The Jungle Book is another one of Disney’s time-honored favorites which the company has been pulling out to make live-action adaptations of. Following in the footsteps of movies such as Cinderella and Maleficent, The Jungle Book is a childhood favourite of many adults. With talking animals and a child protagonist, it’s a classic setup for a beloved story. Yet, something more sinister might be lurking just beneath the surface. The Jungle Book is one of those pieces of fiction that seems pretty straightforward until you look at the layers embedded in its history.
Written for a British audience by a British man born in India, the stories of The Jungle Book carry with them a legacy of colonialism. The stories were written by Rudyard Kipling in 1894 about an orphaned Indian boy. He was found and raised by the jungle animals à la Tarzan. Because of its geography and cultural portrayal, it’s hard to ignore The Jungle Book‘s South Asian inception. The names of the characters are borrowed from Muslim and Hindu names. Shere Khan, Raksha, and Bagheera are all names taken from South Asian languages. Raksha’s name aptly means protection. However, the other two are not so appropriately named. Bagheera’s name is taken from the word ‘bagh’ meaning tiger in Hindi, not panther. Shere Khan’s name seems to be taken from the Urdu word ‘sher’ which means lion and not tiger. While these intricacies may be lost to the majority of people pouring in to enjoy this movie, these ill-fitting names only remind the South Asian audiences that this particular story which borrowed heavily from their culture was written by a British white man. And that too at a time when South Asians was colonized and oppressed by the British Raj.
The obvious colonial themes of the text begs a closer look at its history. Rudyard Kipling was born in India in 1865 and vocally supported the British empire based on racist ideologies. In his stories, pre-partition India is portrayed as animalistic, untamed, and carnal. Kipling’s interpretation of South Asia reduced India to a vast jungle in his stories, rather than the complex civilization it has always been. Pre-partition India seemed to be distant and uncivilized enough to invoke a sense of fantasy for Kipling. And these offensive interpretations are what he built the world of The Jungle Book on. Not to mention this fantasy was constructed, not for the locals, but for British audiences to romanticize and reduce India to. Kipling’s stories were first published in magazines from 1893 to 1894 in Britain. His works were the first introductions many British children and adults alike had to Indian culture and history. His works even inspired Edgar Rice Burroughs to conceive the character Tarzan; another character seeped in imperialism and racism.
This kind of reduction and marketing practices of an entire thriving sub-continent can be problematic, to say the least. And these kind of practices continue to thrive with movies and books such as Eat, Pray, Love and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where South Asia is reduced to a spiritual and exotic location and is stripped of its complexities and urbanization. Couple this with the portrayals of South Asians in mainstream media, which are often stereotypical, gimmicky, and not well developed at all. From Slumdog Millionaire to Raj from The Big Bang Theory, the portrayals are clichés and not representative of South Asians’ diversity as human beings. The most recent example would be the controversy surrounding Coldplay’s Hymn for the Weekend video which featured the same exotification of India.
Considering this atmosphere, movies like The Jungle Book which already have their shoulders burdened with a complicated history have their work cut out for them. Casting Neel Sethi, an Indian-American child actor, as the lead actor was a start. While the cast of the movie is diverse, it is still not the type of representations South Asians want to see in the media. Sethi and Ben Kingsley are the only South Asians cast in a main role in the movie. While Edris Elba and Lupita Nyongo help give the film diversity, it does not do South Asians justice. People of colour are not interchangeable. However, perhaps it is nice to see any sort of representation at all. And while the inception of the film is a questionable one, perhaps its legacy will not be. As Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture told Yahoo Movies, “The first Disney Jungle Book was based on Kipling; the next will be based on the movie, so it’ll be another generation removed from Kipling, which will help.”