(May 21, 2023) When The Jungle Book was released in 2016, the film became an overnight success. The realistic depiction of the animals and the lush jungle environment captivated audiences, creating a visually immersive experience. Based on Rudyard Kipling’s timeless story, which has a universal appeal, the film adaptation grossed $966 million worldwide against the budget of $175 million making it one of the highest-grossing films of the year.
The themes of friendship, self-discovery, and the connection between humans and nature resonated with audiences worldwide, contributing to its international success. Directed by Jon Favreau and produced by Walt Disney Pictures, it found success in tapping the nostalgia and familiarity associated with the book, the 1967-animated film and of course, the timeless story of the orphaned boy, ‘Mowgli’, who grows up in the jungles of India.
Amidst the grandeur of the creatures and beauty of the jungle Neel Sethi’s portrayal of Mowgli as the only live-action actor in a computer-generated imagery (CGI) dominated film was widely praised. In his debut role, the then 12-year-old created magic with his powerful performance. Walt Disney Studios recruited puppeteers to give the debutant actor partners to act with. “Those animals weren’t really there, but they looked like they were,’ Neel said in an interview, talking about his experiences on set.
“I would just make it normal and pretend that’s it’s not a puppet. If it was a bear or a panther, I just thought to myself, it’s not a puppet. That made it a lot easier,” he remarked.
Impressing audiences with iconic debut
Selected from two thousand hopefuls during a worldwide casting search by Favreau and his team Neel stood out. Quite interestingly, he was not even looking for an acting assignment. His dance teacher had seen a flyer for the auditions and had suggested Neel to give a try.
Director Jon Favreau revealed the details of the audition. “He was a little younger than we thought. But there was something that made me smile. Then he started doing martial arts. After the audition was over, he said, I do my own stunts. I thought, this kid’s having a good time and I met with his family.”
After his selection, the youngster underwent extensive training to prepare for the physically demanding role. He worked with a movement coach who taught him parkour and martial arts techniques to enhance his agility and coordination. The training was crucial for the scenes that required him to interact with the CGI animals and navigate through the jungle environment.
Sethi’s dedication and enthusiasm on set despite the challenges of acting in a predominantly virtual environment, impressed the cast and crew. He formed a strong bond with director Jon Favreau and received his guidance throughout the filming process. “I didn’t know acting. He taught me everything I know,” Neel said.
Director Jon Favreau praised him for bringing the beloved character of Mowgli to life so memorably, and for his ability to imagine and react to things that weren’t physically present during filming. “Jon actually got into the puppet sometimes and that helped me interact with them naturally,” Neel shared.
Life beyond ‘The Jungle Book’
After making a special place in the hearts of the audiences worldwide, Neel has continued to pursue acting. The same year in which The Jungle Book released; he lent his voice to the English version of the animated film The Guardian Brothers (also known as Little Door Gods). The film, originally produced in China, tells the story of two ancient Chinese deities who must save their town from a nefarious force. Sethi lent the voice to the character named Yu Lei.
In 2017, he appeared in a short film titled Diwali, directed by Raj Trivedi. The film explored the themes of family, tradition, and cultural identity through the perspective of a young Indian American boy – which Neel is in real life as well. Born in 2003 in New York City, the actor calls the place his natural habitat. “I was born and raised here. I love being here. I can see myself in New York and Los Angeles, that’s it,” he said in a recent interview.
Taking pride in cultural roots
Even while he loves living in the United States, he maintains a connection with his Indian heritage. His parents are of Indian descent with roots in Gujarat.
In interviews, he has mentioned his Indian background and expressed pride in his cultural roots. Sethi has mentioned celebrating Indian festivals like Diwali and expressed interest in learning more about his heritage. Taking a break from acting to study, he recently completed his degree in film studies and is now back on the lookout for acting opportunities. “I would like to work in challenging roles with famous actors,” the nineteen-year-old smiled while talking about his future.
‘The Jungle Book’ in India
The film that won accolades for achievements in visual effects at the 89th Academy Awards, 70th British Academy Film Awards, and 22nd Critics’ Choice Awards, got dubbed in Hindi. Child actor Jasleen Singh Chadda gave voice to Mowgli’s character. Famous actors lent their voices to other characters - Irrfan Khan to Baloo, Om Puri to Bagheera, Priyanka Chopra to Ka, Nana Patekar to Sher Khan and Shefali Shah to Raksha.
As the Japanese anime TV series Jungle Book had been very popular in India in the 1990s, Disney India also commissioned a contemporary recording of ‘Jungle Jungle Baat Chali Hai’ (the popular song of the series) and released it as part of the film’s promotional campaign in India. Neel Sethi has been to India on a few occasions after that and has enjoyed a huge fan following in his country of origin.
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