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Neel Sethi.
Neel Sethi.

The man-cub speaks

Twelve-year-old Neel Sethi on playing Mowgli in 'The Jungle Book'

More than 800 computer graphic (CG) artists spent more than a year crafting 70 species of wildlife, 100 million leaves and simulating earth, fire and water for The Jungle Book, Disney’s live-action epic adventure. Among all the visual effects, performing alone against a vast green screen on a Los Angeles set, was a solitary human being—Neel Sethi, who plays man-cub Mowgli.

The New York born and raised Sethi, 12, says being selected out of 2,000 people who auditioned for the lead part in the Rudyard Kipling story, with its deep Indian roots and talking animals, was “crazy". Sethi recently made a quick visit to Mumbai to promote his debut movie.

It was no walk in the park acting against a green screen, imagining singing with Baloo, being protected by Bagheera or being threatened by Shere Khan. Director Jon Favreau’s training and planning brought the red loincloth-clad Mowgli to life.

Cutting-edge CG and motion- capture technology combined with photo-real animals to fill in the background and the characters that surround Mowgli in this vast Indian jungle. The Jungle Book was shot almost entirely on a studio lot in Los Angeles. The credits reportedly end with the note, “Filmed in Downtown Los Angeles".

Sethi says it helped greatly that he is naturally athletic and has a vivid imagination. “When I was filming, I had to use my energy a lot. I was running and doing a lot of crazy stuff. I shot all of it alone. Sometimes someone would run behind me (to give a sense of fear or urgency)."

Perhaps like many of his generation, Sethi had not read Kipling’s stories or seen any of its many cinematic adaptations. “But when I heard about the audition, I watched the original, the classic (Disney’s 1967 animated musical comedy). I really liked it because Mowgli and I are so similar: Both of us are adventurous and very stubborn."

Sethi recalls the motion-capture suit he wore. “It was so uncomfortable. I just remember it was very hot inside the suit. Everything I know about acting is from Jon. If Jon said I should do something, I would do it."

Favreau found his special effects inspiration in Gravity and Life Of Pi. Technology is the strongest ally of the film-maker in this rendition of the classic. It allowed the story to be told in a way closest to Kipling’s imagination—a boy living in a dense Indian jungle with real animals that speak to him, with voice actors Bill Murray (Baloo), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera), Scarlett Johansson (Kaa), Idris Elba (Shere Khan) and others.

Research and development included gathering close to 100,000 photographs of real locations, leaves, moss, bark and temples to ensure detailed authenticity. Favreau took cinematic licence only to enhance the colours and scale of foliage from India’s jungles. The jungle, after all, is the single biggest creation in this film. The scene with Mowgli floating down the river on Baloo’s belly was filmed in two gigantic tanks built in a studio. It took nearly 5 hours per frame to render Baloo, given his girth, fur and height—15ft at full stretch. And though Mowgli has just one costume throughout the film, costume designer Laura Jean Shannon still made 16-17 versions of the red loincloth in preparation for water, mud, rain, hidden safety harnesses and running scenes.

Until he got selected for the part, Sethi planned to emulate his dentist parents and play sport. He says he loved everything about acting though, not least of all seeing himself on the big screen. “It’s such a big screen with my face on it. It was so cool. It was so cool to see the green screen filled in and to see that the styrofoam I was touching is now an actual animal. The only thing I didn’t enjoy was running and jumping in the mud," says Sethi.

The Jungle Book released in theatres on Friday.

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