Shooting with elephants for filmmaker Naresh Sampath’s Raja Bheema left actor Arav with scores of unforgettable experiences. He was both excited and scared about shooting with the animals. “Initially, we went through photos of nearly 300 elephants before selecting Bhadra, an elephant in Palakkad, where I went through a five-day training process. Despite the big trunk and large tusks, he looked innocent,” says Arav.
Nothing, however, prepared Arav for his first encounter. “From the pictures, I couldn’t gauge the elephant’s actual size. In reality, he was massive and required nearly five people to control him. I was in awe and fear of the idea of shooting with him. I learned that elephants naturally respond to instructions in the language they are most used to. As I knew Malayalam, I was able to quickly learn the instructions.”
Sadly for Arav, before he could establish a bond with Bhadra, the unit had to abandon the shoot in Palakkad, and shift to Thailand instead. “I had to learn the local Thai instructions to befriend another elephant, but training with Bhadra came in handy.” It wasn’t an easy road though. The new elephant did not respond to Arav’s instructions in Thai, necessitating an interpreter to give instructions to the elephant on the set. Though this process largely worked, an instance of miscommunication shook the team.
“One day, the camera team was filming us from distance. As I extended my hand towards the elephant’s trunk for a particular shot, I was suddenly pulled by my arm and dragged for about 100 metres. I began to scream in pain. The entire unit came to my rescue, along with the interpreter, who controlled the elephant with his instructions. I was in a state of shock.”
The team eventually learned the reason for the elephant’s unexpected behaviour. “Apparently, the interpreter instructed the elephant to “pull his hand” instead of “hold his hand” and this single word had created a fiasco!”
Arav also learned to read the elephant’s mood. “Though they are well-trained, they too get cranky and tired. At such times, we would all just patiently wait till the elephant felt well-rested. Once they even got in another elephant to cheer him up!”
The elephant was trained to raise its foot to support Arav when he was stepping down. “But for some reason, on one particular day, the elephant didn’t raise his leg to give me a foothold, and as I was facing the camera on a crane above, I didn’t notice it. I fell and I found myself near the elephant’s legs! I was scared that the elephant would step on me!”
But Arav, in a flash, rolled over and stood up. “I waved at the camera team and fainted!” Bruises and injuries apart, Arav has no regrets. “It was an experience of a lifetime. And as I took the risk of shooting with elephants, I’m now being offered films alongside snakes and tigers!”