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Mahout Couple of Oscar-winning ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ Allege Financial Exploitation by Documentary Makers

Mahout Couple of Oscar-winning ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ Allege Financial Exploitation by Documentary Makers

  • Bomman and Bellie have sent a legal notice to makers, Sikhya Entertainment, and director Kartiki Gonsalves for not keeping the promise of a house, car, a lump sum in cash and their granddaughter’s education.

The mahout couple featured in the Oscar-winning documentary “The Elephant Whisperers” has reportedly sent a legal notice to makers Sikhya Entertainment and director Kartiki Gonsalves, accusing them of financial exploitation. Bomman and Bellie, who look after young elephant calves in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu, told The Hindu that Gonsalves had “promised” them a house, car, and a lump sum in cash for the time they spent on the project. They were also promised payment for the education of their granddaughter, and are demanding approximately $241000 from Gonsalves as a “goodwill gesture,” they told the newspaper. The duo were “subjected to difficult situations during the making of the documentary,” they said, adding that they “spent a large sum of money to cover the expenses of the shoot.”

According to The Hindu, “the allegation came a day after the Tamil Nadu government appointed Bellie as the first permanent woman elephant caretaker at Theppakadu elephant camp in the Nilgiris region.” The couple was also scheduled to meet Indian President Droupadi Murmu during her three-day visit to Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.

Gonsalves’ documentary highlighted Bomman and Bellie’s intimate and loving relationship with baby elephant Raghu. At the same time it “depicts how climate change and human encroachment are rapidly destroying the habitats of Asian elephants,” The Guardian noted. “The film’s Oscar win was a feelgood moment for many Indians, and the couple became famous overnight, prompting celebrities and politicians to lavish praise and seek photo opportunities.”

Meanwhile, in a statement sent to Indian media, responding to the allegations, Sikhya Entertainment and Gonsalves refuted all claims. “We have deep respect for all of the contributors of this story, and remain driven by the desire to create positive change,” the statement read. Noting that their “goal” in creating the documentary “has always been to highlight elephant conservation, the tremendous efforts of the Forest Department and its mahouts Bomman and Bellie,” it has “raised awareness of the cause and had a real impact on the Mahouts and Cavadis community.” It noted how Tamil Nadi chief minister M.K. Stalin, “has made donations towards assisting the 91 Mahouts and Cavadis who look after the state’s elephants, constructing eco-friendly houses for the caretakers and developing an Elephant Camp in the Anamalai Tiger Reserve.”

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Chennai-based social activist Pravin Raj, a lawyer by profession, told the PTI that he had known the couple for almost a decade, and put them in touch with a law firm in Chennai when the couple approached him. “Both Bomman and Bellie are disappointed with Gonsalves, who had promised them monetary help as well as help with the education of Bellie’s granddaughter while making the film,” he said. “But she now refuses to give even a fraction of the enormous profits made by the film.” Advocate Mohammed Mansoor who is handling the case told PTI that he received a reply notice from Sikhya Entertainment Pvt. Ltd., on behalf of Gonsalves four days ago. “In that, she has flatly refused any more help stating that she has already given money to the couple. I will be sending her a rejoinder in a couple of days after consulting with my clients.”

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