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In a characteristically acerbic essay called “Outside The Whale", published in Granta 11 in 1984, Salman Rushdie deplored the trend of Raj “revivalism" that was then on display on television screens and in the movies. It was around this time that M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions and Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet were being telecast on British TV, while films set in colonial India, such as Gandhi (1982) and A Passage To India (1984), were receiving popular acclaim across the world.

Two years earlier, in 1982, the British had won the Falklands War, and Rushdie argued that these television serials and feature films were meant to hark back to the lost glory of the empire while celebrating the recent military victory. With the loss of the colonies, the excitement seemed to have gone out of their lives. In The Observer, Irish politician Conor Cruise O’Brien countered this assertion with a barb of his own, calling Rushdie’s grouse an instance of a formerly colonized people whining in order to solicit public compassion for the mess they have created for themselves in the present.

There is never an easy response to disputes such as these. While ostensibly based on fiery rhetoric, these statements tend to hit deeper, more viscerally, than simple verbal jousts would let on. A scenario like this is probably waiting to happen now that Disney’s remake of The Jungle Book, based on the Mowgli stories by Rudyard Kipling, is about to hit theatres.

A report, once again in The Observer, on 3 April hopes that the new version will avoid the kind of “racial stereotyping" that plagued the earlier animated version, also made by Disney, in 1967. While based closely on Kipling’s storyline, the older movie had received considerable flak from critics and viewers for portraying certain characters with less than sensitivity.

For instance, the 1967 movie introduced the orangutan King Louie, who is not part of Kipling’s original plot, as a much less evolved entity than the other animals—this was made obvious from the way he spoke and behaved. The report also points out that the song I Wanna Be Like You, which King Louie sings, was rendered by American musician Louis Prima in the Dixieland style, and the producers were condemned for playing up the inequality between African-Americans and Caucasians through such a caricature.

The Jungle Book that Indians probably know best is the Japanese anime adaptation dubbed into Hindi and telecast on Doordarshan in 1993-94. Most of its target audience, young children and teenagers, are likely to remember it with delight for its catchy tunes and lovely graphics, rather than as an experience sullied by dark double meanings. Two decades on, however, the world is a very different place. Young or old, we are not expected to look at it with anything less than cynical mistrust.

Set in the jungles of the Seeonee hills, Mowgli’s life unfolds in an India that is exotically timeless, far away from civilization, unsullied by the colonial project, a relic of Orientalism. He is what Rousseau called a “noble savage", a child of the wild, who has no use for the rules and conventions of society. For instance, he “had not the faintest idea (of) the difference that caste makes between man and man". Yet, in the forest, too, he is an outcast, rejected by the wolf pack for not being like them and hunted by Shere Khan, the Bengal tiger, who has turned a man-eater and wants the boy’s flesh to appease his disgust of human beings. The creatures he resembles most closely are the apes, or “bandar-log", who are a lawless bunch, much reviled by the rest of the forest’s inhabitants.

Protected by Baloo the bear, Bagheera the black panther and Kaa the python, Mowgli has to eventually leave the jungle and try to make a life with humans in the nearby village. But there, too, he is unwelcome because of his strange ways: his firm refusal to live in an enclosed hut or walk and talk like a human child. Accustomed to living like the Free People, as the wolves who reared him call themselves, Mowgli behaves like one. His predicament, if one takes off the allegorical cover, appears to look like that of the English-educated brown man under British rule: He belongs neither with his own kind nor with the sahibs.

Like Kim, Mowgli is also a peculiar product of the imperialist imagination: a “subject" trained in the ways of the “masters" so that he could serve them better. In Mowgli, especially, Kipling combined the call to a higher service with a fun-loving boyish personality, “designed to produce row after row of bright-eyed, eager and resourceful little middle-class servants of empire", as critic and writer Edward W. Said puts it in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Kim. It wasn’t a coincidence that Lord Baden-Powell, who was instrumental in setting up the Boy Scouts in 1907-08, was profoundly influenced by Kipling’s boys, and especially by Mowgli.

In a sense, the trajectory of Kipling’s own life reflected the psychic turmoil experienced by characters such as Kim and Mowgli. Born in India in 1865, he spent the first few years of his life in the country, until he was sent off to school in England at the age of 6. For a boy who had grown up speaking Hindustani, the shift must have been traumatic, and Kipling probably struggled to integrate with his life in Britain just as much as Kim, an orphan of Irish extraction, did trying to survive in colonial India. The complexity of this background probably makes it unfair to reduce him to a writer with an agenda to push the imperialist project. In the same way that accusing Joseph Conrad of being a racist in The Heart Of Darkness, as Chinua Achebe did in his famous denunciation of the novel, would be a provocation to misreading.

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