Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"I Wanna Be Like You": The Jungle Book, Revisited

Being a parent gives you a chance to go back over the children's stories you grew up with and even, in some cases, learn about new ones. The following post consists of somewhat scattered thoughts on "The Jungle Book," including a 1967 Disney animated film version, as well as Kipling's original book.

I did not grow up with Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" -- either adaptations or the original story -- but my son has really gotten attached to the 1967 Disney animated film version of the story, and it's gotten me interested in both it and Kipling himself.

The biggest attraction for us initially were the great jazz/swing songs that were made for this particular version: Bare Necessities, Colonel Hathi, and I Wanna Be Like You (with the great Louis Prima on vocals).

My wife grew up in India, watching Indian television, and she says she has fond memories of the Hindi animated version of "The Jungle Book," which you can also see on YouTube here. It's a cartoon serial meant for kids, which means the story kind of branches off on its own. Still, it made me curious: do readers know whether Kipling's "The Jungle Book" is popular in South Asian languages? Are there readers who grew up in South Asia hearing the Kipling stories about Mowgli, Bagheera, Bhalu, Shere Khan, etc.? (Or, growing up abroad, did your parents tell you these stories in a "desi" context?)

I somehow didn't know about the Disney songs growing up, and it's too bad, because both my son and myself are now thoroughly addicted to them. Looking at the music a bit critically, I was earlier a little put off by "I wanna be like you," where I initially thought the singer was Louis Armstrong. The idea of a monkey-king, who liberally throws around African-American slang, kidnapping the "man cub," in order to learn the secret of being human, seemed a little uncomfortably like an allegory of race relations in the real world:

Now I'm the king of the swingers
Oh, the jungle VIP
I've reached the top and had to stop
And that's what botherin' me
I wanna be a man, man-cub
And stroll right into town
And be just like the other men
I'm tired of monkeyin' around!

Oh, oobee doo
I wanna be like you
I wanna walk like you
Talk like you, too
You'll see it's true
An ape like me
Can learn to be human too

It's hard not to think of the analogous human race-mimicry situation: "I wanna be like you/ I wanna walk like you/ Talk like you, too" could be the voice of an under-class minority asking the "man" for access to privileges (here, embodied in the technology of "man's red flower," fire) that make him supreme over the rest of society. It's a little better that the singer is Italian-American rather than African-American, but there's still a slightly off-putting race angle here if you're looking for it. (I'm sure some readers will think I'm reading too much into this.)

Also, just to be clear, I still play this music for my kid all the time, and have no qualms about doing so. I also don't mind that "The Jungle Book" is a good excuse to teach him a few Hindi words: Bagheera, Akela, Shere, Bhalu, Hathi, Bandar, etc. As I riff on the stories with my son, I'm also trying to sneak in some new ones, which Kipling doesn't use: Gainda (rhinoceros), Bheriya (wolf), Magar-much (crocodile).

Some of the race stuff, of course, comes directly from Kipling's other writing. As people who know his other works are already aware, Kipling was obsessed with race (this is the guy who invented the term, "white man's burden," among many other things). He was born in India and spent his first few years there, before being sent to England for boarding school, as was the norm in late Victorian British India. Though he hated his experience in boarding school, he still always thought of England as "home" -- and strongly supported the British Imperial project in India.

As a young man, Kipling returned to India to work as a journalist, and lived mainly with his family in Lahore. He published his first short stories (mainly on the Anglo-Indian community in India) in the newspaper he wrote for, and frequently used material related to his journalism work as fodder. His father, John Lockwood Kipling, was the principal of the art school in Lahore for many years, as well as the curator of the Lahore Museum (Lockwood Kipling is the model for the museum curator in the opening chapters of Kim, incidentally). Some part of Rudyard's interest in animals in India -- which would later nourish one of the best-selling children's books of all time -- probably came directly from his father, who drew and wrote about India's animal life himself in a beautifully-illustrated early book, called "Beast and Man in India". (And Rudyard Kipling's original published version of "The Jungle Book" has great illustrations by John Lockwood Kipling.)

Kipling's own The Jungle Book is a little different in structure from the Disney adaptation of his story. For one thing, the Disney version only uses material from the first three chapters of Kipling's book; "The White Seal," "Servants of the Queen," and "Rikki-tikki-tavi" go in different directions. "The White Seal," for instance, isn't even based on an Indian jungle, but rather involves seals in a northern ocean.

Even in the "Mowgli" chapters, there is a big difference in the fact that, in Kipling's story, Mowgli actually meets his mother and lives in the human village for a time, before being excommunicated because of his ability to talk to wolves ("Tiger-Tiger"). Disney doesn't get into this potentially dark situation (i.e., the boy being forced to separate from his mother by a mob of angry villagers who are ready to stone him to death), and rather chooses to end with just a hint of Mowgli's repatriation into human society and inevitable future adulthood preoccupations -- as he ogles a village girl getting water from the river.

There are other differences too. Kipling's story is more unabashedly violent, and the most dramatic story arc in Kipling's version in my reading is the battle against the monkey-people, which ends with hundreds of dead monkeys. The killing of Shere Khan via a strategically arranged stampede of cattle in Kipling is somewhat anti-climactic by comparison to the stormy fight sequence between Bhalu and Shere Khan in the Disney film.

In Kipling, the society of the Jungle has several different respectable species who adhere to the "Law," including Bagheera the panther, the wolves, Kaa the snake, Balu the bear, and Chil the kite. Shere Khan, the Tiger, behaves a little like an Oriental despot, whom the other people of the Jungle are right to want to depose.

By contrast to the animals who follow the law, the Monkey-people ("Bandar-Log") are sociologically anarchic:

"Listen, man-cub," said the Bear, and his voice rumbled like thunder on a hot night. "I have taught thee all the Law of the Jungle for all the peoples of the jungle—except the Monkey-Folk who live in the trees. They have no law. They are outcasts. They have no speech of their own, but use the stolen words which they overhear when they listen, and peep, and wait up above in the branches. Their way is not our way. They are without leaders. They have no remembrance. They boast and chatter and pretend that they are a great people about to do great affairs in the jungle, but the falling of a nut turns their minds to laughter and all is forgotten. We of the jungle have no dealings with them. We do not drink where the monkeys drink; we do not go where the monkeys go; we do not hunt where they hunt; we do not die where they die. Hast thou ever heard me speak of the Bandar-log till today?"

"No," said Mowgli in a whisper, for the forest was very still now Baloo had finished.

"The Jungle-People put them out of their mouths and out of their minds. They are very many, evil, dirty, shameless, and they desire, if they have any fixed desire, to be noticed by the Jungle People. But we do not notice them even when they throw nuts and filth on our heads."

He had hardly spoken when a shower of nuts and twigs spattered down through the branches; and they could hear coughings and howlings and angry jumpings high up in the air among the thin branches.

"The Monkey-People are forbidden," said Baloo, "forbidden to the Jungle-People. Remember."

"Forbidden," said Bagheera, "but I still think Baloo should have warned thee against them."

"I—I? How was I to guess he would play with such dirt. The Monkey People! Faugh!"

Because they have no social hierarchy, no memory, and above all, no "law," the other animals treat them as "outcasts" (loaded choice of terms!). The Bandar-log themselves treat the other animals with contempt. (I don't see an obvious "race" angle here, incidentally, though it does seem like there is a rationale for Imperialism: the people who follow the Law are justified in either excluding or attacking those who do not.)

When the Bandar-Log kidnap Mowgli, they take him, interestingly, to an abandoned, formerly human-occupied city in the middle of the jungle. Their reasons for kidnapping him are given as follows:

They never meant to do any more—the Bandar-log never mean anything at all; but one of them invented what seemed to him a brilliant idea, and he told all the others that Mowgli would be a useful person to keep in the tribe, because he could weave sticks together for protection from the wind; so, if they caught him, they could make him teach them. Of course Mowgli, as a woodcutter's child, inherited all sorts of instincts, and used to make little huts of fallen branches without thinking how he came to do it. The Monkey-People, watching in the trees, considered his play most wonderful. This time, they said, they were really going to have a leader and become the wisest people in the jungle—so wise that everyone else would notice and envy them. Therefore they followed Baloo and Bagheera and Mowgli through the jungle very quietly till it was time for the midday nap, and Mowgli, who was very much ashamed of himself, slept between the Panther and the Bear, resolving to have no more to do with the Monkey People.

The motivation parallels, roughly, the "I wanna be like you" song in the Disney version of "The Jungle Book," except here the focus is not so much on the "Red Flower" of fire, but on adopting Mowgli as a king who would bring "civilization" to the Bandar-Log.

(It's hard not to think of Hanuman and the monkey-warriors of the Ramayana when reading Kipling's description of the "Bandar-Log." In the Ramayana, of course, they are loyal servants of Rama and brave warriors; in Kipling they also seem to have anthropomorphic qualities, but have none of the positive attributes one sees in the Hindu epic.)

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Blogger bill benzon said...

Ah, yes, Disney certainly knew how to stage a musical number. Concerning the fact that Louis Prima was white, though his vocal style was black, is an index of an "I wanna be like you" wish that is the inverse of the one actually staged in the film. Here's some remarks I made about the "Elephant Fly" number in Dumbo:

Thus the fact that those crows in Dumbo are given African American moves and voices is not at all a casual matter. It taps very deep currents in America’s cultural mythology. And Disney’s audience would have had no difficulty seeing and hearing those crows as African American. After all, Amos ‘n Andy had been a popular radio since the early 1920s. The sound of black voices was thus a familiar one in just about every household that had a radio—though the characters on the show were voiced by white actors. But there was nothing unusual about that, either; that practice dates back to the 19th century. And Cliff “Jiminy Cricket” Edwards, who voiced the lead crow, was clearly well-grounded in that tradition. The other crows were voiced by members of the Hall Johnson Choir, which was an African American outfit.

As for The Jungle Book as a whole film, I watched it about two years ago and thought it rather second rate (for reasons independent of the issues you raise). Here's what I told Mike Barrier (animation historian and critic) in an email:

It took an act of will to sit through the thing. In fact, I didn't sit through it. I stopped it once or twice while I did this or that. I mean, when Mowgli first appeared in that orange loin cloth I asked myself "Where'd that come from, way out there in the jungle away from humans?" Well, of course, I know where it came from, and THAT has nothing to do with the story. And if the film had been a good one, I'd simply have dropped the issue. But it wasn't, so I kept asking myself "Where'd the loin cloth come from?"

These guys were running on fumes. All they had going for them was virtuoso technique. There's no soul in this film, no sense that Mowgli was ever in any real danger. I kept on wondering when Bob and Bing were going to materialize out of Phil Harris's Baloo. I loved some of those road pictures, but give me the originals, not this tired take off.

And so it goes. The whole film is trappings of in a bygone era. The spirit of that era is gone, and they've not captured the spirit of the moment in which the film was made. Sorry effort.

For what it's worth, Disney himself had qualms about the film; he thought it was too dark.

5:44 AM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Hi Bill, Thanks for the comments!

I agree that the '67 Jungle Book there isn't any real sense of danger to Mowgli. What has made the film so interesting to my 3 year old son, I think, is the inventive characterization -- Balu, Bagheera, and Colonel Hathi in particular are voices he loves to try.

The scene at the end actually is a bit too scary for him to watch. We normally fast-forward that part. Kipling could get away with putting more direct violence in The Jungle Book partly because it's a book, and you don't feel it as intensely. But Victorian children's writing was also more violent across the board. Most people would say that they were honest & real, and today's children's stories are too sanitized ("Barney-fied," one might say). But I don't know: to me, there's something sadistic in some of these Kipling stories.

As for your comment about the crows in Dumbo: yes, exactly. I had no idea that the "head" crow was voiced by a white actor, but it actually makes perfect sense.

9:47 AM  
Anonymous DesiDancer said...

Likewise, we haven't gotten old enough to watch the end, nor maintain the attention span to watch much more than a song here and there, but I find this very interesting and something I ponder as she gets older... thanks for this!

3:00 PM  
Blogger bill benzon said...

What has made the film so interesting to my 3 year old son, I think, is the inventive characterization -- Balu, Bagheera, and Colonel Hathi in particular are voices he loves to try.

Yes, and quite rightly so.

It's interesting to just imagine where'd you get by tracing out the cultural genealogy implied by the film. The stories are from the British raj and through it to . . . just what exactly? Did Kipling make these up from whole cloth or was he informed by folk traditions as well? The music is rooted in the mishmash that is American pop, with its tendrils in 19th century minstrelsy (itself a massive hybrid) and elsewhere. The visuals . . . . There's an interesting book on how early Disney was influenced by European illustrative art. So that's one thing.

And then, there's a reference in Jazz Dance (by Marshall & Jean Stearns) asserting that one Bayard Taylor "heard the song 'Jump Jim Crow' sung by Hindi minstrels in Delhi" (p. 43) sometime in the 19th century. So now we've got a hint of a direct link between 19th century American pop and 19th century India.

Then there's "I Wanna Be Like You." When I first heard it (in viewing the film two years ago) I both jumped for joy and cringed. It's simply a wonderful performance, but I couldn't ignore the racial subtext. Now in fact I think that requires a conversation of more subtlety than I want to put into a blog post. But we can see some of the dimensions of that conversation by referring to "When I See an Elephant Fly" from Dumbo.

The African-American stylization is obvious in both cases, though no humans are involved in either case. The crows, however, we not expressing a desire to be something else; rather, they were encouraging an insecure young elephant to discover something about himself. Perhaps more tellling, Dumbo came out in 1941 or 42, when racial norms were very different. For example, the military was segregated at that time. The Jungle Book came out in 1967, in the middle of the civil rights movement. In their time and place those crows were just business as usual. But I can't help but thinking that it took a bit of wilful nostalgia to stage "I Wanna Be Like You" in 1967.

What do you know about the release of this film, or other Disney films, in India? I just checked the IMDB and it doesn't have any release of this film in India, though it made it to Hong Kong and to Japan in 1968 and to Kuwait in 2007 (obviously a re-release).

4:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used to wonder about the 'bandar log'- and whether it was a dig at the English speaking Babus- but I think the older generation dismissed such notions. Rather they pointed to the ayah or nanny's telling the child not to act like a monkey- all other animals are okay- but not monkeys coz
a) monkeys are destructive coz. in India, you aren't allowed to shoot the damn things and so they aren't scared of humans
b) they sometimes harm babies and small children. Not friendly at all.

The high place Kipling gives to the she-wolf Raksha (which he translates as demoness- which would be Raakshasi)is something of a puzzle as is the curious treatment of the dhol (red dog)... are these sociological subtleties I'm missing?
Difficult to tell.
Speaking of Disney- 'Song of the South' saved the studio from bankruptcy- hey the box office gotta come first right!

5:52 PM  

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