About the author
Rachel Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London and teaches undergraduate and postgraduate courses in cinema. View Rachel’s website and publications here
My main work is research, publication and teaching about Hindi cinema but my other great interest is in the Asian elephant in India. I’ve published papers looking at the elephant in Hindi cinema (with special reference to Haathi mere saathi/My elephant friends), surveying elephants in Indian literature, and examined the rise of the temple of Siddhivinayak (a special form of Ganesh) in Mumbai/Bombay . I’ve reviewed some wonderful books about elephants for the TLS: historical studies, a novel and a book on Elephant Bill. I’ve been to wildlife parks and met elephants and their mahouts through friends. Above all, I have learnt a huge amount from conversations with friends in India, especially with a number of Bangalore-based researchers who I suspect would rather I didn’t name them. We had a wonderful elephant conference in Bangalore in 2016 co-organised by my university, SOAS University of London, and the Indian Institute of Science which cemented many friendships. I’m still in the early days of my research but look forward to focusing on it in another couple of years as my desk is cleared.
I am particularly interested in Indian ways of thinking about elephants (and animals more widely) and what we can learn from these in order to benefit elephants as well as the people who come into contact with them. The boundaries between humans, animals and gods are highly porous, and a serious study of these questions through texts and images is likely to yield new material.
For my first contribution to this site, I respond to initial viewings of the trailers I have seen of Tim Burton’s forthcoming film Dumbo, inspired by Disney’s classic ‘Dumbo’ (1941), itself based on a novel, almost 80 years after the original movie. What does it tell us about American ways of seeing the elephant today?
It is hard to remake a classic but this remake seems justified by the use of technology in animation. The story of Dumbo is a fairytale or a myth about a calf or a child who is rejected for being different from their peers but whose difference ultimately brings them fame and acclaim. This common story structure is seen in genres such as the biopic which begin with struggle and rejection but where goodness and exceptionalism ultimately lead to success. Such films are even more enchanting when the lead is a baby elephant whose distinctive feature is his huge ears. Dumbo – as the mean elephants dub Jumbo Jr – doesn’t speak except with his humanlike eyes and gestures.
The earlier movie was made in the 1940s where elephants were performing tricks in circuses and popular knowledge saw them as wise but clumsy, often comical, animals. Their complex social structures and powers of cognition were known only to those who worked closely with them but all elephants in America were captives. These elephants were said to be ‘domesticated’, which we now know to be untrue, as we are aware that the training of circus elephants mostly involves unspeakable brutality.
In Dumbo we see elephants anthropomorphised. Dumbo is a cute baby with human eyes, devoted to his doting mother, who sings ‘Baby Mine’ but otherwise only says his name. Her imprisonment as a mad elephant when she defends her calf, is heartbreaking and anyone who doesn’t need to blink when she caresses a weeping Dumbo as she puts her trunk through the bars, must lack all empathy. The film shows the other female elephants as spiteful and bullying towards the ‘unmarried’ mother – male and female elephants don’t form couples – rather than the elephant herd’s celebration of mating and birth, and the role they would take as caring allomothers in the wild. However, the elephants talking to one another may be more realistic than people knew at the time as science has shown complicated elephant voices. The elephant may look different, but their behaviour is mostly human.
Dumbo’s best friend is Timothy Q. Mouse, the tiny animal of which the elephant is supposedly frightened. The mouse, perhaps following the even more famous Micky, is a good guy who supports the friendless baby elephant and teaches him to believe in himself. Although he is seen in the trailer, I have no idea about the crows, who have often been seen as racist portrayals of African Americans. I can’t believe that the film can lose ‘The day I see an elephant fly’ as one of the great songs of the film.
I hope that the film will not show something that was normal many years ago, namely elephants in the circus, but will underline that it’s ridiculous to see an endangered species performing silly tricks forced to live as a captive in gruesome conditions. Perhaps the film can be used to draw attention to videos of ‘training’ – beating and abuse –to remind us why elephants don’t belong in the circus but we can enjoy seeing them in digital formats – pink elephants, lullaby-singing elephants and flying elephants.