Home / Opinion / Views /  Uncle Oscar and the tale of a wonderful elephant

It’s a matter of pride that two Indian productions won Oscars on Sunday night in Los Angeles, the home of Hollywood. A Telugu dance track called Naatu Naatu from the film R.R.R. was awarded Best Original Song, while Kartiki Gonsalves’s 40-minute watch, The Elephant Whisperers, won the coveted statuette for Best Documentary Short Subject at the 95th Academy Awards. As the stated goal of America’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is to advance the “arts and sciences" of movies, we can assume its jury found both up to the task. The song-and-dance sequence that won is quite catchy. Its lyrics bustle with analogies of energetic motion—a fierce bull kicking up dust, for example—and the moves on display are an acrobatic wonder of originality, especially the furious foot work. In contrast, the documentary plods along, but only to snuggle into our hearts with the story of an elephant adopted and raised by an Indian couple. They keep talking to the calf, which amazes us with cuddly responses to all the cooing and coaxing of its adoptive parents. Though it’s no tragedy, the film has a lump-in-the-throat moment that lends it its poise and poignancy. All in all, it’s an ode to our capacity for compassion. Both these winners deserve applause, as any such acclaim does. Yet, it’s hard to shake off the hunch that this is more about eastern exotica than artistic cinema to many viewers in the West, perhaps even to the Oscar jury.

We don’t have an adequate random sample of perceptions to draw any conclusion, but some of the Western chatter on social media has been quite revealing. For more than a few folks, the highlight of Naatu Naatu—literally ‘dance dance’—is where this caper was shot. This marvel of choreography was filmed in front of Mariinsky Palace, the obscure official residence of Ukraine’s president before Russia’s invasion last year thrust Zelensky into the limelight as democracy’s latest hero. The choice of this particular location in Kyiv was a coincidence, of course, but has visibly boosted the video clip’s appeal. Indeed, so upbeat does it sound that a few listeners even had to be told that its title had nothing to do with an alliance called Nato. Nor was it a buck-up chant of any kind; just a call to dance, that’s all. But then again, all works of art are open to interpretation, including vain attempts, so maybe it’s best to let people hear what they will.

Audio associations matter. The trumpet of a tusker, for example, still rings an ‘India’ bell in much of the West, thanks to Raj-era lore, although elephants are found elsewhere too. So it should not surprise us that The Elephant Whisperers has generated a buzz around the ancient Indian tale of six blind men and the elephant. In this story, six sightless individuals try to describe the animal. One touches a leg and says it’s like a tree. Another feels the trunk and likens it to a snake. A third identifies the ear as a kind of fan. The fourth finds its tail rope-like. The fifth senses its side as a wall. The sixth pictures its tusk as a spear. As a parable, it’s meant to illustrate how dicey subjective truth can be; also, the danger of a monocle-view getting the better of varied viewpoints. As a trope, it suggests a heavy sigh over how tough it is to grasp this exotic land of everything and its opposite all at once. This is ironic: Uncle Oscar’s lens may no longer be ‘orientalist’, but, going by the particulars of its focus, it’s still not wide-angled enough for a full-spectrum view of Indian cinema at its artistic best.

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