The elephant in Tamil films


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UNTIL recently, next to the ox it was the elephant that featured recurrently in Tamil films, be they mythological or contemporary tales. Three factors were at work in drastically reducing the appearance of elephants from the Tamil screen. The first, the gradual disappearance of mythological stories; second, the promulgation of the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972; and the third, the impact of Animal Welfare movement, which should not be confused with wildlife conservation.

As the animal welfare movement spread in the cities, the awareness it had created led to the introduction of new rules governing the treatment of animals during film shooting. These were then incorporated in the censor rules, a result of worldwide awareness of animal rights. The film industry spoofed this concern through a scene in the film Pammal Sambandham (2002) in which the hero (Kamalahasan) is taking part in a film shooting scene dressed up as Siva and is shown seated on a bull along with Parvathi. A group of women activists, led by the heroine (Simran) barge into the studio holding placards and shouting, ‘Do not torture dumb animals.’ In this melee, a police inspector asks the hero if the mouth of the cobra around Siva’s neck has been stitched, a common practice while shooting sequences featuring snakes.

But we are looking at the elephant on the Tamil screen. Dating back to millions of years, the elephant is one of earth’s oldest creatures. Of the two species, the African and the Asian, the latter has been in rapid decline, with only about 50,000 left in the wild. Of the surviving Asian elephants, India has the largest population – 28,000 in the wild and 3,500 in captivity, possibly because the tropical forests of India and their floral diversity provide an ideal habitat for the animal to flourish. Even during the British Raj the government realized the vulnerability of this animal and, as early as 1871, the elephant was declared a protected species in the Madras Presidency and prohibited its hunting.

In independent India, mounting pressure on the habitat – a result of deforestation – and a flourishing trade in contraband ivory, further reduced the elephant population in the wild. The Government of India set up Project Elephant in 1992. However, because of the predilection of elephants to move over vast areas, its protection has proved a daunting task. In 2010, the Government of India released the Gajah Report, which reflects a dismal picture. One fact to remember while talking about this animal is that the elephant has not been domesticated; it is caught in the wild and trained. In 1982, the capture of wild elephants was completely banned.

Throughout history elephants have been close to people in Tamil Nadu, as evidenced in the numerous references to them in ancient Tamil literature. E.S. Varadaraja Ayyer’s The Elephant in Tamil Land cites many references to elephants in ancient literature. There is frequent mention of elephants in battle in Kalingathuparani, a collection of poems of the Sangam period. There are about eleven words to denote elephant in Tamil, not just eleven different words but each indicating one type of elephant, such as Annal – male elephant, Pidi – female elephant, Kaliru – battle elephant, Vezham – wild elephant, Kari – ceremonial elephant, and so on.

Tamil proverbs and metaphors, replete with references to these animals, reflect the proximity between the elephant and people from ancient times. Mythology – Buddhist, Jain and Hindu – is full of references to elephants. Ganesha worship, so popular among people, is of course a major factor in this association. The elephant Iravatham appears in Buddhist mythology as the mount of Indra. And it was a white elephant which entered the womb of Maya, the mother of the Buddha. Gajalakshmi, one of the eight forms of Lakshmi, is featured seated on a lotus and flanked by elephants. And there are many place names in Tamil Nadu associated with elephant. For instance, Anaikaranchathiram – inn of the elephant-keeper; Anaimalai – elephant hill; Tiruvanaikaval – where the elephant is worshipped, and so on.


For the early filmmakers in Tamil Nadu, mythology was the main source of subjects for films. The stories, already familiar to the people and dear to their hearts, attracted them to the new-fangled entertainment on the screen and helped give the local filmmakers an edge over the films imported from the West. We had our own stories! The very first Tamil film, Keechakavatham (1916) draws on an episode from the Mahabharatha. Though a silent film it was nevertheless a Tamil film. All the characters spoke in Tamil and as there was no soundtrack what they spoke was shown in title cards in Tamil, in between shots. Even when sound was introduced in 1931, mythologies continued to be the main source for filmmakers. And elephants featured in many of these films. Unfortunately, only a few of the films of the 1930s have survived. One of the earliest is Ambikapathi (1937) directed by the legendary American filmmaker Ellis R. Dungan, which has a scene of the Chola king Karikalan making a triumphant entry into his capital after a successful campaign. You see a long line of caprisoned elephants amble along, one after the other. Dungan had a predilection for such outdoor scenes involving a lot of people and animals. So he lingers on this scene in a lengthy shot as the elephants pass through the frame in a majestic procession.


In Tamil Nadu, one enduring subject for drama and films was the story of Valli, one of the two consorts of Murugan, son of Siva. Enamoured with Valli, the tribal lass, Murugan seeks the help of his elder brother, Ganesha, to win her goodwill. Ganesha assumes the form of an elephant, complete with sacred ash and a large tilak on the forehead and accosts Valli who is guarding a millet field. Scared she runs into the arms of Murugan, who calculatedly appears on the scene and chases away the elephant. All ends well. At least five films were made on this episode, two during the silent era and three talkies.

Movie moghul S.S. Vasan of Gemini Studios, who believed in spectacle for the masses, was partial to elephants, in addition to his well-known fondness for race horses, and used them in a major way in two of his films. In 1948, those who visited the Gemini Studio campus in the heart of Madras would have wondered if they were in an elephant camp as scores of elephants were kept there and taken care of. Two well-known circus companies, Kamala Circus and Parasuram Lion Circus, camped in the Gemini Studio compound for shooting a film. At least one of them changed its name into Gemini Circus after the shooting of the film Chandralekha (1948) that Vasan was then engaged in, and in which the circus elephants were featured.


After a chance meeting, the prince falls in love with Chandralekha, a poor village girl. His brother, Shashankan, in an attempt to gain control of the kingdom, throws the prince into a cave and seals the entrance with a large boulder. Chandralekha, however, rescues prince Veerasimhan with the help of elephants in a circus troupe that happen to be passing by. The shot of elephants, moving in single file in the mud track, followed by the cages with big cats and the clowns singing a rollicking song, is one of the most remembered sequences in Indian film history. Chandralekha appears on the scene and explains to the circus manager that the prince was being held inside a cave. The elephants are harnessed and they pull away the massive boulder that had been rolled to cover the mouth of the cave.

In the history of Tamil cinema, more than any other film, Vasan’s name is most associated with Avvaiyar (1953) in which battle elephants play a crucial role. Telling the story of the great saint-poet of ancient Tamil Nadu, the film combined religious appeal with Tamil revivalism that was in the air in the 1950s. The poetess Avvaiyar, a devotee of Lord Ganesha, invokes his powers as she defends a small kingdom. A large number of elephants were required for a battle scene in the film and Vasan’s search ended in Manandhavadi, an elephant camp near Vayanad in Kerala. There is a spectacular scene in which stampeding elephants attack the fort. The earth, however, opens up, creating a chasm that prevents the elephants from destroying the fort. In 1956, an abridged version (2255 metres) of this film with English commentary was screened at the International Asian Film Festival in New York.


At least two films that centred on elephants were made in Tamil. Film producer Sandow Chinnappa Thevar used a lot of animals in his movies, including tigers and lions, with total disregard for their well-being. His Yanaipagan/The mahout (1960) was about an elephant and its trainer. Subsequently, he made another movie on the same subject, elephant and its handler, titled Nalla Neram/Auspicious time (1972) with M.G. Ramachandran in the lead. It had four circus elephants performing tricks like riding tricycles. It was a story about Rajan (MGR), who as a child was saved by Ramu the elephant from a leopard attack. Rajan and the elephant develop a close bond and he earns a living through the tricks the elephant can perform. A typical MGR film, with pedagogic songs, fights and a love theme, it proved to be a hit. Thevar had earlier also made a Hindi film on a similar story, Hathi Mere Sathi/Elephant my partner in which Rajesh Khanna played the hero and the film had done well commercially.

Yanai Valartha Vanambadi/The girl raised by an elephant (1967) was about a young woman who grows up in a forest and is taken care of by elephants. The popularity of this film led to an inevitable sequel, Yanai Valartha Vanambadiyin Magan/The son of the girl raised by an elephant (1972), a story set around a boy who grows up in a jungle. Gemini Ganesan played the lead. The film Sengottai Singam (1958) had a song extolling the virtues of an elephant and the hero who sings this song wonders if human beings will ever grow up to emulate its qualities.

Thangamalai Rakasiyam/Secret of the golden hill (1957) in which Gajendran, a Tarzan-like character in the jungles (Sivaji Ganesan) of the Western Ghats comes under the care of a love-smitten princess and is civilized. There were many elephants in the movie as Tarzan moves in the jungles of Anamalai near Pollachi with a herd. And each and every elephant in the herd had a name and could understand human language. Gajendran talks to them as if they were fellow humans. There is a scene in which he saves an elephant from the jaws of a crocodile, much like Lord Vishnu in the episode of Gajendramoksha in Bhagavata Purana.


A number of films, beginning with Chandralekha, featured circus elephants. Their circus acts became an entertainment component in those films, as in the film Nalla Neram. Stephen Alter, in his book Elephant Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant comments that he would rather not talk about circus elephants because the cruelty involved in their training and performance repulsed him.

After a gap of many years came Kumki (2012) with an elephant as a main character. This film too did not pay much attention to animal behaviour. The film about the bond between a trained elephant (kumki) and its handler is set in a tribal village. The problem of man-animal conflict, a much discussed issue in recent years, forms the subject matter. A wild elephant, which appears as a character in the story, is depicted as the evil villain. There is a fight scene between the two elephants wherein the filmmaker effectively uses animation techniques to circumvent the rules regarding treatment of animals during shooting. The locale was authentic and attention was paid to the costumes of the characters patterned after the Kadar tribe in the Western Ghats. These tribal men are even now recruited by the forest department to take care of elephants in the camps.


However, the natural history of the elephant was completely ignored in all these films. In fact, many myths relating to the elephant were perpetuated, such as its penchant for revenge, and so on. Popular magazines reviewing these films often carried remarks like, ‘the elephant acts superbly.’ The depiction of the elephant on the Tamil screen in no way helped in a better understanding of the animal, far less its conservation. Where they appeared in ceremonial events like royal processions and temple rituals, there was no problem. I am unable to recall any Tamil film that featured wild elephants and issues connected with them. The wild elephant in the film Kumki was, of course, an animated one.

In fact, the depiction of all wild animals in Tamil films is without any study or research about their behaviour or status. For instance, in one recent film, a character claims that nobody can beat him as he has grown eating the meat of the monitor lizard, which is an endangered animal. And, of course, its meat has no proven strength giving quality. Despite all the research in natural history, the situation has not changed. In a recent Tamil film set in British India, a hunter goes for a shoot and chases a white rabbit that could hardly run, symptomatic of the indifference of filmmakers to natural history and to conservation.