We arrived in Chennai on December 18, 2012 to find the city plastered with posters for a film which, it turned out, had just opened the Friday before. Some of the posters featured a man with an elephant, while others featured the man under a basket with a woman in a yellow field. Luckily we had Dolce Namak‘s friend Mukundh with us, and he told us that the movie was called Kumki, that it was about an elephant trainer, and that it was the debut film of Vikram Prabhu – grandson of the legendary Tamil actor Sivaji Ganesan.
I was intrigued by the subject matter of the film, which certainly seemed different from the usual Tamil masala, and I suppose I am also susceptible to advertising, because I decided I would go watch the film. Movie tickets in Tamil Nadu are regulated, which means they always cost 120 rupees no matter what movie you go to see, where, and at what time. As a result, for less than three Canadian dollars I went to a Thursday afternoon show at what is no doubt the fanciest movie theatre I have ever seen. Located on the top floor of the Express Avenue mall, it featured crystal chandeliers, red velvet panels on the wall, and large leather seats. The theatre was fancy – but it was also very loud, and very cold. I found myself wishing I had ear plugs and a blanket.
Kumki begins with a village in the mountains that is being menaced by a wild elephant. The elephant attacks a group of young women and ends up killing some of them. The local authorities are unwilling to help (I wasn’t sure what was the cause of the conflict between the villagers and the police) so the village pays an agent to send them a “kumki” elephant (kumki elephants are specially trained to deal with wild elephants).
Next we are introduced to Bomman, a mahout who – along with his “uncle” and another young man (I couldn’t tell if the three were actually related or just friends) – makes his living renting his elephant for movie shoots, weddings, and temple celebrations. The agent doesn’t have any actual kumki elephants available when the villagers contact him so Bomman goes instead to pretend to be a kumki until an actual one becomes available. When he arrives in the village he falls in love with Alli, the chief’s daughter. However, she was one of the girls attacked by the wild elephant earlier in the film and at first she is completely terrified of Bomman’s elephant. He eventually wins her over, though, and starts trying to train his elephant to be a kumki so he can stay in the village longer, and also protect the village should the wild elephant attack again. There is something of a “comedy” subplot with the uncle and the other young man as city folk deeply uncomfortable with the rural surroundings they find themselves in.
I really enjoyed Kumki, mostly (as I said), because the subject matter is so different from the Tamil movies I usually watch. The role of Bomman was an interesting choice for the debut of Vikram Prabhu, given that the character is pretty ‘rustic’ (with a full beard and all) rather than a more ‘glamorous’ masala hero. Of course, the role does give him plenty of excuses to be filmed sitting atop his elephant like some kind of hunky South Asian Tarzan (and this did not go unappreciated as his first appearance in the film was greeted with numerous female cheers from the audience).
Lakshmi Menon has a lovely, earthy presence as Alli. I really liked the songs as well, which make excellent use of the movie’s gorgeous setting (it was filmed in Kerala and Karnataka). There is a brief hero’s introduction song (a montage showing Bomman and his elephant at work in the city), and four romantic songs featuring Bomman and Alli, but the most interesting song to me was the one showing the villagers participating in a harvest festival.
I suspected the movie would have a tragic ending, since I know how fond Tamil movie-goers are of those, and I wasn’t wrong. So if you’re watching the film and want to avoid the sad ending, turn it off after the harvest song (about 12 minutes before the end). That is if you get to watch it – Kumki did well at the box office but one year later has received only Lotus Five Star/Suara DVD releases, which as we know have poor image quality and even worse subtitles (if any). There’s a good quality (and apparently legitimate) version on YouTube but it is sadly without subs. Still, it’s better than nothing – the other movie I watched while in India, Yeto Vellipoyindhi Manasu, still has not been released on DVD a year later. It can be hard being a South Indian movie fan outside India!