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‘Mahout – The Great Elephant Walk’: Big steps for humans and elephants alike

‘Mahout – The Great Elephant Walk’: Big steps for humans and elephants alike

August 17 2015

Dreamy, serene landscapes and one of the earth’s most majestic creatures makes for an evocative and powerful new documentary shot in Nepal about these animals, their personal keepers and the predicament they all find themselves in…

By Chitra Mogul

WORLD ELEPHANT DAY is celebrated on August 12 every year and so, it was rather apt to be watching “Mahout – The Great Elephant Walk” at Asia House in London – even if the screening was a day later.

The film, which is narrated by TV celebrity and man of letters Stephen Fry, picked up the Best Film Award at the London Independent Film Festival last year and will premiere in the US in October.

Documentary makers James Dartnall and Jack Wylson were both on hand for a post-screening Q&A at Asia House, a cultural and business organisation, which promotes understanding and trade between the whole continent and the UK. There was a real sense of expectation at the sold out screening.

The debutant filmmakers basically filmed what happened to their friend, Tim Edwards. His father Jim created the Eco resorts of Tiger Tops in Nepal but died suddenly leaving the resorts managerless and so Tim, who worked in the City, had to pick up the reins and decided he had to resettle four elephants and their eight mahouts because of economics.

Edwards undertakes the hazardous five-week journey from the Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Chitwan National Park to the Tiger Tops Karnali in Bardia National Park in southern Nepal to accomplish this. It means taking on congested towns and villages, dense jungles, heavy monsoons, hot weather and plenty of unexpected happenings along the way.

The mahouts take a tea break on their long and arduous journey

The three elephants Champa Kali, Chan Chun Kali, and Ram Kali are the undoubted stars of the documentary and they set the pace with their hardy, stoic and steady onward march. Elephants are revered in Nepal and their mahouts treat them accordingly.

The directors bring out the symbiotic relationship between animal and rider through interviews with the mahouts. As Dartnall told : “The mahouts have a wonderful relationship with the elephants, but that isn’t the way it is in many parts of Asia.”

One of the purposes of making such a film is to draw attention to the plight of working elephants across the subcontinent, the filmmakers intimated. Elephants are not always treated as well as they are in Eco resorts of Tiger Tops or greeted with the same level of reverance everywhere.

Every time the elephant convoy enters a village or town it draws throngs of people and excited children in its wake who feed the animals bunches of bananas and other treats. Often they offer money which the elephants receive gracefully with a curl of their trunks and pass it on to their mahout.

At the beginning of the journey, one of the four elephants hurts her foot and has to leave the group to be treated at one of the Tiger Tops resorts en route. We learn that elephants despite their considerable girth have delicate footpads. Later the head mahout, one of the old hands who has known Edwards since he was a baby, has to leave for a relative’s wedding. However, the remaining mahouts are able to handle the vicissitudes of the journey with aplomb.

On the way, the elephant convoy is held up by a strike which grounds the support vehicles; another day the monsoons make camping a mess and Edwards organises accommodation for the group in a village school. There is some memorable monsoon footage of the mahouts seated on the elephants with umbrellas aloft.

James Dartnell and Jack Wylson at the Asia House Q&A
pic courtesy: Asia House

There are beautiful poetic shots of the elephants bathing, a much needed cooling off when the hot weather takes over. In addition to dips here and there, we learn that elephants combat overheating by spraying themselves with saliva and flapping their ears.

The starlets of the documentary display very individual personalities. One is a drama queen who knocks down a tree in the middle of the night and even sheds a crocodile tear or two over it. Then there is Ms Independence, who slips her chains to go for a midnight stroll in the jungle and has to be led back by her mahout.

Each time it is the mahout who gets the elephant back on track – and it shows that mahout and elephants are partners for life.

We learn that the pachyderms understand up to thirty commands and know their mahouts mostly by smell and voice, as they have poor eyesight. For this reason new mahouts don’t bathe for the first six months – a bonding exercise that’s not to be sniffed at! As one of the mahouts observes quite simply, the elephants are their source of livelihood and mean everything to them.

One of the highlights of the film was when Champa Kali balks at crossing a bridge and an alternative route has to be found. This turns out to be wading across the crocodile-prone river. Crocodiles are considered no match for the mighty elephants but the fact that a misstep could send the mahout into the river doesn’t bear thinking about, adding to the drama of the moment.

Man and beast brave the monsoons

During the Q&A with the audience, Dartnall mentions that a lot of the shots in the documentary were from their perch on the elephant’s back and perhaps that is what gives one the feeling of actually being there on the trail.

The major scary moment, he said in reply to a question from the audience was not anything actually on the trail – but sitting on the roof of a bus after their journey as and the daredevil Nepali drivers and the blind turns and hairpin bends that are common in Nepal because of the hilly and mountainous terrain.

The film was shot with a small budget but has used its limited resources admirably to highlight the special relationship between the mahouts and the elephants.

When asked what they would have done differently if they had a ‘Hollywood budget’ Dartnall replied that they would have had cameras more suitable for local conditions and better lighting but it is hard to see how they could have done much differently.

Fry informs us that there are less than 200 wild elephants left in Nepal and most of them are in national parks. His narration keeps the film moving forward briskly and provides an education on elephants interspersed with interviews with the mahouts and Edwards. This is one documentary that will stay with you and you don’t have to have an elephantine memory for it to do so.

With the US premiere in mind, Dartnall has created a series of photographs from the walk, prints of which will be sold to raise awareness about elephant conservation in Asia.

ACV rating:**** (out of five)

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture


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