10 April 2016

The Strength of the Pack

Today's Mumbai Mirror column

A sparkling new adaptation of The Jungle Book is a chance to take a fresh look at Kipling.

The latest version of The Jungle Book hit Indian screens on April 8, a week ahead of the US. The fact that we get first dibs on the film, however, is about the only concession to 'Indian-ness' here. (I'm not counting the fact that the only actor on screen is a 12-year-old Indian-origin New Yorker called Neel Sethi.) 

Perhaps my brain has been permanently warped by The Jungle Book I grew up on (a lovely hardback with Disney images), but it seems to me a bit absurd to expect Indian-ness from something originally written by a white man in 1895, filmed in English as early as 1942 (by Alexander Korda), and successfully Disney-fied in 1967. 

What we think of when we think of The Jungle Book is Mowgli, a thin brown boy making the forest his own, accompanied by Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther. But Kipling's Jungle Book was actually several tales, first published serially in newspapers, and only some featured Mowgli. And even those didn't necessarily follow from each other: they had to be stitched into a single narrative. 

In some ways, it was the films that did this work. Korda spent most of his dramatic energy on Mowgli's ambivalent relationship to human society - in Kipling's memorable phrase, the "man-village". It was Walt Disney who created The Jungle Book most of the world now knows: the tale of Mowgli's battle with Shere Khan the tiger, encounters with the Bandar-log and Kaa the snake providing adventurous sidelights. 

Jon Favreau's version, in glorious live action 3D, remains largely faithful to the 1967 Disney film, though it darkens the tone and ups the pace considerably. It is Shere Khan who bookends this version, snarling and sneering to terrifying effect in the voice of Idris Elba, and asking the question that is at some level, at the moral centre of the Jungle Book: "How many lives is a man-cub worth?" Favreau gives the angry, embittered man-eater of the previous film a sharper identity as a tyrant, a power-hungry creature who wraps his unlawful activities in a cloak of hypocrisy and violence: "You did not respond to reason, so now you will know fear." 

On the other hand— not driving Mowgli out of the jungle but trapping him into self-doubt—is Kaa the snake: "Don't you know what you are?" 

And what is Mowgli - this creature who cannot ever be a wolf, no matter how much he tries, but who is too free, too wild to inhabit the world of men?

The idea of a feral child has long fascinated us. Romulus and Remus, mythical founders of Rome, were raised by a she-wolf, and famous cases of wolf-men have been the subject of films by European auteurs like Truffaut and Herzog. 

The appeal of Kipling's tale is that it reverses the perspective to that of the jungle: so not wolf-child, but man-cub. Instead of a return to human society, Kipling imagines what it would be like to be taught the ways of the wilderness. And what has made his text persuasive for generations of children is the richness of his conviction that the wilderness has ways. The Law of the Jungle seems, if anything, more clear, more just, and infinitely more navigable than the changeable codes of human societies. The idea of a Water Truce that would allow all animals to access the river in dry season, or the resounding call to togetherness in "The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack": these explain why The Jungle Book's evocation of loyalty, honesty and codes of honour were a huge influence on Robert Baden-Powell, who founded the Boy Scouts. 

Sure, Kipling was a British imperialist in whose eyes there was no possible equivalence between brown people and white ones. But our response to that doesn't have to be a bar on reading him. It's much more profitable to read him critically but carefully, to read him and marvel at his ear for language, and his eye for the Indian world he grew up in. For one thing, he could often be funny. Here he is talking about small boys in Indian villages being sent out to graze the herds: "The very cattle that would trample a white man to death allow themselves to be banged and bullied and shouted at by children that hardly come up to their noses." And here he is making a snarky comparison between human dispute settlement and the jungle version: "One of the beauties of Jungle Law is that punishment settles all scores. There is no nagging afterward." 

If we are to insist on mapping the Jungle Book onto Kipling's real-life surroundings, then the "man-village" would have to be the British, and the jungle representative of Indians. But then we would need to account for the fact that Kipling's man-village, although armed with the ultimate weapon ("the red flower", i.e. fire), is prone to fear and exaggeration. It is the jungle folk who are heroes - not just because they live simply and keep their word, but because they are able to take a man-cub in.

Regardless of whether it challenges or confirms colonial stereotypes, much of the power of the Jungle Book lies in Mowgli's learning how he can belong to the jungle, yet not fear the things that come naturally to him as a man. What Mowgli offers, eventually, is a model of accepting the different parts of oneself.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 10 April 2016.

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