The Biggest Star of All: The Elephant in Hindi Cinema
Journal: Religions of South Asia
In 2010, the Indian elephant (elephas maximus indica) was declared a National Heritage Animal, in view of its contribution to Indian culture and history. It is not surprising that the elephant features in Hindi film, but it is striking that it features in a range of genres, including the mythological, the historical, the social film and features in several children’s films, a rare genre in Indian cinema. In these films the elephant is shown to have a complex status, being divine, especially in association with the elephant-headed god Ganesha, as a moral and noble animal with human qualities, as well as a working animal participating in warfare and in circuses. The elephant’s qualities are often contrasted with those of humans, with the elephant always esteemed for its moral rectitude, its devotion, its dedication and its sense of joy. The elephant has names and characters but it does not appear as an animal outside the realms of humans and anthropomorphic gods (with even Ganesha having a humanlike body). However, although the Hindi film cannot feature the elephant’s current status as an endangered species whose only predator is man, it does create an interest and empathy for this symbolically significant animal. This article explores these representations in films, including animated films (My friend Ganesha, 2007), mythological films about Ganesha (Shri Ganesh Mahima, 1950); children’s films (Haathi mere saathi, 1971; Safed haathi, 1978); historical films (Mughal-e Azam, 1960; Jodhaa Akbar, 2008), and as a forestry worker (Munimji,1955; Pakeezah, 1971), including in one of the earliest feature films shot in India, which produced India’s first international star, Sabu: Elephant boy, 1937.
Author: Rachel Dwyer
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