Film history

The fascinating and enduring world of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’

As Mowgli gets set for a fresh set of adventures on the screen, a look at the novels that inspired the legendary character.

The year just gone marked the 150th birth anniversary of Sir Rudyard Kipling, who was born on December 30, 1865. It’s also nearly 120 years since one of his more famous works, The Jungle Book (1894) and its sequel, The Second Jungle Book, appeared (1895). Featuring, for the most part, the stories of Mowgli, a boy reared in the wild by a wolf pack, the books continue to appeal for other reasons as well—in the revelations and the speculation (including those made by Kipling himself)—over the books’ many inspirations and then the many film versions, the first dating to 1942 and the most recent one that will be released on April 15.

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Curiously, Kipling himself was reticent as to how he came to write The Jungle Book. In his last book, a memoir called Something of Myself, he alluded as to how the ‘Masonic lions’ he met in South Africa while a guest of Sir Cecil Rhodes became an inspiration as did something he read H Rider Haggard’s novel, Nada the Lily, where the Zulu prince Umslopogaas made friends with a wolf called Galazi, ruler of the wolf pack. More recently, in the past decade, evidence in the book’s first edition, which includes illustrations by Kipling’s father, John Lockwood, revealed that the writer had dedicated it to his oldest daughter, Josephine, who died tragically of pneumonia at the age of six. Then again, in 2013, a letter where Kipling almost admits to ‘helping’ himself to a source while writing ‘The Law of the Jungle’ that appears in the book, was offered for auction and generated wide interest.

Kipling’s many inspirations

Mowgli, one of the most widely recognised characters in fiction, is a child reared by wolves, schooled by a bear, Bhaloo, and a panther, Bagheera, and who manages to outwit not just the wily tiger, Shere Khan, but also the cunning hunter, Buldeo. In his memoirs, Kipling wrote of his childhood days in Bombay, when, together with his sister Alice, he was looked after by a Portuguese ayah and other household help, and listened to their old timeless tales over and over again. The fable-like tone of the stories, most especially in the Jungle Books, almost echoes the subconscious influence of these traditional stories, though Kipling actually wrote the two books during the time he lived in Brattleboro in Vermont, with his wife and young family. More recent work has pointed to how Kipling learnt much from other formal scientific works written before, and how he also drew from real life accounts.

There was Beast and Man in India by his father, John Lockwood, and the 1878 work of the naturalist and noted elephant king GP Sanderson, titled Thirteen Years among the Wild Beasts of India. In 1887, Robert Armitage Sterndale wrote Seonee and the Camp Life of the Satpura Range, where the Jungle Books indeed came to be set. In 1888, William Sleeman, more famous as the man who ended the thuggee menace, also wrote a short work on wolf boys reared in the wild, in which he listed seven such cases, none of which he could personally vouch for. However, such children, Sleeman had written, were often abandoned in the wild. They were in some instances rescued and returned to the village by a trooper as did happen in one case, when a wolf child was restored to his home thanks to the exploits of a Lieutenant John Moor, an officer in the Bombay Artillery, in 1831.

The Mowgli stories

Mowgli first appeared in the story, ‘In the Rukh’, part of Many Inventions (1893), where he comes across the forest ranger Gisborne. It almost serves as a backstory to The Jungle Book. A somewhat grown-up Mowgli helps Gisborne in many ways: first tracking down a man-eating tiger and even Gisborne’s mare, as his butler tries to make his escape.

The Jungle Book of 1894 features three Mowgli stories, with him being reared by the wolves, his acceptance in the wolves’ council hall, and how Mowgli’s friends Bagheera and Bhaloo help him thwart Shere Khan’s repeated attempts to claim Mowgli as legitimate prey. Another story has Mowgli kidnapped by the ‘bandarlog’ till Bagheera and Bhaloo persuade Kaa the snake to help rescue him. But the book also includes other stories that are as popular: about the mongoose Rikki Tikki Tawi who outwits a venomous snake, and a seal who takes his fellow seals to a safer island in the Bering Sea.

In The Second Jungle Book, Mowgli finally gets the better of Shere Khan and also the hunter, Buldeo. But these stories are somewhat darker and more moralistic in tone: the eponymous King’s Ankus appears accursed, ensuring death and destruction to whoever attempts to acquire it. As in the other stories, destruction does indeed befall the dholes in Red Dog and the wolf pack too sees infighting within itself. The last story, Spring Running, has been probed for other motifs too: the indecisiveness of the outsider (or the colonialist) who can never really be part of the wild or nature that is India.

The imperial vision

Even in his lifetime, Kipling came to be characterised as a writer sympathetic to imperialist concerns, his works portraying a pristine, rural world needing understanding and civilisation that became possible mainly through colonial intervention. But then arguably he was a chronicler of his times, perhaps even a romantic writer in the way of other writers of his time, who portrayed the world in which they lived.

The books, however, caught the world’s imagination; feral children, for instance, have always had a certain timeless appeal. The British artist, James Charles Dollman, who enjoyed transient fame in the early 20th century, and whose compositions featured humans and animals, memorably painted Mowgli as the crowned king of the ‘bandarlog’, in 1903.

Moreover, as some historians of the Victorian literature have argued, the books paralleled the popularity of the tiger and the elephant as symbols of imperial iconography. GP Sanderson on whom Kipling modelled Petersen Sahib in Toomai of the Elephants (The Jungle Book) was instrumental in devising methods of capturing wild elephants in Mysore and using them for logging and other forestry activities.

Mowgli on the big screen

The film versions differ from the book in interesting ways; not least in giving Mowgli a love interest. Indeed, Kipling’s latter-day label as a writer of dominant colonial and empire related themes have much to do with The Jungle Book, first filmed by the Korda brothers, Alexander and Zoltan, in 1942.

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The movie followed the brothers’ earlier efforts to make inspiring ‘Empire’ movies, the most famous of which included AEW Mason’s Fire Over England. Alexander, the older Korda brother, was, as the story goes, much influenced by Winston Churchill and the latter’s desire to arouse among the British public a necessary awareness on the dangers of fascism and also patriotism. The Empire and its glories were the themes also in Mason’s The Four Feathers, a novel set in Sudan and another film the Korda brothers made.

Elephant Boy, made by the Kordas in 1937, was based on another story in The Jungle Book, titled Toomai and the Elephants. Sabu Dastagir, one of the first Indian actors in Hollywood, essayed the title role just as he would play Mowgli when The Jungle Book was made in 1942, a year when the Korda brothers shifted to Hollywood, a move ironically necessitated by war time restrictions and privations in Britain. The movie combines elements of both books, and is told from the viewpoint of Buldeo, a hunter, whose daughter Mahala Mowgli comes to love as the latter learns to adapt to human ways.

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New characters in the Jungle Books

The Jungle Book of 1967 was one of the last movies where Walt Disney personally intervened. He had the animation film’s storyline changed from what he considered a darker note to portraying the dilemma Mowgli faced, as he was torn between leaving the jungle and his own ‘natural’ habitat, the village. It made other innovations too, including a soundtrack featuring some memorable numbers and also an orangutan called King Louie, not a Kipling character, but who appeared in several later Disney spinoffs from The Jungle Book. King Louie became a character in his own right, helped by Disney’s noted animators, and also appeared in the game version Talespin and in the animated series Jungle Cubs that aired in 1996.

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King Louie will also appear in the most recent Disney live animated version due for release in March this year. Strangely, he will appear as a gigantopithecus, a prehistoric creature that predated the apes, since the orangutan did not appear in either of the Jungle Books. The 1967 version also featured four vultures, Dizzy, Buzzy, Flaps and Ziggy, modelled apparently on the Beatles. Later, in Disney’s version of The Second Jungle Book, the vultures were joined by another of their kind, Lucky, who became Shere Khan’s tormentor in many ways.

Around the same time, in 1967, there were 20-minute short animation versions made in Russian, Adventures of Mowgli, based on the Jungle Book stories, which were later consolidated into a film. It remains true to the book and also has Bagheera as a female panther.

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The later versions of the Jungle Books have taken their own different turns though characters have remained unchanged. A different love angle featured in the 1994 Disney film version, where Mowgli meets his childhood friend, Katherine and is, in the end, reunited with her. In other ways, the film bears little resemblance to the book, where Mowgli must not just defend himself against unjust accusations of theft but fight to win back his childhood love.

The 1998 live action direct video version was called Mowgli’s Story in which he teams up with his wolf sister Little Raksha to take revenge on Shere Khan and also avenge his wolf mother Raksha’s death. Another version, The Second Jungle Book, Mowgli and Bhaloo, has a circus owner called Harrison who is determined to capture Mowgli and unwittingly takes the help of Buldeo, a hunter and also Mowgli’s estranged uncle, who intends Mowgli harm simply to acquire the family’s wealth for himself.

The 2016 live action version will again have an Indian origin actor, the 12-year-old Neel Sethi, in the lead role. It is a remake of the 1967 version. The Warner Bros version due in 2017, The Jungle Book: Origins, will star Rohan Chand and also will feature Frieda Pinto and Matthew Rhys as John Lockwood Kipling.

Other adaptations of the book (besides of course several television and animated series) include a Hungarian musical that already has more than a 1,000 shows and then a postmodern Swedish version, a play with apocalyptic connotations and set in a devastated and nearly deserted Stockholm.

As with other timeless tales, the Jungle Books, in their very adaptability, effortless reach across cultures and ability to speak of enduring values, remain enduring in fascinating ways.

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