I watched The Jungle Book for the first time in Bengaluru.
A successful animation film with several re-releases to its credit, I saw the movie in the early 1980s. It was screened at Rex Theatre on Brigade Road. I recalled this ahead of watching the film’s 2016 version at Mumbai’s Sterling Theatre, replete with 3D animation and contemporary movie stars providing voice to the characters. Further, keeping aside Jason Scott Lee’s Mowgli from the 1994 version, the main protagonist of Rudyard Kipling’s book was a human being on screen and not an animated character. While some people have said that the old 2D animated version is their preferred benchmark, things have changed for me – I embrace Jon Favreau’s creation as benchmark in my times with one difference: I thought Baloo’s song (The Bare Necessities) was more enjoyable in the earlier film. Maybe it’s because I was a lot younger then, less cynical, less critical and more spontaneous. Years later, as life took its twists and turns, among them bringing me to the outdoors and the mountains – I have often wondered: if not the bare necessities, what is it that I am seeking?
One knew that after Richard Parker, the tiger in Life of Pi, Shere Khan would be convincing despite animation. What one did not anticipate was Idris Elba. His Shere Khan remains for me, a force haunting Kipling’s jungle. From the menace Elba creates, flows the dark, ominous mood of the film, a trait that sets it apart from the more child friendly approach of the earlier version. But then, today’s child growing up with smartphone, is also arguably a more media immersed junior, for whom the earlier film may at best be fodder for a submission in class on how technology evolved. Of the people who voiced the characters in the earlier movie, only George Sanders was known to us at that time. In days preceding the Internet, old film magazines brought home Hollywood and Sanders was there in some of the issues I used to thumb through. Even then, a few of the voice actors in The Jungle Book, including Sanders, were no more by the time the curtain raised that evening at Rex Theatre. In the 2016 version, I could appreciate the main voices for these were actors of my time. I could also appreciate what seemed to me paradoxical choices that clicked beautifully. Thus for instance, Ben Kingsley’s voice – even and measured in how it registers aurally, seemed apt choice for Bagheera. Christopher Walken as King Loius – I wasn’t sure. Till I experienced it and felt the psychopath sort of terror – so not Shere Khan like – that Walken’s laidback, negotiator of a voice can bring. Bill Murray as Baloo was a breeze. What didn’t convince was Kaa, the python. It had one mesmerizing scene all to itself and then, was gone.
Above all, this will be for me a Neel Sethi movie. After seeing the earlier version, I was left with memories of Bagheera, Shere Khan and Baloo. With the 2016 version, Mowgli joins that list. Sethi does not essay his role harking of innocence. He brings an element of smart contemporary youngster to the frame, creating in the process, a bridge between city and jungle. I suspect, for a generation experiencing The Jungle Book in the age of reading’s progressive decline and walking as they do through its plot with Sethi’s Mowgli for company, Favreau and Disney may have replaced Kipling as creator of the story. In the business of making an impression, that is a measure of how effective you were.
In the latter half of the 1980s, I saw a remarkable film at a film festival in Thiruvananthapuram. I went to see The Mission because of Robert De Niro but came off knowing the talents of Roland Joffe and Jeremy Irons as well. For me, Irons is among the great classically trained British actors of his generation; the sort with commanding screen-presence. Indeed in his case, that presence literally lurks in the frame waiting to explode. A few things define the Irons of cinema – an apparent discipline, intensity and voice. It is hard to have him in a supporting role and not lose the film to him. But if you are a film buff, you don’t mind that for losing a film to an actor of Irons’ calibre is rarely a bad experience. That’s what happened with Race; that’s what happened with The Man Who Knew Infinity. In the latter, it also helped flesh out and establish the respective characters of G.H. Hardy (played by Irons) and S. Ramanujan (played by Dev Patel), not just for the individuals they were but also the backdrops shaping them.
I do not know much about Ramanujan beyond what I gleaned of him from the film. In the movie, he comes across as gifted in an almost mystic way; his mathematics by intuition versus Hardy’s math by proof, his tendency to spontaneously get started on equations and that dialogue – that his goddess, Namagiri, puts numbers on his tongue. There is always a bit of struggle in how the visual arts and directors, actors therein, portray genius. A similar struggle exists in The Man Who Knew Infinity and Ramanujan occasionally felt contrived. At times the mathematician’s earnestness, isolation and genius seemed tad overboard in the portrayal. But then like I said, I don’t know how Ramanujan behaved in real life. Those who researched know best. Wikipedia describes Ramanujan as an autodidact, a person who is self-taught. A lacuna to my mind, in the film, was the dearth of material on how Ramanujan reached the level of proficiency in mathematics he had by the time he wished to publish. That proficiency may have drawn much from things deeply experiential, like the relationship between self and ecosystem with math embedded in its living traditions. Equally, in conservative society with life and lifestyle rigidly defined, the abstract world of numbers may become a liberating private refuge. All this went unexplored in the film, which starts with the adult Ramanujan finding a mentor in his boss, Narayana Iyer.
Matthew Brown’s movie was more about the Hardy-Ramanujan-Cambridge equation. Not for a minute am I saying that the Cambridge chapter is unimportant or uninteresting. The characters in that chapter have been presented well; the ambiance created by Hardy, J. E. Littlewood and Bertrand Russell is wonderful. Had it not been for them, we won’t have Ramanujan the way he is known today. Still, Cambridge is where the man was vindicated; he was formed elsewhere. Can a story of genius vindicated be complete if the formation of genius is not explored? This film deserves to be seen. Reports said that the movie was a challenge to make because funding was hard to come by. It is a good effort and as usual, Irons is a class act.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)