In Oscars season, homage to India’s cinematic love affair with elephants


In Oscars season, it’s worth noting film obsessions in the other half of the cinematic world – India. Nearly half-a-century after it riveted Indian children, ‘Haathi, Mere Saathi’ retains a magical place in Indian film history. Rachel Dwyer names the movie in her book, ‘One Hundred Bollywood Films’. It ranks as a classic for what is called its “Disneyesque appeal”.

There are a number of reasons for its hit status back in 1971, not least that it starred Rajesh Khanna, who was wildly popular at the time. But, I would argue that a sizeable part of its appeal lay in the elephants (haathi in Hindi) who play a big role in the story.

Elephants play a big role in Indian culture,  mythology and symbolism. Hindu cosmology believes that the earth is supported (and guarded) by mythical elephants. Sanskrit texts suggest that earthquakes are a manifestation of elephant movement. Lord Ganesh, of course, is the elephant-headed deity. Indra was said to ride on a flying white elephant named Airavata and specially trained temple  elephants are respected creatures. In India, elephants are practically the rock stars and the noble giants of the animal world.

This is why some might think it decidedly odd that the Indian Supreme Court has been rather derisive about attempts to protect them from early and unexpected death. The Times of India reported the Court’s sarcastic response to the Indian government’s suggestion there is a need to build underpasses and flyovers to ensure the safe passage of elephants over railway tracks. Are road signs for elephants the natural next step, the Court has asked.

It sounds hilarious (and who would have thought the Indian Supreme Court had a sense of humour?) but the judges were making a deadly serious point. The southern state of Karnataka has a good template, they said, sans underpasses and flyovers for pachyderms and more importantly, no elephant deaths on railway tracks last year.

It’s unclear what will happen next but it’s safe to say that the gentle haathi’s place in the Indian imagination is likely to stay unchanged.