which won an Oscar in 2019. Post that big win, I was offered this and I loved the pitch. I also loved meeting Kartiki. It was so amazing seeing her purist vision and an absolute pleasure being there for her, hold the light for her and make this happen for her. It was all because of her absolute determination. In the process, I also got to learn a lot about wild life as this is the first time Sikhya and I are entering the space of wild life. It was wonderful to partner with Kartiki, to find a friend for life and work closely with her over the years.
What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers who hope to achieve the level of success that you have?
Just don’t stop. We are our biggest roadblock as we think our dreams are very big and we won’t be able to achieve it. There’s no shortcut to it. The only way to success or anything big in life is to work hard every day, to pick up experiences and to intern at great places. I love how Kartiki has been a naturalist for 20 years, a still photographer who then went onto shoot a film in a video form with whatever camera she had and didn’t wait for anyone’s permission or funding. She just followed the story for a year, made a promo video, put it up on YouTube and thought that she will find the money for it and make it happen. That’s how Netflix, Sikhya and I came on board. I think that’s the power of moving forward. So we should stop judging ourselves and our journey and stop getting overwhelmed. Here’s a fine example of a first time director and an independent producer, both women winning India its first Oscar for an Indian production, so this I really hope inspires everyone. If we can do it, anyone can do it.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned in your career so far, and how has it influenced your approach to filmmaking?
Filmmaking takes a village, so it’s very important to be kind, to learn how to work with your team, to be able to work with a healthy feedback team and a healthy feedback process. My approach to film making has been very democratic, because it’s not like only people with experience can tell you what to do. I can tell you nobody knows anything and nobody knows if a film will be successful or not. But all we can do is be curious, think how a script can be better, pick up advice, go to film festivals, get a mentor and get people to read the script. Similarly, find your tribe, crew up well, work with a good producer or ask those questions, or just get exposure at film festivals, or even just pick up a camera and start filming and see where you land. You must know that you have the craft of a cinematographer or the visuals need to be stunning or some sort of aspect has to be there that shines, for someone senior in the business to notice.
Even at the edit levels, find mentors, take feedback and be open to feedback as you don’t know where the ideas will come from, as they can come from a very young person too. That’s what we have done in our journey, during the making of Lunch Box and in all of our works. We have shared our work freely within the peer group to pick up advice. Find your tribe and keep them close, double down on them and all of you will grow together, be it the cinematographer or the production department or the costume designer or the heads of any of these departments. Each of them is such an important key and add value to a filmmaker’s life. Being kind, being open and curious is at the core of it all.
Will you both collaborate again in the future? Are there already talks underway?
This particular journey has been almost five to six years for Kartiki. The Elephant Whisperers has taken that long for her. For now she will be taking a break and as and when she has an idea that is beautiful and amazing like this one, whenever she finds it, we at Sikhya will be over the moon to work with her. I would love it, but for now we just need time to soak this in and get some rest so we can sleep and see new dreams.
Tell us more about being on the Oscars stage and making your country proud?
It was absolutely surreal. I’m so grateful for this blessing to be bestowed on us. It was mesmerising. I’m sure you could see it on our faces, our smiles, our eyes shining on the stage. I’ve actually not had the moment to really relive the moment as it’s been just on the go – because in December I got married when the film released and right after that two weeks later, we were shortlisted, and then the nomination list came and then a month later we won the Oscar. It’s been such an intense, emotional experience of so many amazing things and the whole experience has been beyond words. Being on the stage was like a flash, like the whole life in a flash added up to this one big moment. Feels like everything I’ve ever done was to live this moment and to be able to bring this home to my country. It’s pure joy and I’m so grateful for this entire journey and to all the viewers around the world. A huge honour!
How has your experience working with Netflix?
Working with Netflix is like putting a hoarding on the moon. They have 231 million viewers around the world, they are in 190 countries, and it’s one of the best and the biggest platform in the world. The way The Elephant Whisperers has travelled, there’s appreciation coming from around the world – from Brazil, Ecuador, Europe, South East Asia, entire Asia, Spain, Japan, Canada and US. So it’s that kind of magnitude that it has. We are so thankful for them to have supported us and backed us throughout. They have been the best partners that we could ever imagine. Even their expertise with the awards, their global office that worked with us at the awards felt like a huge power behind us. So as an independent small documentary, having a platform like Netflix is a huge boon.
Tell us about your upcoming projects at Sikhya?
There are lots of exciting new projects in the pipeline for us at Sikhya. There are a lot of new first time directors coming up. We just came up with a series called Gutargu, which is on Amazon Mini, a free app available at the Amazon shopping app. It’s a free app for everyone to watch. It’s a young adult series with two young actors and a first time director. It’s such a brilliant show, with such great nuances, describing the joy of pehla pyaar (first love) all over again. I’m very proud of Gutargu. We have also announced a singer-composer Honey Singh Netflix documentary on his 40th birthday recently, which will be on his life and will be released later this year. It is directed by Mozez Singh. We also have a feature film coming up next month called Kathal, a social comedy drama film written by Ashok Mishra. It is again with a first time director Yashowardhan Mishra. We have a full slate of more movies and series that we will keep announcing on our Sikhya platforms. I hope as a country we continue to keep winning many more Oscars.