We have this animal rights lot which squeezes the film industry, just adding to the filmmakers’ hassles! Is the film industry the only punching bag for every group assigned with some responsibility by the Government of India?
Be it any such statutory body, or an NGO, the members, once appointed, assume powers that have not been vested in them. While their observations are cursory, their rulings are sweeping, almost dictatorial.
This time, it is the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), set up in 1962 following the passage of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (1960) as a watchdog for the use of animals. Like most statutory bodies set up by the government, which claim to have a purpose but don’t really have one, this one too has been assigned a job that is impractical and handed over responsibilities without much thought.
The AWBI works on the presumption that all those who use animals as a part of their work, or make a living out of or with the aid of animals, are cruel to them. Often, it would seem that the very idea of animals in human life is looked down upon as cruelty.
The problem is, from what I have gathered from the work done thus far by the AWBI, and the conclusions they have drawn, that it has yet to serve its purpose.
Animals are and have often been used for the purpose of entertainment. So, what is wrong? Even dogs and cats are kept as pets and the objective is that they entertain as well as give company to families, especially children.
If ever there are complaints about ill-treatment to animals, or even cruelty, it is regarding those who keep pets and desert them when they age or are sick, instead of giving them medical and other care. Those who raise milch animals are known to let them loose on the streets to fend for themselves once they stop being of use. But the AWBI always finds faults with the filmmakers, accusing them of cruelty to animals.
The filmmakers, according to the AWBI, are reckless while shooting with animals. They are, in fact, very alert. Usually, it is not only the animal performer on camera, there could also be a human actor in the frame and ample precautions are taken. The same trained animal in a shoot is needed for the sake of continuity as well and no maker can afford to hurt it.
Recently, a horse died during the shooting for a Tamil film, ‘Ponniyin Selvan: I’. The film is a historical drama directed by Mani Ratnam. When a period film is made on a historical background, one can’t do without horses, elephants, and so on.
Following this incident, a whistleblower informed PETA (People for Ethical Treatment to Animals), an NGO, which forwarded the matter to the AWBI which has asked the relevant district collector to look into it and punish the ones responsible! What is a whistleblower doing on a film set? Does it imply that PETA employs spies on film sets where animals are in use?
PETA, on its part, can start with doing away with strays. Especially dogs who bark all night and bite any passerby at will! That is cruelty to humans. They not only spoil a person’s sleep at night, but also the day after. They can also do something about discarded cows and other such animals on roads and highways because they cause accidents costing human lives.
What happened on the sets of ‘Ponniyin Selvan: I’ was an accident. Accidents are not planned.
The AWBI issues a blanket statement (it is not mentioned on what basis, it is probably heresy!). The AWBI advisory observed that stressed animals are often transported to distant locations, where they are exposed to the chaotic conditions of a film set, and that trainers routinely use methods that involve coercion or punishment.
Animals used in the entertainment industry are typically separated from their mothers as infants, beaten or starved during training, forced to perform confusing or dangerous tricks, and chained or caged when not being used, the AWBI noted.
The above observations are totally off the mark. Animals for films are not animals taken to slaughter houses or smuggled across the border so that they need to be transported the way AWBI describes it. Film sets are not Parliament sessions, which are chaotic. The trainers love their animals and never punish or coerce them.
These animals are well-fed and cared for more than the trainer’s own children, provided special diets and when it comes to certain animals such as dogs, fans or even air-conditioning is arranged in summers! If at all an animal is made to perform a trick, it is trained for it. Only an ignorant person would say that an animal can perform a trick by force!
No details are available yet, but the AWBI has gone ahead and suggested that filmmakers don’t use actual animals, but employ special effects and computers for the purpose! Is this some joke? How does one make a historical film with computer generated horses, camels, elephants, that too in hundreds?
Isn’t there one member on the AWBI’s 28-member panel who possesses basic knowledge of how films are made? What do these 28 members do if the body needs PETA to act as their informer?
Since the time humans tame animals, shackle them or bridle them, that very act can be termed as an act of cruelty! The AWBI and PETA may start from there and move onto slaughter houses, practice of sacrifices, the army, tourists, pilgrims and others using animals. All that amounts to cruelty to animals as much as using them in film shoots.
The AWBI could also suggest that the Railways in Assam be stopped because wild elephants are killed on a regular basis on the railway tracks (two were killed this past Tuesday).
There have been films with animals playing a pivotal role which have gone down very well with children and family audiences. These films show a bond between humans and animals and how they stand by each other.
There was this renowned filmmaker from the south, Sandow M.M.A. Chinnappa Devar, who made nearly three dozen films in his time and many of them with an animal being a part of the cast. In fact, Devar was said to own a mini zoo and cared for his animals like his family. He branched out to making Hindi films with ‘Haathi Mere Saathi’ (1971), a remake of his Tamil film, ‘Deiva Cheyal’.
‘Haathi Mere Saathi’ was such a huge hit that Devar remade the film as ‘Nalla Neram’! This must surely be a one-off example of remaking a film from its remake! The other Hindi films of Devar, with animals playing a prominent part, were ‘Gaai Aur Gori’, ‘Mera Rakshak’, ‘Janwar Aur Insaan’, ‘Raaja’, ‘Maa’ and ‘Shubh Din’.
In fact, some of the biggest hits have animals in the cast playing important parts. Some that come to mind are ‘Maine Pyaar Kiya’ (AWBI norms also include birds), ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!’, ‘Teri Meherbaniyan’, ‘Nagina’, ‘Parivaar’ and ‘Khoon Bhari Maang’,
The films with animals in the cast need to be approved by the AWBI and there are fees stipulated on the AWBI site. Considering the number of films made in India, one can safely assume that six to ten films come to the Board for approval (it is mandatory for a film to get AWBI approval if there’s an animal in any frame). Even a recent film showing a child playing with a rabbit had to seek AWBI approval!
The AWBI office was located in Chennai, but for whatever reason, it was relocated at Ballabhgarh in Haryana, a good two-hour drive from Delhi. The logic of this relocation defies logic. Now, to deal with the AWBI, a producer needs to engage an agent. Well, when an agent comes into the picture, one can imagine all kinds of things taking place.
Really speaking, a body such as the AWBI serves no real purpose except wasting the taxpayer’s money.
–By Vinod Mirani