For a certain generation of lovers of Hindi cinema, Haathi Mere Saathi, circa 1971 — the story of an orphan’s relationship with four elephants — has a special resonance. Rajesh Khanna at the top of his game, Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s version of ‘Baby Elephant Walk’, Kishore Kumar’s immortal songs, including that anthemic Chal chal chal mere saathi, and a kitschy idiom that was quintessential 1970s. If nothing else, Prabu Solomon’s film echoes that same over-the-top aesthetic.
The world may have changed in these 50 years, the gold-biscuit smugglers may have metamorphosed into self-serving politicians, bureaucrats and greedy MNCs, the hero’s concerns may have evolved from the personal to the ecological and environmental, yet when Bandev [Rana Daggubati] is declared insane and administered electric shock for daring to go against the might of the state — a sequence straight out of ’70s Hindi cinema — the decades stood still for me. And much of how Haathi Mere Saathi, circa 2021, plays out is a throwback to a lost era of filmmaking, a potpourri of unintentionally funny scenes randomly and incoherently strung together.
Bandev, literally God of the Forest, we are told, has planted more than a lakh trees. For three generation, his family has been taking care of the forest lands in this unspecified, unnamed region of the country infested with Naxals. He understands the language of the inmates of the forest and raves and rants (Daggubati sounding like Amitabh Bachchan in his latter-day ‘hain’ mode) about the importance of elephant dung and its effect on the ecology. When a politician [Anant Mahadevan] sends in a greedy real-estate shark to create a modern township, uprooting the protected reserve, Bandev rises as a messiah to take on the system.
There’s a brother-sister Naxal duo, Arav [Bhuvan Arora] and Aarvi [Zoya Hussain], in the mix, as also a journalist [Shriya Pilgaonkar], who calls her father from the forest to get her laptop (!) and a mahout, Shankar [Pulkit Sharma]. Shankar starts off working for the government, proceeds to fall in love with Aarvi (in a laughably bad romantic plot point with incongruous comedy by his sidekick), has a change of heart after his adorable elephant dies and he sees the error of his ways, and ends up receiving a ‘laal salaam’ from his comrades. That’s more or less what I could fathom from this cacophonous apology of a script that operates by the dictum of ‘anything goes’.
I am told that the character of Bandev is modelled after environmental activist Jadav Payeng, ordained the ‘Forest Man of India’ by President Abdul Kalam. I am sure Mr Payeng will be thrilled, particularly given the superhero stunts Bandev executes in a chase sequence that would have done James Bond proud — pursuing a bag snatcher and his cronies, who keep passing the bag in a variation of a relay race, Bandev leaps on to the top of a bus, jumps on to a car, smashing its windscreen, and finally slides under a speeding 16-wheeler to emerge from the other side and catch the culprit. Mr Payeng’s real-life exploits and forestation drives must have been a walk in the park in comparison.
This is just one of the many ludicrous sequences the film brims over with. And all this in service of what the filmmakers insist, and the characters keep hammering, is a ‘film with an important message’. Saving the elephants and the environment is a welcome mission. But it is the film that is in dire need of saving here from the incompetence of its makers, and failing that, the viewer who has to endure 160 minutes of this unmitigated mess.
Title: Haathi Mere Saathi
Cast: Rana Daggubati, Zoya Hussain, Shriya Pilgaonkar, Pulkit Samrat, Anant Mahadevan
Director: Prabu Solomon
Platform: Eros Now
Rating: 1 star
(Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is an award-winning publisher, editor and a film buff)