Irrfan Khan On Why 'The Jungle Book' Has Resonated in India

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The 'Jurassic World' actor voiced Baloo the bear in the Hindi dubbed version of the film, helping Jon Favreau's version of Rudyard Kipling's classic to the second highest opening ever for a Hollywood title in India.

Already a huge star at home, Irrfan Khan is arguably one of India's most recognized faces in Hollywood after appearances in Jurassic World  and multiple Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire. He continues to balance work in Bollywood with Indian independent movies and, such as Ron Howard's upcoming Dan Brown adaptation Inferno.

For Disney's reboot of The Jungle Book, Khan stepped in to voice Baloo the bear in the Hindi-dubbed version of the film released in India alongside the original English (where Bill Murray played Baloo.)  Khan's star power, along with Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra (who dubbed the snake Kaa) and actor Om Puri (panther Bagheera) in the film's Hindi version, helped Jon Favreau's take on Rudard Kipling to an impressive $8.4 million opening weekend in India, considered the second highest opening ever for a foreign film. The Hindi version of the release has accounted for more than half of the film's total box office in India. 

The result is all the more impressive because India's censors, in a controversial move, slapped the film with a UA rating, equivalent to a PG rating in the U.S., claiming the movie's 3D effects were "too scary" for young children and limiting The Jungle Book's Indian audience.

Khan tells The Hollywood Reporter that the film has worked well in India because “it brings the whole family together. It is just not a story that appeals to kids, it also resonates with adults.”

“They initially offered me to voice the character of Sher Khan, the tiger [voiced by Idris Elba in English],” says Khan, adding, "If you go back to the times when Rudyard Kipling wrote the books [the first was published in 1894], back then, tigers were a danger to humans. But today, humans are a threat to tigers [due to poaching]... That's why I chose to play Baloo.”

Given Baloo's jocular nature in the film — he's the movie's comic relief —  Khan was asked to voice him in the style of a North Indian Punjabi, a community known for its joie de vivre. “Actually, Baloo's character has already been well fleshed out in the original book and the film takes it to another level,” he adds.

When his ten-year-old son first saw the film, before Khan began dubbing, he noted that it would be nice to see his dad "play someone who is so endearing" for his first voiceover role.

Rudyard Kipling was born in Mumbai (then Bombay) and lived in India for some years working in newspapers as he wrote his books. The Pench forest in India's central state of Madhya Pradesh inspired him to create the setting for the adventures of Mowgli, a boy raised in the jungle by wolves. India also fired his imagination for some of his other popular books which were turned into major Hollywood movies. These include 1939's Gunga Din, starring Cary Grant, 1950's Kim, starring Errol Flynn and 1975's The Man Who Would Be King, starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery.

“Even though the book was originally written in English, The Jungle Book is an Indian story at heart,” says Khan. "Also, its overall theme of good winning over evil is universal, which is seen in other cultures."

In addition to the star appeal of the Bollywood talent associated with the Hindi version, Disney India also cashed in on the popularity of a Japanese anime television series, which aired in 1993 on state broadcaster Doordarshan, dubbed in Hindi. Jungle Book: The Adventures of Mowgli (or Jungle Book Shonen Mowgli in Japanese) from Nippon Animation featured a specially composed Hindi title song which became very popular and went on to define the childhood of a generation growing up ahead of the deluge of satellite television channels that started to unfurl towards the mid-nineties.

The song — “Jungle Jungle Baat Chali Hai” (loosely translated as “there is a story going around in the jungles”) —had a similar impact as the classic “The Bare Necessities” from Disney's iconic 1967 animated version of Kipling's stories.

Well-known composer and film-maker Vishal Bhardwaj and veteran lyricist Gulzar, who both worked on the original song for the series, re-recorded the track to give it a more contemporary flavor. While it doesn't appear in the film's Hindi dubbed version, the song is featured in a promo video as part of the film's marketing push which has garnered over 3.8 million views on YouTube.

“The idea was never to take away from the original mood of the song, so nostalgia, playfulness, innocence and magic were still an intrinsic part of the new version,” says Disney India, vp – studios, Amrita Pandey.

In another connection, actor Nana Patekar, who voiced Sher Khan in the TV series, reprised his role for the Hindi version of the film.

Khan, 49, says he was not too aware of the series, but he does remember the song. “It is a song which stays in people's minds and has a long life. It can keep entertaining us for time to come.”

As exclusively reported by THR, Disney is in negotiations with Favreau and writer Justin Marks to reteam for a Jungle Book sequel given the abundance of original material from Kipling's novels.

Until Mowgli returns to the big screen, Favreau has another Indian connection: his 2014 title Chef, in which he starred as a professional chef who quits his job to run his own food truck in Los Angeles, is getting a Bollywood remake. The new film is currently in production with actor Saif Ali Khan in the role played by Favreau.

“I’m excited to see how this personal film translates to the Indian culture,” Favreau said in a statement while announcing the remake. “The themes of food, music and family should resonate well.”