I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge carthorse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.

The above words explain George Orwell’s motivation to write his universally renowned work Animal Farm (1946). The universality of these words and the book comes across strongly again with the recent incident where a police horse, Shaktimaan, was beaten up brutally by the goons of BJP MLA Ganesh Joshi. Joshi is seen in a video clip attacking the horse at its legs with the other agitators adding to the horse’s agony.

As a result of such violent abuse, the horse was badly injured and had to be carried to a vet hospital in a truck. A team of ten doctors fixed Shaktimaan’s fractures. In an attempt to stop the spread of gangrene, the doctors amputated one of its legs and fitted a prosthetic limb.

Following the incident, the media across channels – print, web and social media – went wild with accusations and castigation of the perpetrators. While such condemnation is indeed warranted, it would also be interesting to explore whether the outrage is selective and how society deals with common practices of animal treatment in institutionalized settings, for example in cinema.

More often than not, animals used in films are treated shockingly by trainers, attendants and caretakers, with filmmakers turning a blind eye to the cruelty and torture on these creatures that cannot speak or protest. 

The Chennai-based Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) has specified very strict rules about how to use animals in films and the treatment to be meted to them. The AWBI oversees the participation of animals in film and television productions and ensures that four-legged or feathered creatures do not get a raw deal. Pre and post-shoot permissions from the AWBI are compulsory if you're shooting with an animal. The AWBI also does not permit exposing animals in films to explosives, making them jump or fight, or even use of abusive language against them.

In India, “animals are mostly sourced from a network of pet owners and they are usually trained just weeks before a shoot. Dog lovers recommend friends of friends, or you have to approach the Kennel Club," says Sneha Iype who made ad films featuring animals. Sneha says she prefers shooting in South Africa when there is an animal involved. "Casting an animal is a streamlined process abroad. Proficient animal trainers who have guided animals to perform a large repertoire of tricks are readily available."

In August 2005, in response to PETA India’s approach to frame legal interventions for empathetic treatment of animals in films, the Bombay High Court issued a judgement calling upon the Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC) to ask applicants to furnish a no-objection certificate from the AWBI, before certifying any film in which animals have been used. However, official monitoring machinery during shooting is absent and it is nearly impossible to get living proof of mistreatment and abuse. Thus little can be done about subtle and ‘hidden’ cruelty that continues to be prevalent.

A baby elephant being trained for the circus. Pic: peta.org 

Direct physical punishment and deprivation of food are the two main strategies used by animal trainers to ‘discipline’ animals before, during and after a shoot. The standard training method for most animals in films and circus is punishment, which could range from a simple scolding to brutal beating, and even whips with a chain. Sometimes, animals are drugged to ‘tame’ them to make it easier for actors to work with them. Some even have their teeth and claws surgically removed or impaired or their jaws stitched shut.

Behind the song-and-dance-hoopla featuring animals in films, the story is dark and sad. A website called www.petindia.com, dedicated to the kind and safe treatment of animals for street entertainment shows, circus performances and pets in general, reports that animals used in films are often treated as little more than props, and many suffer terribly behind the scenes. A film set in itself – with its hot arc-lights, relentless retakes and trainers’ whips – presents a frightening and foreign environment for animals.

Animal actors in Bollywood

Every kind of bird and animal has featured in a Bollywood film at one time or another. Snakes (Nagin, Nagina, Dudh Ka Karz), an eagle (Coolie), a mare (Sholay), a chimpanzee (Insaniyat) and Tere Bin Laden featured a rooster and his antics are the highlights of the film.

The use of animals in Indian films goes back to the days of stunt artist and actress ‘Fearless’ Nadia in the 1930s and 1940s. She had a German Shepherd called Gunboat.

Ramu of Haathi Mere Saathi became so famous and such a big hit with the entire audience that when he really passed away, an obit note appeared in all national dailies of India. Haathi Mere Saathi (1971) is a beautiful story about the relationship between an elephant and his trainer and was one of the biggest hits of the year, loved by children.

Pomeranian dog Tuffy in Hum Appke Hain Kaun!. Pic: petsworld.in

Much later came Tuffy, the white Pomeranian who played many roles in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun! He umpired cricket matches as skillfully as he took care of a motherless infant, or carried love notes, playing Cupid to the lovers.

Dogs have played retributive roles too. In Teri Meherbaniyan (1985) Ram (Jackie Shroff)’s pet Moti hunted down his master and his wife’s (Poonam Dhillon) killers and tore them apart with his claws and teeth. Children cheered and clapped whenever Moti came on the scene. Moti was the hero of the film.

Dhanno, the fearless mare in Sholay is another example of how an animal character can animate a film and emerge as a central character. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were the Zimbo films with Pedro the chimpanzee.

Little is known about how they were treated before legal mandates or guidelines were issued on the ideal treatment to be metered out to animals. But stories abound about circus animals being mistreated and tortured and most of these circus animals were hired from their owners for films when the filmmaker could not source animals or birds from private owners and trainers. 

However, despite clearer norms and scrutiny in recent times, animals are still used rampantly, especially in historical movies like Jodha Akbar, with little regard to the way that they are treated or used.

People in Defence of Animals (PIDA) sent a legal notice to the people involved in the film Jodha Akbar, to the AWBI and to the CBFC alleging that animals used in it were not handled well. PIDA demanded to see copies of the NOC for use of the animals. PIDA President Abdul Karim Khan claimed that many exotic birds used in the film died from exertion and were buried in ND Studio where the shooting took place. Siddharth Roy Kapoor of UTV that produced the film, however, denied the allegations.

The AWBI receives about 60 requests to use animal characters every month. The procedure is fairly simple: pay Rs 500, provide a fitness and ownership certificate, give details about the set location and shoot duration and write a short description of the nature of the performance.

"Horses are used for riding purpose; dog to be shown as a pet of the hero; heroine trying to catch the chickens," are some descriptions available on the AWBI website, put up by the producer of a South Indian film that was recently approved by the board. All of these sound innocuous enough, but hold little implication for the kind of actual conditions and treatment of the animals on set.

Urmimala Banerjee in an article in Mid-Day, dated 14 July 2014, quotes Chembur-based veterinarian Deepa Katiyal, who is associated with various animal groups, as saying, “Animals like dogs and cats are fine on a movie set as they are social animals. However, elephants, snakes or monkeys have wild instincts and can’t be domesticated. Showing exotic birds or creatures as pets in films also promote illegal animal trade, as people want to own them.”

In August 2010, the Advertising Council of India (ACI) issued a directive to monitor animals being used in advertising and implement a set of self-regulation guidelines. With animal lovers becoming vociferous, producers began to make sure that four-legged members of the cast were suitably pampered. For the Kannada film Appu and Pappu — whose lead star is an orangutan — six trainers, two vets and two managers were present on the film sets at all times. But there is nothing to indicate how the animals were kept and fed and treated before and after the actual shooting of the scenes.

Choreographer Chinni Prakash, in response to the laws passed against mistreatment of animals in films, says, “You have to be patient with animals. In those days, when there were no laws, they had a variety of animals like elephants, horses, monkeys, etc, who obeyed their trainers only. I have seen trainers hit and whip animals to coerce them for a shot. It was a sad sight. With animal activism on the rise, there have been no such instances in the past 15-20 years,” he said. But that is not the exact truth as the Jodha Akbar example shows.

Hollywood is no exception. American Humane Association monitor Gina Johnson confided in an email to a colleague on 7 April 2011 about Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. While many scenes featuring “Richard Parker,” the Bengal tiger, who shares a lifeboat with a boy lost at sea, used CGI technology, King – very much a real animal – was employed when the digital version would not suffice.

“This one take with him went really bad and he got lost trying to swim to the side,” Johnson wrote. King’s trainer eventually snagged him with a catch rope and dragged him to one side of the tank, where he scrambled out to safety.

There are exceptions, though very rare. Akshay Kumar went overboard with the pre-release marketing and publicity of his Entertainment featuring Junior, a Golden Retriever in the title role.  All the costumes used in the film have been donated to Youth Organization in Defence of Animals. The organization auctioned the costumes and the money collected was used to benefit stray animals.

“We shot the film with 100 dogs. No graphic was used. It was a huge set in Thailand and it was full of dogs of different colour and breed. Every dog had two trainers,” Akshay said. Recalling the last day of the shoot, Akshay said, “We were shooting the final scene. I have no clue how the dog knew, he started licking my face. This was not in the scene but thankfully the camera was on and we kept it in the film.”

In 2011, Yetri Maaran, director and writer of the Tamil film Aandukalam which won six National Awards, designed a graphical display of a violent cockfight in the film to reveal the dark side of this blood sport. The film was a huge hit in Tamil Nadu and also did well in Karnataka. It was released in 12 countries where the Tamil diaspora resides. It did exceptionally well in the United States.

“Admiration for the bird goes back to my childhood when my family lived in Ranipet, where the popularity of cockfight is next only to cricket. Cocks fight each other over territory. This sport finds mention even in ancient Tamil literature. As much as I value this sport for its cultural value and identity, I detest roosters being made to fight each other for the sake of man's recreation. The rooster fight sequence in my film has been created graphically. All animal welfare processes were adhered to. I do not want animals to be subjected to cruelty,” says Yetri.

According to recent reports, Bollywood actors like Alia Bhatt, Sidharth Malhotra and Ayushmann Khurrana have come forward to support issues like stray adoption and sterilisation.

George Eliot once said "Animals are such agreeable friends -- they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms". For a long time, however, such silence and compliance has actually worked to the disadvantage of these silent creatures.

Considering the kind of cruelty that used to be meted out to these animals during film making and other recreational enterprise -- such as their teeth being yanked off, castration, beating and starvation – the introduction of proper formal guidelines is definitely a much-needed and welcome move. But physical monitoring is necessary, though how this infrastructure will be funded, planned, administered and executed remains a moot question.