Documentary channel

Documentary ‘Gods in Shackles’ on temple elephants is an eye-opener

Sangita Iyer’s film convincingly makes the argument that the animals belong to the wild.

Sangita Iyer’s investigative documentary Gods in Shackles takes on one of Kerala’s sacred cows – the captive elephant that is pressed into service for ceremonies and festivals at several of the state’s temples. The Canadian filmmaker sets most of the documentary in Thrissur, where the annual Thrissurpooram temple festival sees one of the most spectacular pachyderm parades in the world. In this “epicenter of the elephant entertainment industry”, as Iyer labels it, she finds compelling evidence of cruelty and neglect. Limbs are damaged, eyes blinded, and mental faculties disturbed as the mostly male elephants strain against their shackles. The taming and training methods often involve force and sharp instruments, and instances of elephants running amok are frequently reported.

Iyer uncovers the economic imperatives that drive temples to purchase and maintain these huge beasts as well as the complex and often contradictory relationship between mahouts and elephants. The film includes the stories of Lakshmi, a female at the Thiruvambaadi temple in Thrissur, and Sunder, the elephant that was rescued after being abused by its mahout from a temple in Kolhapur and moved to Banerghetta National Park.

You say in the documentary that your encounter with the elephant Lakshmi sparked off your interest in the subject.
I met Lakshmi in December 2013 during my visits to Kerala’s temples. She belongs to the famous Thiruvambaadi temple, and we bonded on a deep level. She evoked emotions that I had suppressed. Lakshmi is one of the rare female elephants used in Kerala’s temples, because mostly bull elephants are used. She is the epitome of female subjugation in a patriarchal society. I watched this enormous animal with so much strength and power surrendering to her puny mahouts, having forgotten her own true potential. I had an epiphany of sorts. Growing up in a Brahmin family I was subjected to many restrictions and didn't have the freedom to realise my innate potential until I moved to Canada.

Sangita Iyer with Lakshmi.
Sangita Iyer with Lakshmi.

Did you face obstacles or opposition during the shoot?
We filmed in the public, mostly Thrissurpooram where thousands of people gathered to celebrate the annual festival. I was introduced to most people through acquaintances and I requested for access to film in Thiruvambaadi temple in Thrissur. They were actually quite friendly and I was upfront with them explaining that I was producing a documentary about the use of elephants in temples and festivals. My camera was quite inconspicuous and small, whereas my cameraman had the entire gear that we used at the Thrissurpooram and when we filmed Lakshmi.

The more footage we gathered, the more I realised that there’s so much more behind the glitz and glamour. I discovered stark paradoxes – they were worshiping the same animal they tortured, culture had become commerce. When I interviewed the elephant owner Mr Sundar Menon, I asked him that if he genuinely loved elephants, shouldn’t he release them in the wild and allow them to roam freely? They didn’t deny access at that time because I didn’t know the direction I was taking for the story plot. It evolved over a period of 18 months of filming various elephants and gathering footage as never seen before

What will it take for temples to stop using elephants for entertainment?
Stringent rules, harsher penalties, and most importantly, enforcing the existing laws. The Kerala public would have to take a bold stance and boycott festivals where elephants are used. Perhaps a global outcry is needed. And sadly it will take many tragedies before people learn their lessons. But I feel optimistic because the new government seems to be more open to bringing forth much needed changes. The Forest Minister of Kerala announced just after a month of taking office that the government is considering banning elephants and fireworks in festivals. Now he has to live up to his words.

What was the reaction to the screening of ‘Gods in Shackles’ in Kerala?
In a historic move, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly screened Gods in Shackles on the Assembly grounds. Sree Ramakrishnan also stated that I’ve raised an important issue, and gathered significant evidence after working on the film for more than three years. He plans to discuss the issue in the assembly when it convenes and I will of course be making a follow up soon. Additionally Gods in Shackles was screened in Trivandrum and Thrissur, Calicut and Kochi. Kerala’s world-renowned veterinary hospital wants to screen it at its Wyanad and Thrissur wings.

‘Gods in Shackles’.
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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

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For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.