Director: Chuck Russell
Cast: Vidyut Jammwal, Makarand Deshpande, Asha Bhat, Pooja Sawant
Junglee is an eco-message film that begins with the famous quote by Thomas Schmidt – No one in the world needs an elephant tusk but an elephant. It ends with a plea that we stop buying ivory because that would effectively put an end to elephant hunting. The intentions and sentiments are admirable. So are the elephants we see – male, female, adult, children. These gentle giants are a wondrous sight – large and majestic and yet so vulnerable. Director Chuck Russell captures them in their full glory. The film makes them anthropomorphic, which means that they have human traits and emotions. Which is why we emotionally invest in them. With kind eyes and wide, flapping ears, the elephants are flat-out gorgeous. Honestly, it was harder to watch them die than the human characters onscreen.
And that is the problem with this film. The elephants are on point but the humans have the depth of cartoon characters. Vidyut Jammwal plays Raj, a vet who can probe the inner emotions of any non-human – from macaw parrots to pythons to elephants. Because he grew up in the jungle where his parents run an elephant sanctuary. Raj is the animal whisperer – he can effortlessly communicate with all of them. Atul Kulkarni is the standard issue villain – a sadistic hunter who kills not for money but for the thrill of the game. Theatre thespian Makarand Deshpande is the Yoda-like Gaja Guru who teaches kalaripayattu and tells his students – shrishti se baath karna seekho. He also has a key scene that I think is meant to be spiritual but only serves as unintentional comedy. For all we know, he was also giggling behind that terrible wig and beard. There are also two leading ladies – Asha Bhat and Pooja Sawant – but neither makes much of an impression. That might also be the fault of the script – one plays a journalist who mostly reacts to the action around her with lines like, “Dude that was amazing.” The other is a mahout in the jungle who somehow manages to look after elephants without messing up her shiny hair and lipstick.
The narrative is mostly designed to serve Vidyut. The actor has an impressive physique and Chuck creates ample scenes to showcase it. Raj even swims with elephants and stands on top of one in all his bare-chested glory. The rest of us can only dream of his zero-fat toughness. Undoubtedly, Vidyut carries off the action sequences, which he also helped create, with conviction. You never doubt that he could indeed do the things that he is doing. But even a simplistic, broad stokes story like this needs more. Chuck manages to keep the balance in the first half with an emotional thread between Raj and his father and Raj’s return after 10 years to the sanctuary. But post-interval, it becomes an all-out Vidyut show – there is literally nothing that Raj can’t do. Even with his hands cuffed, he beats three opponents. And while the baddies need weapons, Raj makes do with whatever is lying around – chairs, ladders, crates, even electric wires. The writing is surprisingly dull given the names on duty here – Rohan Sippy has a credit. So does Akshat Ghildial, who wrote the screenplay and dialogue for Badhaai Ho and Ritesh Shah who wrote Pink.
Let me be clear – I didn’t go in looking for complexity. Junglee could’ve played like a fun action adventure. One of my fondest childhood memories is watching Haathi Mere Saathi which had Rajesh Khanna cavorting with four elephants. I don’t remember what the film was about but I remember the delight I felt when I saw it. I was really hoping that Junglee would recreate some of that magic.
Since then, the elephants have gotten more impressive. The rest, not so much. I’m going with two stars.