An Indian in the Wild, or, Decolonizing The Jungle Book

Updated May 13, 2016 8:06pm PDT
Baloo Mowgli

I anticipated the release of the new Jungle Book adaptation with excitement—and a good deal of shame about that excitement.

The animated 1967 Jungle Book movie was The Disney Movie of my childhood; I had practically the entire script committed to memory, and the opening chords still unlock chasms of nostalgia. I was thrilled when The Jungle Book 2 came out when I was 11, and even though I considered myself too old to be watching Disney movies on repeat, became almost as familiar with it as I was with the original; I even allowed myself a minor obsession with Shanti, the one Disney character who looked even nominally like me.

I found and devoured a beautifully bound copy of Rudyard Kipling’s original Jungle Book, and adored it. It was well-written, complex, and absorbing; it was all the rich base for the Disney movie that I could possibly have hoped it would be, and, little Anglophile that I had been raised as, I couldn’t help but appreciate that it was so much less American. It was more comfortable to be complacently snobbish about that than to acknowledge my own far more virulent exclusion from that English superiority that I was trying to use the book to align myself with — that I pretended British Rudyard Kipling, in his writing of the book, had intended to align me with.

I hadn’t considered the rest of the Indian and Sri Lankan diaspora’s relationship to the movie, but from the Wall Street Journal article, “Disney’s ‘Jungle Book’ becomes India’s Highest-Grossing Hollywood Film”, I surmise that it is not unlike mine. How could we resist this representation of us in mainstream popular culture?

Of course, my feelings about the movie have started changing; I’ve started caring not just about representation, but about representation that does not strip me and my people of dignity.

The entire premise of The Jungle Book is of a little Indian boy raised by wolves in the jungle, in tune with nature and out of tune with civilisation. The symbolism of the Indian as the jungle savage, no more than another of the animals, is inescapable. He is raised to follow strange, rigid, superstition-based jungle laws, where females are won in fights by males, where life is a series of primal rituals centred around brute strength—in the book, the pack leader is dethroned and killed when he can no longer kill a buck, and in the movie, he is killed simply because Shere Khan is stronger—and days revolve around meeting basic needs.

The existence of a village in the story (especially in the original book) serves to reinforce, not contradict, this image of Indians. The villagers are clearly analogous to the animals: they are silly and superstitious, they run to get their priest when they see Mowgli, and stare and point and shout, inspiring the thought in Mowgli that “only the grey ape would behave as they do”. There is even an explicit comparison of the village to the wolf-pack: 

“‘By the Bull that bought me,’ said Mowgli to himself, ‘but all this talking is like another looking-over by the pack! Well, if I am a man, a man I must become.’“ 

This comparison of Indian villagers to a pack of wolves disturbingly portrays them as followers to be led, suggesting that a strong, intelligent, civilised leader—in other words, a white man—is needed to rescue them from themselves and their bad current leaders, the Hindu priest and Headman.

The priest, a self-serving and consequently poor leader, is scheming and misguides his people—his knowledge is conferred not by the gods’ blessing, as the gullible villagers believe, but by simple shrewdness and opportunism. Mowgli denounces the village storyteller as a fool for his fantastical religious narratives about the animals in the jungle, and in these exposed fabrications of the priest and the storyteller, the Hindu religion itself is seemingly exposed as no more than a collection of myths to badly explain that which is outside of the limited understanding of uneducated Indian villagers, that which they fear simply because they do not comprehend it, just like the wolves irrationally fear Mowgli because they cannot hold his gaze, and the animals of the jungle have built fire, ‘the red flower’, into a terrifying and fabled shadow. This deftly dismisses any validity to the  Hindu religion, reducing the Indians who believe in it to simple-minded, superstitious folk, not unlike the wolves who dare not look Mowgli in the eye.

The Jungle Book, then, is a book of stories about fictional things that happen in the jungle, but it is also a book of the ridiculous stories told in the jungle, for the reader to wonder at and be amused by. It is a book about Hindu jungle stories told by Indian villagers and jungle stories told by animals, and both of these are equally meritless. 

Any Indian reader who fails to distance themselves from this makes of themselves another jungle spectacle, to be observed, to be entertained by, but never to be taken seriously.

While the jungle book is written in English, these stories that it writes about, the stories devoid of validity, are very significantly not in English.

Mowgli speaks the language of panthers, that of wolves, and that of snakes, but not the language of humans; like the cartoon Indian snake-charmer, he is thus exotically wise and uncivilised, closer to animals than people. In the village, the children “sing long, long songs with odd native quavers at the end of them.” The "native" way of speaking, like that of the animals, is "odd" and eerie. Uncomfortably implied here is the idea of Indians’ mysterious (to monolingual English speakers) language as an indecipherable animal tongue, of English and other European languages as the true human languages.

The strongest parallel between the villagers and the animals of the jungle is that they both reject Mowgli as not belonging in their social structure, the animals because he is a man and the people because he is not a man. This reiterates the story of villagers as a primitive pack, ever ready to exclude; it reinforces that Indians are a closed, conservative people resistant to change, resistant to the even nominally external, and meant, ultimately, to remain where they are rooted, spatially, culturally, socially and technologically.

Mowgli’s character, despite his being an outcast, is not exempt from his essential bestial Indianness; it is clear, regardless of both the animals’ and the humans’ rejections of him, that he is truly a member of both societies: he knows and understands and is at home with the ways of the Jungle, and, simultaneously, has an attachment to his human mother, an affinity for human tools and strategy, and (in the book) quickly finds his place within human society — but never loses the truth that the jungle is his home, and ultimately returns to it.

Through all of this, Mowgli is a compelling character with riveting escapades in gorgeous scenery. By making a simple, beautiful, children’s adventure, Rudyard Kipling and Walt Disney have created a tantalising fairy tale for Indian children, that, as we grow into Indian adults, we cannot shake ourselves away from—a fairy tale where our magic is of the jungle we really belong in.

Insidiously,  The Jungle Book, being a childrens’ movie, taps into nostalgia. It becomes a story that is "home" in the minds of people of Indian descent who watched the movie as children. It becomes a place of safety for us, this image of us that animalises and reduces us, this image of us put into writing by one white man and onto the screen by another. Mowgli’s truth, of the jungle being his ultimate home, becomes our truth as well.

I cannot, at age 24, stop loving the Jungle Book. I cannot stop wanting to be a part of that universe, seeing an ideal version of myself as belonging in the jungle with the other animals—seeing the version of myself that sits before a computer screen, who participates in modern ‘civilisation’, as the lesser, less authentic, version of myself.

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Lace Dagger is always on the hunt for baby elephant gifs and new ways to phrase "I hate everything."