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The Elephant Whisperers: Oscar-winning Indian film in payment controversy

A much-praised Oscar-winning Indian documentary is at the centre of a row over allegations that its makers did not keep promises of financial help made to an indigenous couple who starred in it.

The Elephant Whisperers made history earlier this year when it became the first Indian documentary to win an Oscar. It tells the story of a couple named Bomman and Bellie who care for an orphaned and injured baby elephant inside the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

But last week, it emerged that a legal notice had been sent to the makers of the film in June, alleging that they reneged on promises made to the couple, including giving them “a proper house” and “sufficient financial support”.Bomman and Bellie confirmed this to BBC Tamil earlier this week.

The filmmakers have denied the allegations. In a statement to BBC Tamil earlier this week, the director and the producer said they had “deep respect” towards all contributors of the story.

The film’s director Kartiki Gonsalves added: “All the allegations made by Bomman-Bellie are false, there is no truth in their allegations.”

After the story made headlines this week, Bomman told a media outlet on 7 August that he wasn’t aware that a legal notice had been sent and did not know the lawyer behind it.

But on Thursday evening, Bomman confirmed to the BBC again that they had indeed sent a legal notice and it hadn’t been withdrawn.

AS Mohammed Manzoor, the lawyer representing the couple, also told the BBC that “the claims that we have taken back our legal notice are baseless and absolutely fake”.

Bomman and Bellie
Image caption,Bomman and Bellie have sued the film’s director Kartiki Gonsalves and Sikhya Entertainment

Shot in the stunning vistas of the Nilgiri mountains, The Elephant Whisperers follows Bomman and Bellie as they care for Raghu, an injured baby elephant who gets separated from his herd.

The couple belong to the Kattunayakan community, a tribal group that has been protecting the forest for generations.

The film was praised for highlighting their efforts at wildlife conservation as it featured moving scenes that showcased the bond forged between the animals and their human caretakers.

The film’s success at the Oscars had turned Bomman and Bellie into minor celebrities. They were felicitated by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin, who presented them with a cheque of 100,000 rupees ($1,207; £949.4) each, along with a citation.

The two also met Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visited the elephant camp in April.

But last week, the couple gave an interview to a YouTube channel where they revealed that they had sent a legal notice to Gonsalves and Sikhya Entertainment – the production company run by award-winning producer Guneet Monga.

The couple alleged that the makers made several promises to them at the time of the shoot which they failed to keep. The lawyers have asked for 20m rupees to be paid to the couple “as a gesture of goodwill”, saying that the money would take care of their housing as well as their needs in old age.

In their statement to BBC Tamil, Gonsalves and Sikhya Entertainment said that the documentary raised awareness and had a real impact on the community that took care of the animals. “The documentary’s success was a ‘moment of national pride’ that has brought widespread recognition for the work of mahouts like Bomman and Bellie,” they said.

Indian film producer Guneet Monga (L), protagonists of Oscar winning Documentary short "The Elephant Whisperers" Bellie (2L), Bomman (2R) and Indian filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves pose with the Oscar during a press conference in Mumbai on March 23, 2023. (Photo
Image caption,In their statement, the film’s makers said they had “deep respect” for all contributors of the story

Bomman told BBC Tamil earlier this week that, despite promises made by Gonsalves during the filming, they had not received anything “except the 100,000 rupees given by the chief minister and a government job”.

In the legal notice, Bomman and Bellie said they had not received fair benefits from the huge commercial gains made by the filmmakers.

They added that their “skill, time and effort should be compensated proportionately at least after the roaring success of the documentary short film”.

By S Prashant and Meryl Sebastian for BBC News