I did not grow up with Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" -- either adaptations or the original story -- but my son has really gotten attached to the 1967 Disney animated film version of the story, and it's gotten me interested in both it and Kipling himself.
The biggest attraction for us initially were the great jazz/swing songs that were made for this particular version: Bare Necessities, Colonel Hathi, and I Wanna Be Like You (with the great Louis Prima on vocals).
My wife grew up in India, watching Indian television, and she says she has fond memories of the Hindi animated version of "The Jungle Book," which you can also see on YouTube here. It's a cartoon serial meant for kids, which means the story kind of branches off on its own. Still, it made me curious: do readers know whether Kipling's "The Jungle Book" is popular in South Asian languages? Are there readers who grew up in South Asia hearing the Kipling stories about Mowgli, Bagheera, Bhalu, Shere Khan, etc.? (Or, growing up abroad, did your parents tell you these stories in a "desi" context?)
I somehow didn't know about the Disney songs growing up, and it's too bad, because both my son and myself are now thoroughly addicted to them. Looking at the music a bit critically, I was earlier a little put off by "I wanna be like you," where I initially thought the singer was Louis Armstrong. The idea of a monkey-king, who liberally throws around African-American slang, kidnapping the "man cub," in order to learn the secret of being human, seemed a little uncomfortably like an allegory of race relations in the real world:
Now I'm the king of the swingers
Oh, the jungle VIP
I've reached the top and had to stop
And that's what botherin' me
I wanna be a man, man-cub
And stroll right into town
And be just like the other men
I'm tired of monkeyin' around!
Oh, oobee doo
I wanna be like you
I wanna walk like you
Talk like you, too
You'll see it's true
An ape like me
Can learn to be human too
It's hard not to think of the analogous human race-mimicry situation: "I wanna be like you/ I wanna walk like you/ Talk like you, too" could be the voice of an under-class minority asking the "man" for access to privileges (here, embodied in the technology of "man's red flower," fire) that make him supreme over the rest of society. It's a little better that the singer is Italian-American rather than African-American, but there's still a slightly off-putting race angle here if you're looking for it. (I'm sure some readers will think I'm reading too much into this.)
Also, just to be clear, I still play this music for my kid all the time, and have no qualms about doing so. I also don't mind that "The Jungle Book" is a good excuse to teach him a few Hindi words: Bagheera, Akela, Shere, Bhalu, Hathi, Bandar, etc. As I riff on the stories with my son, I'm also trying to sneak in some new ones, which Kipling doesn't use: Gainda (rhinoceros), Bheriya (wolf), Magar-much (crocodile).
Some of the race stuff, of course, comes directly from Kipling's other writing. As people who know his other works are already aware, Kipling was obsessed with race (this is the guy who invented the term, "white man's burden," among many other things). He was born in India and spent his first few years there, before being sent to England for boarding school, as was the norm in late Victorian British India. Though he hated his experience in boarding school, he still always thought of England as "home" -- and strongly supported the British Imperial project in India.
As a young man, Kipling returned to India to work as a journalist, and lived mainly with his family in Lahore. He published his first short stories (mainly on the Anglo-Indian community in India) in the newspaper he wrote for, and frequently used material related to his journalism work as fodder. His father, John Lockwood Kipling, was the principal of the art school in Lahore for many years, as well as the curator of the Lahore Museum (Lockwood Kipling is the model for the museum curator in the opening chapters of Kim, incidentally). Some part of Rudyard's interest in animals in India -- which would later nourish one of the best-selling children's books of all time -- probably came directly from his father, who drew and wrote about India's animal life himself in a beautifully-illustrated early book, called "Beast and Man in India". (And Rudyard Kipling's original published version of "The Jungle Book" has great illustrations by John Lockwood Kipling.)
Kipling's own The Jungle Book is a little different in structure from the Disney adaptation of his story. For one thing, the Disney version only uses material from the first three chapters of Kipling's book; "The White Seal," "Servants of the Queen," and "Rikki-tikki-tavi" go in different directions. "The White Seal," for instance, isn't even based on an Indian jungle, but rather involves seals in a northern ocean.
Even in the "Mowgli" chapters, there is a big difference in the fact that, in Kipling's story, Mowgli actually meets his mother and lives in the human village for a time, before being excommunicated because of his ability to talk to wolves ("Tiger-Tiger"). Disney doesn't get into this potentially dark situation (i.e., the boy being forced to separate from his mother by a mob of angry villagers who are ready to stone him to death), and rather chooses to end with just a hint of Mowgli's repatriation into human society and inevitable future adulthood preoccupations -- as he ogles a village girl getting water from the river.
There are other differences too. Kipling's story is more unabashedly violent, and the most dramatic story arc in Kipling's version in my reading is the battle against the monkey-people, which ends with hundreds of dead monkeys. The killing of Shere Khan via a strategically arranged stampede of cattle in Kipling is somewhat anti-climactic by comparison to the stormy fight sequence between Bhalu and Shere Khan in the Disney film.
In Kipling, the society of the Jungle has several different respectable species who adhere to the "Law," including Bagheera the panther, the wolves, Kaa the snake, Balu the bear, and Chil the kite. Shere Khan, the Tiger, behaves a little like an Oriental despot, whom the other people of the Jungle are right to want to depose.
By contrast to the animals who follow the law, the Monkey-people ("Bandar-Log") are sociologically anarchic:
"Listen, man-cub," said the Bear, and his voice rumbled like thunder on a hot night. "I have taught thee all the Law of the Jungle for all the peoples of the jungle—except the Monkey-Folk who live in the trees. They have no law. They are outcasts. They have no speech of their own, but use the stolen words which they overhear when they listen, and peep, and wait up above in the branches. Their way is not our way. They are without leaders. They have no remembrance. They boast and chatter and pretend that they are a great people about to do great affairs in the jungle, but the falling of a nut turns their minds to laughter and all is forgotten. We of the jungle have no dealings with them. We do not drink where the monkeys drink; we do not go where the monkeys go; we do not hunt where they hunt; we do not die where they die. Hast thou ever heard me speak of the Bandar-log till today?"
"No," said Mowgli in a whisper, for the forest was very still now Baloo had finished.
"The Jungle-People put them out of their mouths and out of their minds. They are very many, evil, dirty, shameless, and they desire, if they have any fixed desire, to be noticed by the Jungle People. But we do not notice them even when they throw nuts and filth on our heads."
He had hardly spoken when a shower of nuts and twigs spattered down through the branches; and they could hear coughings and howlings and angry jumpings high up in the air among the thin branches.
"The Monkey-People are forbidden," said Baloo, "forbidden to the Jungle-People. Remember."
"Forbidden," said Bagheera, "but I still think Baloo should have warned thee against them."
"I—I? How was I to guess he would play with such dirt. The Monkey People! Faugh!"
Because they have no social hierarchy, no memory, and above all, no "law," the other animals treat them as "outcasts" (loaded choice of terms!). The Bandar-log themselves treat the other animals with contempt. (I don't see an obvious "race" angle here, incidentally, though it does seem like there is a rationale for Imperialism: the people who follow the Law are justified in either excluding or attacking those who do not.)
When the Bandar-Log kidnap Mowgli, they take him, interestingly, to an abandoned, formerly human-occupied city in the middle of the jungle. Their reasons for kidnapping him are given as follows:
They never meant to do any more—the Bandar-log never mean anything at all; but one of them invented what seemed to him a brilliant idea, and he told all the others that Mowgli would be a useful person to keep in the tribe, because he could weave sticks together for protection from the wind; so, if they caught him, they could make him teach them. Of course Mowgli, as a woodcutter's child, inherited all sorts of instincts, and used to make little huts of fallen branches without thinking how he came to do it. The Monkey-People, watching in the trees, considered his play most wonderful. This time, they said, they were really going to have a leader and become the wisest people in the jungle—so wise that everyone else would notice and envy them. Therefore they followed Baloo and Bagheera and Mowgli through the jungle very quietly till it was time for the midday nap, and Mowgli, who was very much ashamed of himself, slept between the Panther and the Bear, resolving to have no more to do with the Monkey People.
The motivation parallels, roughly, the "I wanna be like you" song in the Disney version of "The Jungle Book," except here the focus is not so much on the "Red Flower" of fire, but on adopting Mowgli as a king who would bring "civilization" to the Bandar-Log.
(It's hard not to think of Hanuman and the monkey-warriors of the Ramayana when reading Kipling's description of the "Bandar-Log." In the Ramayana, of course, they are loyal servants of Rama and brave warriors; in Kipling they also seem to have anthropomorphic qualities, but have none of the positive attributes one sees in the Hindu epic.)
Labels: Colonialism, Empire, Literature
Disney and the director Jon Favreau have done a spectacular job of realising their new version of The Jungle Book using the sort of sophisticated digital effects familiar from Life of Pi. The only human visible on screen in Favreau’s movie is the man-cub Mowgli, played by the 10-year-old newcomer Neel Sethi. He fraternises convincingly with computer-generated animals including Bagheera the Panther (Ben Kingsley) and the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba).
What no one involved in the project seems to have noticed is the irony of putting all this expensive, cutting-edge technology in the service of a story which sentimentalises the primitivism lurking within civilisation. It’s rather like cooking an enormous fry-up to mark the start of Healthy Eating Week, or throwing a decadent bash to promote austerity.
The notion of a child growing up among beasts did not begin with Mowgli. In fact, it is deeply rooted in ancient culture and mythology: Romulus and Remus were said to have been raised by wolves, while Zeus was suckled by a goat, which was really his foster-mother Amalthea in animal form. Still, it’s Mowgli who has become the most enduring incarnation of this idea.
It was, of course, Rudyard Kipling who created him. Mowgli appeared in eight of the 15 stories spread across two volumes of The Jungle Book between 1893 and 1895. In 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote Tarzan, where similar ideas were worked out in maturity. Mowgli is a boy brought up among wolves, Tarzan a man happiest in the company of apes, but each serves as a repository for our most stubborn fantasies about who we might be underneath our civilised façade.
That new versions of both stories are released this year – The Legend of Tarzan opens in the summer, with Alexander Sarsgård of True Blood representing surely the best chance yet for the loincloth to catch on in polite society – indicates that the tensions explored in them are far from resolved. And in 2018, there will be yet another Jungle Book, this time with motion-capture performances from Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan and Christian Bale as Bagheera.
It goes without saying that Kipling is a problematic, imperialist writer. “It is no use pretending that Kipling’s view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilised person,” wrote George Orwell in 1942. But Mowgli himself has managed to emerge unscathed from any controversy about the imperialist overtones of The Jungle Book, thanks in no small part to the 1967 Disney adaptation.
It is as the impish, inquisitive hero of the earlier film, with a mop of unruly black hair, that most audiences know Mowgli. His chirpy tones were provided by the son of the film’s director, Wolfgang Reitherman. Bruce Reitherman was 12 when he was drafted in at the 11th hour after the original Mowgli’s voice broke during the four-year production.
Disney’s first Mowgli is an enchanting creature who diverges from the Kipling version in all but his initial innocence. When he appears in Mowgli’s Brothers (the opening story of The Jungle Book, though it was written after In the Rukh, which portrays Mowgli as an adult), he is “a naked brown baby … as soft and as dimpled a little atom as ever came to a wolf’s cave at night”. But even in that first story, the innate superiority of man is stated with a harshness that will startle anyone whose only image of Mowgli comes courtesy of Disney.
This vengeful, strutting Mowgli, who puts down an insurrection among his critics (“[He] thrust his dead branch into the fire … and whirled it above his head among the cowering wolves”), has been successfully expunged from all screen versions of the character. So it’s chastening to return to the text and find that he is both cognisant of his own power and unafraid to exercise it: “He took his place at the Council Rock … when the Pack met, and there he discovered that if he stared hard at any wolf, the wolf would be forced to drop his eyes, and so he used to stare for fun.” Even Bagheera, one of his closest friends, cannot hold his gaze for long. “Mowgli looked at him steadily between the eyes. The big panther turned his head away in half a minute.”
There is none of this in the first film incarnation of Mowgli, in the 1942 screen version of The Jungle Book. He is played here by the enchanting Indian actor Sabu, whose own background blurred for western audiences with the exoticism of the role. Sabu (who was only ever billed by that name, but whose full name was either Sabu Dastagir or Selar Shaik Sabu) was discovered by Robert Flaherty, who was casting in the late 1920s for a child to play the lead in a film of another of the Jungle Book stories, Toomai of the Elephants.
Sabu was an elephant driver, or mahout, for the Maharajah of Mysore; he had been taken in as a stable boy at the age of six. He was 11 when Flaherty clapped eyes on him riding an elephant. His buoyant charm transferred wonderfully to the screen in Elephant Boy, which opens with him talking breezily straight to camera for two minutes. When that picture’s producer, Alexander Korda, came to make The Jungle Book, Sabu, now 18, was an obvious fit for Mowgli.
The effects in the 1942 version are rudimentary; at one point, Mowgli grapples with a tiger that would be more at home in Toys R Us. But the image of a boy torn between the jungle and the man village, where he attracts the attention of the village elder’s daughter, was true to the story’s internal tensions between savagery and civilisation.
These opposing forces are not always where one would expect to find them. It is the supposedly primitive Mowgli, for instance, who points out the callousness of hunting for sport (he is aghast to discover a rug made from the skin of a bear with whom he once went fishing) and mocks the trophy of a tiger’s head mounted on the wall. “That tiger was old,” he laughs, undermining the hunter’s triumph. “He must have died in his sleep.”
There were no Jungle Book films made between Disney’s gem and a new version by the studio in 1994 (grandly titled Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book), which wasn’t animated in either sense of the word. But a similar narrative surfaced in other forms. Francois Truffaut’s 1969 film The Wild Child was based on the real-life case of Victor of Aveyron, who was discovered living in the woods in late 18th century France and inducted into society by the physician Jean Marc Gaspard Itard. In 1975, Werner Herzog made The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, based on another factual case, this time concerning an adult foundling who materialised in a village in early 19th-century Germany.
In both instances, the casting process contributed to the on-screen authenticity. Truffaut hired Jean-Pierre Cargol, a young non-professional boy from the Romany community, as Victor, while Herzog chose Bruno S, who spent most of his adolescence in mental institutions, to play Kaspar. Though the effect could have been tasteless, the compassionate, sensitive direction of Truffaut (who cast himself as Itard, taking Cargol under his wing on-screen as well as off) and Herzog (who already had a track record in sympathetic portrayals of outsiders) made the actors seem understood rather than exploited.
Their performances, if that’s the right word for what may simply have been reality modulated for the camera, were certainly more compelling than the one given by Jodie Foster in the 1994 film Nell, about a grown woman discovered living wild and communicating in her own language. The distributor provided a glossary of “Nellish” words but critics were sceptical about the suggestion that this innocent (dubbed “Bride of Gump” by one wag) could impart wisdom to the rest of humanity. Referring to the film’s mix of the rough-hewn and the homespun, the late Philip French dubbed the movie The Little Hauser on the Prairie.
Each interpretation of the wild child story inevitably reveals something about the era in which it was made. The 1994 version of The Jungle Book, with Jason Scott Lee as Mowgli, seeks to right the wrongs of the original stories by casting imperialist Brits as the baddies. “What have we here? A savage!” proclaims the upper-class bullyboy who is perturbed to find Mowgli in civilised society, before prescribing for the man-cub “a lesson in manners”. All very comforting for our more enlightened times, but it rather takes the biscuit that the film uses Kipling’s name in its title while disavowing the more inconvenient parts of his philosophy.
The new Jungle Book alludes gently to Kipling’s central point that Mowgli, and man in general, is seen as an inevitable threat to jungle life. After all, there was only one reason why the animals in Kipling’s story preferred not to put humans on the menu: “Man-killing means, sooner or later, the arrival of white men on elephants, with guns, and hundreds of brown men with gongs and rockets and torches. Then everybody in the jungle suffers.”
Mowgli may represent lost innocence and purity to us, but to the animals in the story he is an obscure symbol of the evil men do. Perhaps there can never be an honest Jungle Book until Mowgli himself is brought fully to book in the jungle.