The Tamil film Kaadan, also known as Aranya in Telugu, released a few months back in the theatres. However, the Hindi version, called Haathi Mere Saathi, is finally out, having opted for a direct-to-video release on Zee Cinemas and also on Eros Now OTT platform.
Written and directed by Prabhu Solomon, the first few minutes allow us to take in the various sights and sounds of the luscious green jungle. We are then made privy to the themes of human destruction, animal cruelty and depleting forests, reminding us of the brilliant Amit Masurkar film Sherni. If forest officer Vidya Vincent, played with astonishing restraint by Vidya Balan, took up the cause of a displaced tigress, here we have Sumitranandan (known for the better part of the film with the sobriquet Bandev) waging the good fight for the survival of elephants.
But the similarities end here, and we soon realise that this one is going to be a vastly different film in its execution.
Unlike Amit Masurkar, who believes that one doesn’t need to shout to be heard, Haathi Mere Saathi is all about sermonising, preaching and angry growls.
A voiceover guides us through the initial frames, telling us about the close bond that Bandev shares with the jungle and its inhabitants. Computer graphics are used to superimpose names on the elephants, who go by Sharda, Megha and more. Bandev is always alert, ears perked up as he listens intently to check if all is fine in his pristine forest.
The peace is disturbed soon enough as a close-up of a JCB crushing a flower is inserted. CGI generated birds are agitated, elephants are angry and Bandev bellows. As a man who knows every nook and corner of the jungle and considers the wild animals to be family, Rana Daggubati plays Bandev with a rawness and unbridled energy. He is observant, moves his head in quick jerky movements and rages against the corrupt forces.
What the film is trying to convey is extremely valid, about how in the guise of development we are ruining the planet. In a way, Bandev’s character is a hat tip to the real forest man of India, Jaydev Payeng. But the whole process of getting to that point feels stretched, melodramatic and appears to be an unnecessary palaver.
What follows then are broad strokes. Bad politicians, corrupt officials and illegally usurped land for commercial gains. Muscle power and corruption make life difficult. Ananth Mahadevan plays a textbook-scheming politician. Shriya Pilgaonkar is the only journalist shown with a soul, and we get a fleeting glance of Sheeba Chaddha as a judge who orders Bandev to be incarcerated at a certain point. All this fulminating about villagers and elephants being displaced is fine, but the film also introduces characters and then appears to forget about them. For instance Zoya Hussain, who plays a Naxalite girl and believes in fighting against injustice. But she is given nothing substantial to do. The love angle introduced with a mahout, played with over-the-top histrionics by Pulkit Samrat, could have simply been done away with.
Certain quiet moments, when the camera just lets us look at the elephants who are trying to go about their natural habitat and seem confused and agitated by the commotion, are actually some of the more perceptive scenes. The intentions are commendable and Rana Daggubati gives it his all, but Haathi Mere Saathi remains stubbornly formulaic.
Our Rating: 2 Quints out of 5
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