‘Director backed out of pay promises’ – Elephant Whisperers

The couple who were the subject of an Oscar-winning Indian documentary have accused the film’s director, Kartiki Gonsalves, of reneging on payments they say were due to them.

The Elephant Whisperers charts the relationship between a middle-aged couple, Bomman and Bellie, who look after young elephant calves and a baby elephant called Raghu on the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. It won the Oscar for best documentary short film in March.

The couple told The Hindu newspaper on Saturday that they had filed a legal petition accusing Gonsalves of failing to give them a “promised” house, car, a lump sum in cash for the time they spent on the project and payment for the education of their granddaughter. They are demanding 20 million rupees (£190,000) from Gonsalves – a huge sum in India – as a “goodwill gesture’.

Gonsalves says none of the claims are true.

At the core of the film, which depicts how climate change and human encroachment are rapidly destroying the habitats of Asian elephants, is the intimate and loving relationship between the couple and Raghu.

The film’s Oscar win was a feelgood moment for many Indians, and the couple became famous overnight, prompting celebrities and politicians to lavish praise on them and seek photo opportunities.

Several awards ceremonies took place to honour them, including a lavish function where they met M K Stalin, the Tamil Nadu chief minister, and a meeting with Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, when he visited the camp in April.

A source close to the production team told the Guardian that Gonsalves had been shocked by the claims.

The source said the couple were paid according to a contract signed by them and that discussions had not taken place around a house, car or lump sum. The couple had received donations from the Prime Minister’s Fund and from the Tamil Nadu state government, the source said, and had not incurred expenses while travelling for ceremonies or PR events.

As recently as 19 July, the couple attended a function to honour them arranged by the Indian president, Droupadi Murmu, at which Gonsalves was also present.

Relations between Indians featured in films and production teams have previously gone sour. The relatives of some younger members of the cast of Danny Boyle’s 2009 Slumdog Millionaire entered into a dispute with the director after it enjoyed commercial success.

More recently, the all-female media organisation that was depicted in the Oscar-nominated documentary Writing with Fire said after the film’s release in 2021 that it had been a “distortion”. The film’s directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh denied any wrongdoing.

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