The Jungle Book has created Indian box office history. The Hollywood adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling stories has posted estimated net box office figures of over Rs 118 crores since its release on April 8, and the money is still rolling in. The Jungle Book was released on 1,650 screens across India in English, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu in 2D, 3D and IMAX versions. The film swallowed up the local competition (the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Fan) with the ease of Baloo the bear slurping up honey.
There are many reasons The Jungle Book has caused jaws to drop and wallets to open. The original animated version produced by Disney in 1967 is a distant memory for most Indian viewers, but many are better acquainted with the popular Hindi dubbed version of a Japanese cartoon adaptation that was shown on Doordarshan in 1993. Disney’s local arm spared no expense in promoting a movie that already had a strong local connection because Kipling's stories are set in India.
The studio recruited Hindi movie celebrities to voice the key parts (including Priyanka Chopra as Kaa the python, Irrfan as Baloo, and Nana Patekar as Shere Khan) and commissioned prominent screenwriter Mayur Puri to work on the screenplay. The catchy title track of the Doordarshan series, “Jungle Jungle Baat Chali Hai”, was co-opted into the live action movie’s universe. Finally, the stunning and seamless visual effects actually matched the hype.
There’s another reason The Jungle Book has worked in India: it has a dazzling variety of animals that have not been seen in our films in years. Apart from the main characters, including the villainous tiger Shere Khan, the black panther Bagheera, the grey wolf pack and the python Kaa, elephants, porcupines, deer and rhinos fill the screen. Every one of these creatures is the product of ground-breaking visual effects, whether it’s the cuddly wolf cubs who are the friends of Mowgli (the only human in the cast) or the terrifying Gigantopithecus King Louie. A local production on this scale is impossible: Indian visual effects are not sophisticated enough, and prevailing censorship codes prohibit or make near impossible the use of real animals.
Like kisses and swear words, animals have been disappearing from Indian films. Our laws curtail the depiction of animals, birds and even insects in films, serials and commercials. Rules that might have been well-meaning and intended to protect the animal kingdom from human cruelty now function as diktats. Filmmakers who wish to use animals or birds in a production need to inform the Animal Welfare Board of India in Chennai, which then sends a representative to supervise the shoot. The paperwork isn’t the problem here – it’s the AWBI’s powers to influence certification. The AWBI is a statutory body that functions under the Ministry of Environment and Forests. It has the power to hold up a film or even recommend denial of certification to the Censor Board if it detects signs of ill-treatment.
Improvisation is not encouraged: the filmmaker who mistakenly (or out of a sense of documentary realism) includes a bird that flutters into the frame or a curious stray dog that pokes its head into the camera can expect stern queries from the AWBI. Rumours of producers paying under the table to clear films have persisted for years, and the AWBI’s opacity and broad refusal to take questions from the media have allowed these unconfirmed suspicions to linger.
The AWBI’s rigidity has forced feature and advertising filmmakers to shoot abroad. One recent example is Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), which features a bull mastiff and was set on a luxury liner in Europe. The pet tiger that shows up for a few moments in Bajirao Mastani (2015) was also shot outside India and inserted into the scene through visual effects.
Filmmakers often resort to computer-generated imagery, but the general state of visual effects in India being what they are, animals and birds look nothing like the real thing – for instance, the ram that is wrestled to the ground by Rana Daggubati’s strongman in Baahubali (2015).
Even when machines have done the work of the Creator, the AWBI and the Censor Board deem it necessary to inform audiences that the creature in the shot is artificial rather than real. In Badlapur (2015), the crow that gets stuck in electric wires before a jailbreak was fake, but a scroll at the bottom right hand corner stayed on the screen throughout to ensure that there were no illusions on this score. Films such as Masaan (which had cows and dogs wandering into the frame) and Chauranga (in which pigs play a crucial part of the narrative) have faced the AWBI’s wrath and have been released only after avoidable difficulties. In Masaan’s case, the cows and dogs were dropped, while in the case of Chauranga, an independent debut feature by Bikas Mishra, the filmmaker suffered for daring to use pigs. In an article for Scroll.in, Mishra shared the advice given to him by a consultant working for the AWBI: “Kill a man or two more if your story needs it, but dare not kill the pig if you want your film to release.”
Scattered examples reveal the manner in which the AWBI imposes local laws even on international productions. The Board often demands that the local offices of Hollywood studios furnish documentary proof that animals were not ill-treated during production even though the laws in this matter are far tougher in Hollywood. Cats that were integral parts of the script in the final edition of The Hunger Games trilogy and the James Bond movie Spectre were missing from the local releases.
In this regard, the AWBI functions like the Health Ministry, which forces filmmakers to not only run advisories at the beginning of movies that feature smoking but also labours the point by including a scroll every time a character lights up. The general infantilisation of audiences by the CBFC – the muting of profanity even in A-rated films, the reduction in the length of kissing scenes, and the outright censorship of lovemaking sequences – has been made complete by the removal of a vital feature of the natural landscape of India. Hence the success of The Jungle Book, a movie based on children’s stories that treats its viewers as adults.