The Elephant Whisperers is a Moving Look at Found Family
One of the elephants from the documentary short by Kartiki Gonsalves has a trail of blue painted dots framing its orange eye.

The Elephant Whisperers

An intimate new documentary gives us an inside look at life with elephants.

24 January 20233 min read

Elephants have a deeply empathetic hold on the human imagination — they’re the species that never forgets, the graceful giants that feel such strong emotion that they’ve been known to mourn the death of loved ones. But what would it be like to really live with them, as a person? 

The Elephant Whisperers tells the story of Bellie and Bomman, a couple from the Kattunayakan people who live in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in South India raising, nurturing, and protecting two orphan elephants, Raghu and Ammu. The documentary short, directed by Kartiki Gonsalves, is a surprisingly raw look at the real lives of elephants and their caregivers, an intimacy made possible by Bellie and Bomman’s love and fellowship with their animal charges. “Only people who live close to elephants,” Bellie tells her granddaughter in one scene, “know about elephants — that they show love when you show love.”

The Elephant Whisperers is also, it turns out, a story about family. Bellie — who Bomman describes as “the only woman currently assigned to care for baby elephants in Tamil Nadu” — shares that her daughter has recently died. Bomman, a third-generation elephant caregiver, Bellie, Raghu, and Ammu become an almost domesticated unit. Says Bellie, “We have become a family around Raghu, and we think that’s why he survived.” 

Bomman, wearing a brown shirt and a yellow scarf around his head, stands next to Raghu, the elephant.

Bomann and Raghu

There’s bath time, bedtime, breakfast, and dinner, with Raghu trying to charm Bellie into letting him skip the nutritious millet ball and head right to dessert: mashed coconut with sweet jaggery. Bomman, a third-generation elephant caregiver, chimes in: “Why aren’t you eating, naughty boy?” There’s even a makeshift game of soccer here and there, and we see an elephant’s trunk turns out to be perfect for batting around a ball. On one special day, they even dress Raghu up in flowers and face paint to celebrate Lord Ganesha, and, like any kid, Raghu fusses with his fancy getup and playfully resists mom and dad scrubbing him up. Bellie even remembers that when she lost her daughter, Raghu came and wiped away her tears. Now, she sees her child in Raghu. 

Beautifully shot by directors of photography Karan Thapliyal, Anand Bansal, and Krish Makhijas, as well as Gonsalves, the film blends incredible footage of jungle creatures with poignant imagery of the caregivers’ extraordinary daily lives: scraping beehives from the edge of a steep cliff, walking elephants through verdant groves, preparing heaping buckets of food to address each animal’s particular diet. 

The film is paced to relish each moment of life on the reserve, away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. We see the love Bellie and Bomman feel for Raghu and Ammu through modest but impactful shots — Bellie sharing his umbrella with Raghu on a rainy day or preparing his milk by firelight, and Raghu telling the entire story through his deep, contented eyes. This vulnerable portrait of life with the elephants will leave you deeply touched (don’t be surprised at the very real possibility of shedding a tear or two), with a chance to get ever so close — at least as close as you can through a screen — to this gracious, glorious animal, and its loving caregivers.