By Sugandha Rawal
Los Angeles– Neel Sethi, an Indian-American boy with no acting experience, has brought out the charisma, spunk and a bit of swagger of world-famous fictional character Mowgli in the 3D cinematic adaptation of “The Jungle Book”, says the movie’s director Jon Favreau.
The team of the Disney movie conducted auditions across several countries to zero in on their Mowgli, but settled for a youngster in American with an Indian connect — much like the character himself.
Favreau, known globally as the “Iron Man” and “Chef” director, said Neel’s portrayal as Mowgli is like a flashback tour to his own childhood memories around the animated character.
“You need the personality, humour, charm and the emotion of the characters. That’s really what ‘The Jungle Book’ represents. People don’t think about action… It’s fun to have it, but really what you think about is the characters and the relationships.
“Neel really seems to capture for me what I remember of Mowgli in the film. He has spunk and a little swagger. He’s just a great kid and I loved working with him,” Favreau said here.
Neel, 12, stays in Manhattan and has his roots in Gujarat — a state from where Prime Minister Narendra Modi comes.
In “The Jungle Book”, the child actor — the only living being in a cast full of animated characters — found himself a part of Favreau’s re-imagined world of an enchanting Indian jungle, the story of which was first told via Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 timeless classic and then brought alive in the eponymous 1967 animated movie.
Favreau was excited as a child when he shared a few glimpses from his movie at Hollywood’s The El Capitan Theatre here earlier this year to a select audience of mediapersons, including this IANS correspondent, from across the world.
After showing the clips, which highlighted Mowgli’s chemistry with Baloo, chase sequences and the fight sequence that the director delved on the whole casting process, he started getting worried when there would be an end to search for the perfect Mowgli. Then, the team stumbled upon Neel.
“We were really scared because we looked at 2,000 children and I was getting a little worried as casting is everything for me. And especially when a kid is (required to be) on the screen that much in a movie, then you don’t want someone you get tired of, or might look good only for a couple of scenes.
“You’re going to need someone who holds the screen and is interesting to watch… His habits, body movements and physicality reminded me of the Mowgli that I saw as a child,” he added.
For many Indians, the movie’s mention may be a flashback moment to the TV series, which brought Mowgli’s adventures alive in the late 1980s. And bring back memories of the “Jungle jungle pataa chala hai” title track.
But this Mowgli will be a tad different.
The live-action epic adventure will release in India on April 8, a week before it releases in the US. It showcases Mowgli’s journey of self-discovery when he is forced to abandon his home in the forest, and all the creatures he meets during his journey.
Favreau notes that “the other actors who do the voices for the animals were vitally important to bringing the characters to life”. No wonder that Favreau roped in celebrated names for the job — Bill Murray (Baloo), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera), Idris Elba (Shere Khan), Lupita Nyong’o (mother wolf Raksha), Scarlett Johansson (Kaa), and Christopher Walken (King Louie).
But the director said: “We tried to do it enough so you would see the soul of the actor, but not so much that it took you out of the reality of the movie.”
The film is heavily backed by advanced technology, with only one live action character. Explaining that, Favreau said: “You have to breath life into this thing, otherwise it’s just an exercise in technology. And that is not entertainment.
“It needs to have a beating heart in there, and that is what your cast brings you.”