In director Nikhil Advani’s latest film, Delhi Safari (his foray into animation), a group of wild animals find themselves under threat from a housing development that begins destroying their jungle habitat. When the leopard Sultan is shot trying to protect his cub, Yuvi, the animals decide to leave and find a new place to live. But Yuvi has other plans. He convinces Bagga (a bear) and Bajrangi (a monkey) to help him kidnap Alex, a parakeet living in comfort in the home of his owner (a Bollywood director). Alex, it seems, is the one animal who has the ability to communicate with humans. Together with Yuvi’s mother, Begum, they set out to convince the Indian government in Delhi to help them. Along the way, they meet with adventure and adversity, before finally arriving to make their case.
It’s not hard to understand why the Hindi language version of Delhi Safari was reasonably well-reviewed by many in the Indian press – the film’s animation shows the great progress happening in the Indian industry, and the performances of the film’s star cast (including Govinda, Boman Irani, Akshaye Khanna, Urmila Matondkar, Prem Chopra, and Suniel Shetty) leant the film weight and charm.
Delhi Safari was, however, declared an unmitigated disaster by Box Office India. For whatever reason, the film didn’t connect with the ticket-buying audience. Described as India’s first 3D animation (I’ve only seen 2D versions), the film was completed at least a year ago, and didn’t benefit from improvements in technology that have happened in the meantime. The world has grown very small, and audiences almost everywhere have access to the best and the latest, and Delhi Safari would need more than just its animation to draw in the crowds. Certainly, that cast is a plus – but the story, with its strong ecological message about what happens when humans do not live in harmony and balance with nature, and it’s decidedly abrupt ending– is one that’s been done before.
Nikhil Advani hasn’t had a hit film since his debut outing, Kal Ho Naa Ho, but I’ve quite liked a couple of his films --particularly Salaam-e-Ishq, and, surprisingly, Patiala House. And this is where I confess: I actually love the Hindi version of Delhi Safari. For me, the trio of Govinda as Bajrangi, Boman Irani as Bagga, and Akshaye Khanna as Alex, worked brilliantly. More than that, I adored all the little Bollywood references – since Alex the parrot lives with a Bollywood director, it’s no surprise that when we are first introduced to him, we see him singing and dancing in front of the television as Kishore Kumar sings "Main Tera Tota" ("Here I Am") from the film Paap Ki Duniya. When Alex finally gets to make his speech to the media, he starts with a song. In the Hindi version, he riffs on "Kajra Re" from Bunty Aur Babli (you can still hear remnants of that in the English language version’s background score), and then follows it up with an Ajay Devgan-style Halla Bol (Raise Your Voice) speech. These nods to Bollywood are a delightful surprise for fans, and ensure that the film, as good animation should, works on levels that appeal to both children and their parents.
All of this, though, makes it very difficult for me to look objectively at the English language version of the film that releases in the United States on December 7th, with voices provided by Tom Kenny, Jason Alexander, Cary Elwes, Christopher Lloyd, Jane Lynch, Vanessa Williams and Brad Garrett. The problems that existed for the Hindi language version remain – the animation that is solid, but slightly dated by North American standards, the message that has been heard in other films, the echoes of films like The Lion King and The Jungle Book (the Bear in the English language version sounds too close to that of Balloo for my taste). All this adds up to a film that feels a little bit of “been there, done that” for an audience. The English language lyrics to the songs don’t seem to resonate as much as the Hindi versions (though one of the songs, “Jungle Mein Mangal” is retained in its original form in the credits of the English language release), but their music, composed by the veteran team of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, reflects their ability to successfully fuse western stylings with Indian sound and sensibility to create something fresh and listenable.
That said, however, the messages found in Delhi Safari (the importance of friendship, looking after others, the need to find your courage and make a stand, the need to solve problems through discussion instead of violence, and the need for humanity and nature to live in harmony) are never presented in a way that is preachy or pedantic. The film manages to hit most of the right emotional notes, by turns funny, charming, mildly frightening and often heartwarming, and Mr. Totally Filmi and I found ourselves chuckling and awww-ing in all the right places. Delhi Safari could offer a little welcome warmth as we head into the holiday season, and could very well appeal to families already interested in ecology, and open to exploring the film’s Indian setting.