As the lush 3D landscape of a jungle "somewhere in India" rolled across the screen in my small-town cinema (also somewhere in India), I had a moment of panic. "What if they've fucked it up?" It was a strangely timed thought, since I had already watched Disney's latest iteration of The Jungle Book and quite enjoyed it. Idris Elba as Shere Khan had been impressively menacing, Bill Murray's Baloo had struck the right note of bumbling good humour, and Scarlett Johansson had done a good job of hissing Kaa's allure. And yet, they stood at a remove, their tongues stumbling over familiar consonants—"Akela" had become strangely stretched out, "bandar log" had morphed out of recognition.
"BANdar log!" I had hissed in the darkness of the theatre, "Why is that so difficult to pronounce properly?!"
My entitlement to the story and its "authenticity" is, of course, ironic, written as it was by that most exemplary of British imperialists, Rudyard Kipling. It is also ironic because at one point I had at least three different versions fused together in perfect harmony in my head. Every Sunday morning in the mid '90s found me glued to the television screen as India's national broadcaster Doordarshan played a Hindi dubbed version of Janguru Bukku Shōnen Mōguri (1989), a Japanese anime adaptation. I can also still sing along to the 1969 Disney film soundtrack. And of course Kipling's book was read to me as baby to lull me to sleep.
Perhaps it was this inscribed polyphony, this always present intertextuality, that made my relationship to Mowgli different than say, to Blyton's Famous Five. For someone who grew up thinking in English while being complimented on my surprising command of it, for whom "geeky" stuff was always associated with the "foreign," Nana Patekar's growling cadence as Shere Khan was very much mine in a way I wouldn't parse for decades. Until I heard it again.
I was largely ambivalent when the project was announced and then slightly hostile when I saw the first trailer. My love for Idris Elba and Lupita Nyong'o aside, it rankled that all specificity was being removed from the text. Attempts by the studio to position the film as targeting Indian audiences (it would be released a full week earlier here as opposed to our usual wait for Hollywood releases) in particular felt largely cynical. And then, in a rather diabolically clever turn, Disney decided to get postcolonial on me, rereleasing an updated version of the iconic Gulzar penned opening song of the Doordarshan series—"Jungal Jungal Baat Chali Hai"—as part of the promotional material.
If you haven't listened to it, you should, and right now. It's impossible to overstate the way it recalls all those previous versions intermingled in my head and their associated nostalgia. For instance, when I was in college and cellphones were still new and exciting, it was rare to not know at least two people in your immediate circle who had it as their ringtone, a good ten years after the series had ended. Suddenly my personal stakes in the movie had reversed entirely. In my mind, from that moment on, the English version didn't really matter. The real one was going to be in Hindi.
In a review of the English rendition, Rajeev Balasubramanyam argued that Jon Favreau's strategy of combating the racism of the original text was to make it free floating, removing all referents to "Indianness." For Balasubramanyam this was Kipling's colonialism almost revitalised; where CGI was used "to erase even the notion of context, trampling not a village but an entire country out of existence and replacing it with one of his own invention. This is global corporate technological colonialism, and it is total." There's certainly merit in this analysis, though of course the question became whether there was any way of negotiating with the multiple layers of colonial imagination that now constitute The Jungle Book. Was there anything at all to be unearthed, in a sense, from a text so inherently compromised from the get-go?
By the time I walked out of my small-town cinema I was practically floating on a bubble of amazed joy, buoyed by the conviction that I had watched a completely different film from the English version. And that the little kids that cowered behind me when Shere Khan snarled about smelling out an insaani pilla (so much better than man-cub), or laughed when Baloo counselled Mowgli in rolling Punjabi had watched an entirely different film as well. It would no doubt be so much easier to identify with the tiny runt of the wolf litter affectionately being called Chhotu (the smallest), because who calls their child "Grey" when they're named Raksha (protection) and Akela (the Lone Wolf) in a completely different cultural and language system, honestly?!
I am hard pressed to find another example of such resistant translation within the confines of a multimillion dollar production. I'm not trying to argue here that the text is somehow free of Disney's globalisation agenda—it could be argued to have accomplished that agenda empathically, given that it made the company about Rs 180 cr (the most for any foreign film release in India by far)—and yet Mayur Puri's script, commissioned specifically for the film, grounds its CGI rootlessness in the "language" of the local. Where clunky translations of Hollywood scripts have made for hilarious memes in past dubbing attempts, here it feels like it is the English version that struggles to communicate its meaning in a singular register. By contrast there is an almost cheeky resistance in the intentional but effortless mix of languages that the Hindi version offers, shifting between Hindi, Hinglish, and Punjabi, that so constitute an experience of the local in Northern and Central India in particular.
Puri's deployment of specific linguistic quirks could have been an exercise in stereotypes but instead, through the excellent voice cast, they become warmly familiar. In the scene where Mowgli is inveigled into braving the bees for their honey, for instance, the English version is slightly unconvincing as to why the character would choose to help a stranger, even one who is owed a favour. Regardless of whether it intends it or not, English is more formal as a language because the associated language culture feels more formal, steeped in layers of hearing children warned about "stranger danger" and personal space bubbles.
But when Baloo's admonishments are communicated in cajoling Punjabi by Irfaan Khan, the context flips to one most Indian children are intimately familiar with—a favourite, if trying, "uncle" who just needs you to do this one thing! There's an assumed familiarity because we so often grow up calling anyone old enough to seemingly require formal respect "uncle" or "aunty," the rough translation into English of the multitudes of mamas and mamis, chachas and chachis, buas and fufas, and all the rest of a verbally adopted family that local language culture insists on half-gifting and half-forcing on you.
When Mowgli fires back with a sassy, "Bache ki jaan loge kya?!" (Will you take a child's life?!) it also sums up the situation perfectly, as grudging fondness wins out against common sense. The following interlude, where other forest denizens trot up investigate the situation, flips from vague bystanders making conversation to specifically Indian street interactions where spectators yell various unhelpful things—"AHO!"—in order to "help", and turn everyday incidents into hilarious local theater. Where the initial encounter between Baloo and Bagheera (Om Puri) in English reads hostile at first, in Hindi it feels edged with weariness yet warmth for an old friend.
Even King Louie—the part where the English version perhaps stumbles the most with its odd depiction of the character as a massive prehistoric ape—becomes recognisably expansive in his Goan twang. Where Christoper Walken's vague Godfather-esque Americana gangster take feels misplaced in the ruined temple environs (the only specifically drawn location in the film), Bugs Bhargava Krishna's take skates the knife-edge between offer and threat in the best tradition of Bollywood's famous villains. The song "I want to be like you," redone to take advantage of Goa's use of polyphonous Hinglish smartassery, becomes naturalised, in a sense, to the environs of the negotiation. And speaking of villains, Priyanka Chopra's voicing of Kaa makes for perhaps the most contested part of the translation. The hissed threats are effective, especially when she whispers "Bechari nanhiiiin si jaan!" (Poor little scrap!) But the sibilance of "Vissshwaassssss karo mera" (Trust in me) is somewhat lost in its construction, putting the stress on the last two words. Perhaps a less direct translation would have worked better there.
And finally Nana Patekar's reiteration of his role as Shere Khan remains as deliciously unsettling as it was twenty years ago. This time round the revenge-obsessed tiger is older and more battle hardened, but his snarling threats still settle perfectly into Patekar's tones of wronged bitterness. The problems with Kipling's text absolutely carry over here, with Shere Khan being its only explicitly Muslim-coded character, but in terms of presence and "cool villain" points, there is simply no other performance that comes close.
In conclusion, The Jungle Book in Hindi establishes itself amongst the most "original" of adaptations. Once removed from the language of colonisation, twice removed from Kipling himself, the text does not so much transcend its conflicted roots (what can?) as expand into an imaginative space I didn't quite know existed. When Mowgli finally stands up to Shere Khan's intimidation and accusations that he doesn't belong, that he is 'foreign' to the only the family he knows, his declaration rings proudly—"Main Mowgli hoon aur yeh mera ghar hai!" (My name is Mowgli and this is my home!). Perhaps in this case his claim is staked not just to the jungle but to Kipling's narrative itself. For me, as well, it rings like a reclamation.