I’d always dreamed of making a great movie. But by May 2020, I’d almost given up on my dream. It seemed impossible that I’d be part of a group capable of creating an entire movie.
And then…an elephant died.
This is the story of how we almost made “Gangs of Malappuram”.
On May 30th, Mohan Krishnan, a forestry official in Kerala, posted an emotional update on Facebook in which she apologized to an elephant who’d died three days earlier. The post went viral. I know, because I got a call just a few hours later.
It was from a friend I’d known back in college. He was now working for a PR firm in Delhi. I didn’t even know he had my phone number.
“Have you heard about this elephant that was murdered in Kerala?” He asked, sounding slightly more excited than outraged. At that point I had no idea about the situation. I had no idea I was about to make a movie.
Karan, the PR guy, quickly filled me in. “A few assholes in Kerala fed an elephant a pineapple filled with firecrackers. It exploded in the elephant’s mouth. The animal died standing in a river!”
I was momentarily stunned. It was a horrible story.
“Oh, and get this,” Karan added, with what I could have sworn was a smile in his voice. “The elephant was pregnant.”
“Oh my god!”
But in my mind, I was already asking the next question. Why are you calling me up to tell me about this?
As though reading my mind, Karan replied. “Listen buddy, I want to hire you.”
“To write a script. We’re gonna make a movie about this terrible tragedy. What say?”
I tried to ask for more details, but it was clear that I was interested. Even back in college, Karan knew how much it meant to me. To be able to write a script for a movie.
“Perfect!” He cried, when I finally agreed. “We’re going to have an online meeting tomorrow. I’ll get you the details for the script then. Bye!”
The next day I logged into the Zoom call and was surprised to see so many unknown faces. I’d assumed it would be a private call between me and Karan.
“Let me introduce you to the team,” he said enthusiastically. “This is ———-, the director of the movie. Born in Delhi, he’s just graduated from New York Film Academy! He’s got a lot of potential.”
I smiled at the young guy with a goatee and spiked hair, dressed in a black t-shirt. I had an uneasy feeling in my gut. But there was no time to think about it.
“And these are the rest of the crew. You have ——- here, who’ll be helping you with research for the script of the movie. Then there’s ——–, the producer, and ———-, the assistant director.”
“Hi everyone,” I said timidly, not being used to group video calls like this. “I’m excited to be a part of this movie.”
“Alright, then let me tell you the general outline of what we want you to write. You’re going to love it.”
And over the course of 180 seconds, he narrated the synopsis of the movie. And my jaw slowly dropped. Suddenly I wished the Wi-Fi would cut out.
“I – I’m sorry, I’m not sure I follow,” I said after I’d heard his enthusiastic words. “You want me to write a movie about how this elephant was murdered by villagers in….Malappuram?”
“Yes!” Karan cried in excitement, while the fancy director nodded somberly. “Yeah, I’m thinking this should be a tragic crime story, you know?” he chimed in as he adjusted his shades. “We should really capture how these poor elephants are caught in the midst of all these gangs that are ravaging the city of Mala – Malapram?”
“Malappuram,” the assistant director spoke up.
“Right, yeah. That place.”
“But – but,” I fumbled, unable to process what I was hearing. “But that’s – that’s not what happened, right?”
Karan waved me off that silly line of questioning. “Don’t worry, we’re just ahead of the curve. We’re working on the public angle as we speak. Trust me, soon it’ll be common knowledge that Malappuram is the most violent city in India. They kill 2 elephants every day -”
We watched as someone in his office tapped on Karan’s shoulder and muttered something into his ear. “Ah, right, sorry, they kill 3 elephants every day. It’s – you know, horrible!”
I didn’t know what to say. Instead, I looked towards the assistant director, who seemed to be locking his gaze onto me as well. I realized he was a fellow Malayali. This was extremely awkward, to say the least.
But the director was pumped up. “So, my aesthetic is, you know, very avant-garde but also really, grounded in neo-noir realism and Truffaut’s style of film making, you see? So I absolutely want to shoot this film in Malappuram itself.”
“Oh, you want to shoot it on location?” Karan asked, looking worried.
“Yeah, why? Oh damn, you think it’s going to be dangerous?” the director asked, frowning as he rubbed his goatee.
Somehow I could tell Karan was actually thinking in terms of the budget, but he capitalized on the idea of danger. “Yeah, I think it might be too risky to enter Malappuram itself right now.”
“Don’t worry about that,” the producer chimed in for the first time. “We’ll pay off the local gangs. Make sure they don’t interfere with our shoot. They might even allow us to use them as extras in the movie, who knows!”
The director was overjoyed. “Yes! That’s perfect! Maybe we can even follow them on their daily hunts. Get a really close shot of how they kill those elephants, right? Oh man, imagine if we did that for a week? That’s like -”
“21,” Karan, the assistant director, the producer and I all said at the same time.
“Yeah, 21 elephants. Man, that’ll be an even greater montage scene than The Godfather! 21 elephants shot over the course of a one week!”
“Ah, actually,” I started, not really sure how to break the news. I’d visited Malappuram several times in my life. I’d never seen an elephant in the wild. I was certain there wouldn’t be 21 elephants and any locals ready to kill them for our movie. But I also felt a sense of professional self-preservation. I wanted to write this movie. I wanted to get paid for this movie. Of course, I absolutely did not want this movie to be made.
Thankfully the assistant director came to my aid. “We’ll need to hire a VFX team for that, sir.”
“What? Why? No, no, no special effects! This has to be genuine. People are expecting the truth from us, right? Not some fake Hollywood shit!”
Karan stepped in to save his project. “I think the VFX idea is good. We can’t say if the – ahem – the locals will cooperate with us, you know? So it’s better to add the elephant hunting through special effects.”
The director grumbled. “It won’t have the authenticity I was hoping for, but whatever, let’s make the most of it. Alright, when can we start?”
“Ah, we’ll be ready to shoot within 2 weeks or so,” the assistant director replied.
“What?” the director, producer and Karan exclaimed together. “That’s too long, we should be starting shooting right away!”
“Er, but – I haven’t written the script yet,” I meekly pointed out. Karan waved his hand dismissively. “Oh, you can get that finished in two or three days. By then we’ll start the shoot. No point in waiting 2 weeks. The aim is to release this movie while the issue is fresh in the public’s mind!”
The assistant director gently stressed the point. “We’ll still need to wait 2 weeks or so before we can start shooting on location.”
“Why?” the director snapped.
“Well, because of the quarantine,” the assistant director said plainly. “The whole crew will need to be isolated for 2 weeks before they can start working.”
Karan looked confused for a moment. “Isn’t there any way this can be sped up?”
“I don’t think so. They’re pretty strict about COVID regulations. You’ll need to obtain passes if you’re driving to Malappuram. For each vehicle. And you’ll need to report to the nearest police station as well. I’m not even sure they’ll issue permits for shooting the film right now. It’s going to be really tough.”
The director sighed. “So stupid, right? They have all these regulations for this virus, but they don’t care about the gangs running around Malappuram, killing elephants!”
“Yeah, yeah, that…that is stupid,” I said, exchanging a look with the assistant director.
Karan decided to conclude the meeting and asked us to join for a call the next day. He promised he’d figure out a way to get the movie made.
But a lot of things can happen within 24 hours. On June 4th, the next morning, I joined the video call to hear that my dream had been crushed.
“I’m sorry, guys, but the project has been cancelled,” Karan announced.
“But why?” the director cried, looking heartbroken.
Rubbing his face, the PR guy replied. “Well, the news cycle has shifted. And there’s been further updates to the story. And the public opinion is….well, it’s complicated.”
I was scrolling through my phone as I heard him say this, and it all made sense. I was reading about how Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had rectified elements of the sensational story. About how the elephant had died in Palakkad district, which was 85 kilometres away from Malappuram district.
“I heard the elephant died in Palakkad,” the assistant director said.
The producer, who looked devastated, nodded. “Yes, it’s a damn shame. If only it had been Malappuram…”
“Why does it matter which district the elephant died in!” the clueless director cried. “We’ll just change the title of the movie and continue with it, right?”
Karan tried to explain it in the most appropriate way possible. “Ah, let’s just say, our research had shown that our target audience would have strongly responded to a storyline about gangsters in Malappuram murdering elephants. But Palakkad….it wouldn’t resonate with our audience as much.”
“Ah, damn it,” the director muttered. He believed in PR research wholeheartedly. The assistant director and I held our tongues.
“Anyways, I’m sorry everyone, but we’ll be pulling the plug on this project. Gangs of Malappuram has been cancelled. Hopefully, we’ll get to collaborate on something else soon. Thanks for taking the time!”
“Oh well, that’s too bad. But I gotta get going,” the director announced. “I’m shooting an ad for Fair and Lovely, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. That thing has gone global, right? Incredible! Anyways, bye everyone!”
The assistant director signed off as well, and I was about to end the call, but instead deactivated my camera by mistake. As I disappeared from the screen, I watched Karan talk to the producer.
“Buddy, I’m sorry about this,” he said with sincere regret. “But it just wouldn’t have worked. Too many people….found out the truth.”
Sighing deeply, the producer replied. “I know, I know. It’s just…for a moment it was perfect, right? Everyone cared about this elephant and her kid. All we had to do was steer them slightly. Make them think about who killed the elephant. Turn the criminal into a community of criminals. Ah, so close!”
“I agree, it was juicy,” Karan said. “But relax man, there’ll be other times. You and your superiors will get them someday. It might not be the Muslims of Kerala. But there are others, right? Maybe it’s the Communists who’ll do something. Or Congress. Hopefully there’ll be a political killing and we can restart that lawless Kerala campaign.”
“I know….let’s hope. Let’s hope that day comes soon…”
This is meant to be a satire based on recent events. It is not meant to mock or make light of the death of innocent animals. There are several issues that need to be highlighted, such as the way animals are treated and killed and the way human beings end up being killed by animals. But this satire is solely about how human beings end up treating other human beings based on certain differences alone.