Losing the Plot

A cult filmmaker’s Indian misadventure

Jean Jacques Fourgeaud, an executive producer for Tusk, accompanied Jodorowsky during location scouting for the film in Coorg. COURTESY POORNA SWAMI
01 March, 2017

ON A CRISP MORNING sometime in late February 1978, an elephant waited patiently outside Mysore’s Hotel Metropole to meet with a foreign visitor. Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean-French filmmaker with a cult international following, had requested the meeting. Earlier that decade, Jodorowsky had shot to fame with the off-kilter hit El Topo (1970), which had caught the attention of many in the alternative arts fraternity, including John Lennon. Lennon even helped fund Jodorowsky’s next film, The Holy Mountain, which released in 1973 to widespread acclaim. Five years later, Jodorowsky arrived in Mysore to start work on his next film, Tusk, which was to be based in India.

But Jodorowsky had no idea where exactly he would shoot the film. He only knew he needed a landscape teeming with elephants, for, according to the screenplay, a good-hearted rogue elephant was to be the protagonist. Unsure of where to find elephants in India, let alone how to make them act, the film’s French producer enlisted the help of a seasoned local, the filmmaker MS Sathyu (best-known for his Partition classic Garm Hava, which released in 1974).

Sathyu had been born and raised in Mysore, in elephant country. As the production consultant, it was his job to help Jodorowsky find the ideal characters and locations for his grand Indian elephant saga. Sathyu recounted to me years later that he didn’t know he was meeting Jodorowsky, or even who Jodorowsky was. “I hadn’t seen his movies. I thought he was just a foreigner who wanted to make a film in India.”

Sathyu and Jodorowsky met in the lobby of Hotel Metropole. Jodorowsky sat in morose, all-black attire, a stark vision against the lobby’s pristine white columns. He wasted no time with introductions and small talk. “I want to understand the elephant,” he said to Sathyu. “Where can I get one?”

Sathyu was amused. “Everywhere,” he said. “You’re in Mysore.”

Jodorowsky was not convinced. “I want to understand the elephant,” he insisted. He didn’t want to simply touch the elephant, or ride it, but somehow understand it.

“Shall I bring you one tomorrow?” Sathyu asked, assuring Jodorowsky that elephants were commonplace in Mysore.

Jodorowsky couldn’t wait. The next morning, an elephant arrived for him at the hotel’s gate.

SATHYU IS MY GRANDFATHER. He is also a meticulous hoarder of ephemera. That is why, when pottering around our garage in Bengaluru, I discovered Tusk, Jodorowsky’s Indian film, in a small envelope of negatives—location shots of men and elephants against untamed south Indian foliage. I had heard about the film in passing recollections from Sathyu, but it was only after watching Jodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich’s documentary on Jodorowsky’s most famous unmade film, that I fully comprehended Jodorowsky’s status in cinema history. The documentary follows the making—or rather, the unmaking—of Dune, Jodorowsky’s unrealised film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction novel of the same name. Jodorowsky had proposed a star-studded cast with the likes of the surrealist painter Salvador Dali and the lead singer of The Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger. But following a long series of mishaps, bad decisions and a lack of funds, Jodorowsky never made Dune. The rights lapsed and the film was eventually made by David Lynch in 1984. Still, Jodorowsky’s early work on the project influenced the science-fiction film genre, with his assembled design, screenplay and special-effects team of Dan O’Bannon, Chris Foss and HR Giger—who went on to work together on Alien (1986).

Seeing Jodorowsky’s influence on mainstream Hollywood, I became immensely intrigued by the prospect of unearthing his “lost” Indian film. Tusk was indeed lost for more than three decades, until some enterprising soul put up a barely decipherable copy on YouTube. Before that, the only way to see the film was through the handful of VHS copies scattered across libraries and private collections in France. Soon after its premiere in 1980, in Paris, and a brief run in the festival circuits of France and Los Angeles, it became clear that Tusk was not to be a Jodorowsky classic. Variety described the film as a “two-ton turkey … grandiose, pretentiously simple, tonally inconsistent,” while the French newspaper Le Monde dismissed the film as an “exotic tale” of “gags ... and some sumptuous images.” The film was so badly received that it never saw its planned US release and Jodorowsky washed his hands of it. In a 1996 interview with FAD magazine, he said, “Don’t see Tusk. I bury that film.”

Despite being of questionable artistic merit—arguably even Jodorowsky’s worst—Tusk offers a fascinatingly distorted, yet reverent, representation of India. Made at the peak of foreign cinematic interest in India, Tusk is telling of a larger trend of a fictionalised India playing on movie screens overseas. Beginning in the 1960s, the country became a topic of interest in Western popular culture. India was suddenly the desired location for many film productions, all of which exoticised it unabashedly. The production house Merchant Ivory sold an India that was equal parts romantic and enlightened, through films such as The Guru (1969) and Bombay Talkie (1970). The Shashi Kapoor-starrer Siddhartha (1972), shot near Rishikesh, had promised spiritual salvation to American audiences, while leaving the Indian censor board scandalised with Simi Garewal’s famed nude scene. And even Alfred Hitchcock, almost two decades earlier in 1955, had come scouting to what he described in a press conference in Bombay as his “dreamland.”

Rather than use India just as a backdrop, Jodorowsky wanted to make a film about the country’s culture. But in making India his muse, he succumbed to ideas of Indian culture that were romanticised and also misconceived. The story of Tusk’s making—which I put together over the last few months through interviews with many members of the film’s crew—traces Jodorowsky’s strangely desperate struggle to hold on to those ideas, in the face of India’s incongruent, chaotic realities.

OUTSIDE THE HOTEL METROPOLE GATE, Jodorowsky surveyed the elephant, which stood beside its mahout, gauging the Parisian’s next move. Jodorowsky maintained his distance. He walked back and forth along semicircular arcs, a safe 20 feet away from the big pachyderm. He did not dare go closer for another two days. On the third day, he abandoned his arc-like path and slowly moved towards the elephant. The mahout nodded encouragingly. Jodorowsky gingerly extended his arm, placed his palm on the elephant’s front leg, and stroked its rough, wrinkly skin.

It was the first time Jodorowsky had been so close to an elephant. He had seen them before—his father had worked in a circus and Jodorowsky himself had started his theatrical career as a clown. This proximity was a revelation. Jodorowsky would later say in a 1980 interview with Third Rail, “it was a huge experience ... to go into the elephant.”

Before he came to India to work on Tusk, the filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky had shot to fame in the 1970s with off-killer hits such as El Topo and The Holy Mountain.

Once comfortable in its presence, Jodorowsky met the elephant every day, walking the streets of Mysore with it. And because he wanted to truly understand the creature, he asked to eat what the elephant ate. “I ate only elephant food for four months,” Jodorowsky boasted in the interview with Third Rail, though Sathyu was dismissive—“It wasn’t so extreme, it was only breakfast.”

As the rest of the crew ate their bread and eggs, Jodorowsky began his day with a gruel of horse gram and rice, a concoction similar to what was fed to Mysore’s tamed elephants. About 15 days into his elephant education, Jodorowsky finally mustered up the courage to climb the elephant’s back and go on his first elephant ride.

“I had elements of the elephant from the very first moment in order to go and understand the elephant,” Jodorowsky, who declined to be interviewed for this piece, told Third Rail. “This was what I wanted in that picture ... because riding for kilometers and kilometers on the neck of an enormous elephant changes your consciousness in some way.”

Jodorowsky’s immersive interest in the elephant is telling of a misplaced and misconstrued relationship with all things Indian. In interviews, he narrates his experience with the Indian elephant as a fantastical happening, making no mention of his initial fear of the animal or giving a more realistic depiction of Indians who live and work with elephants. He goes so far as to say, “I drank milk of elephant. It’s incredible!” But most Indians who have any knowledge of elephants will call that out as a fat lie. Elephant’s milk is not harvested for human consumption and contains high levels of capric acid, a saturated fatty acid. Amir Pasha, the production’s van driver and transport liaison said, incredulous, “No such thing happened. How could he have drunk elephant milk!”

Most of Jodorowsky’s interviews about the film are full of exaggerated storytelling, and sometimes plain misinformation, about meeting the elephant. “Ganesh is the elephant-god in India who represents sexual spirituality ... the sexual power,” he told Third Rail. “I put the sacred syllable Om on the elephant’s forehead to show that it was an elephant, but also a divinity... a spiritual power.” Never mind that Ganesh’s most common association is with knowledge rather than sexuality.

In his memoir The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky, published in 2008, Jodorowsky wrote in pornographic detail of a sexual encounter with one Reyna D’Assia, who claims to be the daughter of the famous Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff. Jodorowsky meets Reyna after a screening of El Topo and the two go back to her hotel room together. During their rapid fornication, D’Assia tells him about the Indian elephant god named Ganesh, whose true master is the mouse that accompanies him. She goes on to tell Jodorowsky of Gurdjieff’s visit to Bangalore, where he observed mahouts commanding their elephants with two words, ara and mot—“stop” and “move”—which became an important foundation for Gurdjieff’s teachings.

These words appear frequently in Tusk, and the overall sexual charge of this elephant-related memory echoes also in how Jodorowsky speaks of Tusk and its subject matter. Describing to FAD the way elephants are painted on in India, he said, “You see you’ve an elephant between the legs, and scrotum, and your balls ... I wanted to be sitting on the neck of an elephant, in order to know why they were painting it.” Tusk’s often needlessly long sequences of stampeding elephants are a recurring example of Jodorowsky’s tendency to depict an India of his imagination—they manifest his desire to revel in the unbridled sexual power he attributes to Ganesh and to elephants.

Before he came to India to work on Tusk, the filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky had shot to fame in the 1970s with off-killer hits such as El Topo and The Holy Mountain.

BASED ON A FRENCH CHILDREN’S NOVEL, Poo Lorn of the Elephants (1930), by Reginald Campbell, Tusk is set in British India “somewhere between 1911 and 1941,” and follows the interconnected lives of Tusk, an elephant, and Elise Morrison, an English girl. Born around the same time, in the same place, Tusk and Elise share a magical connection: each can read the other’s mind. Over the years, Elise’s father, John Morrison, tries to tame her beloved pet to work his plantation, but she always manages a well-timed tantrum, ensuring Tusk’s freedom. Tusk, too, has Elise’s back. When she is chased by a wild, “bad” elephant, he comes to her rescue and kills the other elephant.

But Tusk’s freedom is contentious. While Morrison wants to make Tusk heel to use as plantation labour, the film’s bumbling baddies, drunken traders named Shakley and Greyson, repeatedly try to steal the mighty, untamable Tusk, presumably for his ivory, though the reasons remain generally unclear. Matters complicate when the local maharaja’s wife—a husky-voiced American from Las Vegas, who brought with her to India a candy-floss machine—demands Tusk for herself. Unable to refuse the maharaja, Morrison relents and organises a khedda—an operation used to trap elephants—to finally capture Tusk. Helping Morrison execute the khedda is a handsome American hunter, Richard Cairns. While planning for the capture of Elise’s beloved elephant, he also captures her heart. Elise is now torn between protecting Tusk and giving in to her feelings for Cairns.

In the meanwhile, baddies Shakley and Greyson, having been ridiculed by the Morrison family, decide to steal Tusk for themselves. They bribe Ram Baba, one of Morrison’s servants, to spy on Morrison and Cairns’s route for the khedda. But Shakley and Greyson fail to trap Tusk, despite trying multiple times. Their real opportunity arises when, during the khedda, Morrison has a change of heart and lets Tusk escape the entrapment. Shakley and Greyson manage to catch Tusk during this escape but only briefly. Samadhi, Tusk’s mahout and Elise’s dear friend, arrives to free Tusk. A fight ensues between the men and Shakley kills Samadhi—and then Ram Baba, just for fun.

Sovereign once again, Tusk now plays Robin Hood along his rampage, setting free a van of political prisoners, upturning a train of Christian missionaries, and attacking the symbol of Christian invasion, the reverend. But all has not ended well. Before he dies, Ram Baba manages to tell Cairns the identity of his murderers. Shakley and Greyson, afraid of being arrested if Cairns goes to the authorities, decide they must kill Cairns. They kidnap Elise and place her atop a giant temple pillar so that, of course, the handsome Cairns will have to come save her. As the baddies try to kill Cairns and stop Elise from fleeing, the mighty Tusk arrives, killing the baddies and uniting the lovers. With peace restored, Morrison finally grants Tusk his freedom. Elise is overcome with joy. The village takes out a large procession venerating Ganesh, ushering Tusk towards a happier life in the wild. Elise and Cairns ride away on a horse to their own happily-ever-after.

John Morrison, having lost his daughter and his elephant, is promised by his Indian butler, “Don’t be sad, you can have everything back.” Two sadhus teleport Morrison to an isolated temple where a group of sadhus are chanting “Om namah Shivaya.” The sadhus take off Morrison’s shirt, put his colonial garments into the yagna fire, and paint white Shiva tripundras on his body. He joins the sadhus in a chorus in praise of the Bhakti poet Basavanna as the credits roll in.

If a plot summary of Tusk suggests an ungainly arrangement of events, then the film, in its entirety, is twice as convoluted. Much of the film is long—though impressively shot—sequences of charging elephants, and groups of people shouting incoherently to either catch an elephant, celebrate an elephant or fight with each other about elephants. There are several minor storylines, half-uttered comic characters, and too many celebratory processions thrown in at periodic intervals. But more interestingly, each of these digressions seems to be a depiction of something “Indian,” be it the singing, spell-casting sadhus, Elise sneaking out in a boat at night to meditate in a half-submerged temple, or the publicly anti-Indian Lord Spencer, who is secretly having an affair with his Indian maid.

Although an awkward francophone fetishisation of India, Tusk bears some markings of a trademark Jodorowsky film. Fantasy, mysticism and anti-colonial protest were familiar territory for Jodorowsky, but Tusk, from its very conception, was destined to fail. While on the one hand Tusk was marketed as a children’s film, it was also labelled in its opening credits as “a panic fable,” a reference to the Panic movement, of which Jodorowsky was a founding member.

The Panic movement of the early 1960s was propelled by a French collective—led by Fernando Arrabal, Roland Topor and Jodorowsky—that espoused sensorially aggressive, sexually transgressive and visually chaotic art. The aesthetic violence of Panic artworks would not be considered child-friendly by most standards. Although Tusk bears no sexually explicit content or gory violence, it is an adult film with belligerent elephant chases, multiple violent deaths and overt political allegory.

By calling Tusk a “panic fable,” perhaps Jodorowsky imagined he was transforming a—rather boring—children’s novel into a film continuation of his more engaging and sophisticated Fábulas Pánicas, or Panic Fables, a weekly comic strip he wrote and illustrated between 1967 and 1968 for the Mexican newspaper El Heraldo de México. These comics are surreal, blatantly political and, most interestingly, spiritual. Long-haired sadhus and tantric symbols appear in various strips, though the text ascribes the images no specific culture or religion.

Jodorowsky was so bent on understanding elephants that he claimed he ate only elephant food for months COURTESY POORNA SWAMI

Jodorowsky’s use of Hindu imagery in Fábulas Pánicas—albeit without explicitly mentioning India or Hinduism—reveals his interest in India, as early as a decade before Tusk was shot. His first features, too, underscore a desire to work with Indian content. El Topo is the quest for enlightenment through Eastern philosophies, while The Holy Mountain is laden with Oms, Tibetan chanting, and harmonium-and-tabla background scores. Tracing the unidentified mystical motifs through Fábulas Pánicas, The Holy Mountain and El Topo suggests that Jodorowsky was personally invested, if not in India specifically, then in an amorphous, transcendental, spiritually superior East.

Jodorowsky’s inspiration for Tusk makes his Indian obsession even more obvious. Poo Lorn of the Elephants, the novel Tusk is based on, is not set in India but in Northern Siam. Reginald Campbell seems purposeful about this setting—he includes a map of the territories where the story takes place and the river Mae Lang (a distortion of the “Mae Klong”) almost seems to thread the plot together cartographically.

In transplanting the story to southern India, Jodorowsky changes not only the landscape of the story, but also its cultural implications. While Campbell’s tale offers no spiritual or cultural commentary, Tusk, in its migration to India, introduces a slew of Indian motifs, the most obvious being the sadhus and the religious processions, which have no real counterparts in the original book. The film’s screenplay, written by Jeffrey O’Kelly, an Irish writer, drives home that Tusk is a film about India. Photographs of Indian temples and wilderness run through the 258-page-long document, with the landscape described in variants of “tropical Southern Indian.”

The film director MS Sathyu was hired as the production consultant for Tusk. COURTESY POORNA SWAMI

The “splendour” of the maharaja’s palace and attire is elucidated carefully, as is the long hold on the sadhu counting his prayer beads. Most prominently, Elise is scripted as a cultural amalgam, an English child gone native, as it were. In a scene where five-year-old Elise wanders the local market with her ayah, the screenplay states, “LITTLE ELISE is familiar with most of the INDIANS they pass by.” In the same scene, a betel leaf vendor says to young Elise, “How is Indian .. Little Lady today?”; the accent required of the vendor is even notated: “Ow ees Eende en .. Leetel Laay day too diy.” And when Elise grows up, she causes a furore in a party thrown in her honour, when she shows up in a sari rather than a gown.

When asked why Tusk was shot in India when Campbell’s story is set in Siam (a perfectly suitable location), Sathyu shrugged, as if stating the obvious. “They wanted to make a film here,” he said.

Although it is hard to be certain who exactly—the producer or Jodorowsky—chose to relocate the story to India, that relocation offered Jodorowsky an opportunity to delve head-first into his Indian fascination that had, until that point, appeared in preceding works merely as allusion or fragment. But this seemingly arbitrary, perhaps even wanderlusting, change of location was just the first of Tusk’s many blunders.

“HE MADE IT UP AS HE WENT ALONG,” Sathyu said of Jodorowsky’s style of directing, and Pasha agreed, “We didn’t know what was supposed to happen.” Compare the screenplay with the film and it quickly becomes apparent how far the final product strayed from its plan. In the screenplay, John Morrison’s wife does not die in childbirth but is a prominent character for the first part of the film. By the end, Elise and Cairns marry and have a daughter (whom they also name Elise). And throughout, there is only one sadhu, who appears in just a handful of scenes. Of course, modifying a script on location is not unusual for any film production. But the extent to which Tusk drifts from what was envisioned of it testifies to how thoroughly unprepared Jodorowsky was to make a film in India.

Seemingly enchanted by the people he met and the places he saw, Jodorowsky made Tusk a collage of his Indian explorations, with little regard for what the film was about. In the final edit, it is apparent that logical sequences have been spliced, leaving many subplots more image than narrative stuff. Why little Elise antagonises Shakley and Greyson is never made clear, and Lord Spencer’s affair is thrown in right at the end. Bijon Dasgupta, Tusk’s artistic director, confirmed that Jodorowsky was weighed down by fairytale visions of India—“he loved elephants … he was obsessed … he was fascinated by temples, sadhus, the Indian colours.” Jodorowsky cast two sadhus as recurring jokers, who also serve as moral compasses, because he happened to meet them in Coorg. He included a camel in the film just because a migrant from Rajasthan had happened to bring one down with him. When the crew told him there weren’t any camels in southern India, he simply said, “There’s a camel.”

Like with his strange notions about the symbolism of elephants, Jodorowsky held on to several preconceptions about India even as he encountered India more tangibly—Tusk, as a result, was left rather directionless. Throughout the filming process, whenever something struck Jodorowsky’s fancy, he shot it, whether the screenplay asked for it or not. And when he didn’t find something he had decided must appear in his rendition of India, he threw it in anyway. The unscripted (and purposeless) Holi scene stands out in a film that is supposed to be set in southern India, where Holi is rarely celebrated.

Tusk remains a disjointed pastiche of Indian iconography, and a shoddy piece of filmmaking.

In a sense, Jodorowsky reveres India—or his version of it—deeply. The two sadhus best reflect this. On the one hand, they are the wise men who protect Elise and Tusk, turn baddies into roosters, and offer ancient wisdom to morally blind colonisers. But on the other hand, the sadhus are also the comic relief—one appears and disappears unexpectedly and the other is always singing, refusing to budge even when he is in someone’s way. Jodorowsky endows the sadhus with entertainment value, while also portraying them as figures of spiritual attainment. He said in the Third Rail interview, “It was a conspiracy of the sadhus all through the picture, from the very beginning, to surround that man”—Morrison—“in order to absorb him.”

But there’s reason to be suspicious of the fondness Jodorowsky claims he had for the sadhus. Oriole Henry, who played the young Elise, questioned how Jodorowsky dealt with the sadhus, and Indians generally, behind the scenes. Recounting her late mother’s recollections, she spoke of Jodorowsky as hostile, short tempered and ignorant of Indian customs, particularly when it came to the sadhus.

A blonde child who spoke both English and Tamil (although Tusk is a French film set in Kannada-speaking territory), seven-year-old Oriole was considered ideal for the part. She remembered the shoot with a mixture of fondness and bewilderment—swimming with Jodorowsky in the river, running around in the dirt, and playing with the sadhus. “The sadhus were my friends,” Oriole recalled; they gave her lotuses and read her Mr. Men picture book. Years later, when she was 16 years old, she even went back to Coorg to meet one of them.

As she viewed snippets of Tusk on YouTube, Oriole remembered the sadhus did not dress in real life as they appear in the film. They usually wrapped themselves in layers of fabric but Jodorowsky insisted one of them pare down his garb to bare chest and a langot, as if to make the sadhu look like one of those from the Fábulas Pánicas comic strips.

In the Third Rail interview, Jodorowsky even appropriated for himself the supposedly superhuman traits he saw in the sadhus. During the shoot, Oriole’s mother, Margaret Henry (who accompanied her on set), kept a diary, which Oriole showed me in her home in Bengaluru. Margaret wrote of one of the sadhus in an entry from that time—“a very respected holy man who meditated occasionally put black evil smelling ointment on people’s wounds and it worked.” Oriole, too, remembered the sadhu using a “tar-like” paste to cure a persistent wart on her foot. But to Third Rail Jodorowsky said, “I took care of a mahout who was sick using my essential oils. He was ill with gangrene or something like that. I saved his leg.” Neither Oriole nor Sathyu could remember Jodorowsky curing anyone of any ailment.

This attachment to a colourful, often fabricated, version of India, coupled with Jodorowsky’s haphazard method of directing and a perpetually delayed shoot, was disastrous for the entire production. Jodorowsky’s temper did little to alleviate the situation. Oriole’s mother, Margaret, wondered if they would even see a finished product. She wrote in her diary:

Various things have gone wrong. A whole ten days’ telexes to Paris never got through. The STARS have arrived a whole week before it was necessary...Everyone is cross...The arrangements are ghastly and everyone blames everyone else. Shoutings continue...[GG (the cinematographer)] has worked all over the world and says this is the worst organised film he has ever been on.

Margaret also wrote of Jodorowsky’s fickle temperament. Recounting one of Jodorowsky’s many absurd, last-minute demands, she said, “Jod’s demanding a month old white baby. Everyone’s going mad. He says he can’t shoot the scene without one. Sathyu says they can easily intercut with one from Paris but NO NO NO.” On other days, the problems were different but equally ridiculous, like when Jodorowsky refused to shoot with a brown hen, demanding a white cock instead.

By the end of the shoot, Margaret became very upset with Jodorowsky. He had been finicky and increasingly insensitive to the fact that Oriole was a child and would not always behave during a shoot that dragged on for days in the sweltering heat. Margaret wrote that when she confronted Jodorowsky, he became “extremely rude, stuck out his tongue and went on and on,” to which Margaret replied “Jem’Emmerde sur votre filme” (I shit on your film). But Margaret wasn’t the only one distressed by how Tusk’s shoot unfolded. Pasha, too, confirmed Margaret’s claim that Jodorowsky was ill-mannered with the Indian technicians. “He was horrible to the Indians. He hurled abuses at them and they refused to work. The shooting stopped. Sathyu had to beg them to return.”

Fábulas Pánicas, or Panic Fables, a weekly comic strip Jodorowsky wrote and illustrated between 1967 and 1968 for the Mexican newspaper El Heraldo de México, reveals his interest in India.

But Bijon Dasgupta holds a slightly different view. Although he remembers Jodorowsky’s incessant shouting, he also remembers chatting with Jodorowsky over a drink each evening. “I was very fond of him,” Dasgupta said. “He gave me his viewfinder before he left.” When asked whether Jodorowsky treated Indians on set unfairly, Dasgupta was quick to clarify that it was the French crew, not Jodorowsky, who belittled their Indian colleagues. “Jodorowsky marvelled on the Indians. He hated the French people … but he would lose his cool at any given opportunity.”

Jamie Zerfas (then Jamie Kerfey), the 17-year-old interpreter for the foreign crew of Tusk, agreed with Dasgupta. “There was an underlying tension between the foreign technicians and the Indian technicians,” he said, remembering warm conversations between him and Jodorowsky.

Raised by his Australian mother in Srirangapatna, Zerfas described his younger self as “a Mowgli” who was “bright-eyed and left-leaning.” Initially a go-between for Kannada and English speakers, Zerfas soon became a production assistant on his first film project. “Jodorowsky and I hit it off,” Zerfas said. Each night they would sit together and strategise for the next day’s shoot. “He said, ‘You translate what I see in my vision and make sure it happens.’”

But Zerfas also spoke of Jodorowsky’s insensitivity to Indian customs. For a scene where an Indian woman was to breastfeed a baby, Jodorowsky insisted that the woman (played by a local Coorgi villager) expose her breast. When the woman broke down in tears upon Jodorowsky’s insistence, Zerfas had to explain to an aghast Jodorowsky that it was too much to ask a woman from the village (and not a professional actor) to show her naked breast to a group of strangers with cameras.

By Dasgupta’s account, Jodorowsky was just an ill-tempered man whose temper was sometimes directed at Indians. By Margaret and Pasha’s accounts, Jodorowsky was frustrated with his Indian crew’s inexperience with the workings of a European film set. Dasgupta, too, said, “we are used to jugaad, so there were two different styles of filmmaking on set.” By Zerfas’s account, Jodorowsky was kind to Indians, though he couldn’t always understand their ways.

A feeling of being torn between adulation and disgust for a culture Jodorowsky once idolised colours the tacky, final product of Tusk. While he began with the intention to create a fantasy for children, he got distracted trying to live in one. As Zerfas said, “I don’t think he was making a children’s film. There was a little bit of confusion there.” Tusk remains a disjointed pastiche of Indian iconography, and a shoddy piece of filmmaking. According to Zerfas, Jodorowsky couldn’t get past cliches of India because “he only scratched the skin … he didn’t have experience looking under the skin here.” All of Jodorowsky’s Indian women wear colour-coordinated saris. Performances of Kamsale, a folk art from Karnataka, erupt with any excuse or none at all. The common people of India either jubilantly sing and dance in big parades, or run across the countryside screaming incomprehensible sounds. This is the India Jodorowsky sells, the India that he seems to have tried hard to create in the country he encountered. Sathyu was sympathetic to Jodorowsky’s plight. “He couldn’t accept India easily. He was a stranger to the whole thing.”

WHEN JODOROWSKY came to India to make Tusk, he was not prepared for the “degeneration” he would find here. In his book Psychomagic: The Transformative Power of Shamanic Psychotherapy, he lamented, “I saw a parade of sadhus ... protesting because the price of marijuana had risen: they were all drugged. The women sold their saris of silk and bought ones of nylon.”

Jodorowsky’s impulse to stereotype, though, is curious. He was not unfamiliar with colonised cultures, either in his film or in his own life. Born to Lithuanian-Ukrainian Jewish emigres in Chile, he grew up knowing what it is like to be “othered.” In The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky, he described himself as the “offspring of persecuted Jewish emigrants,” before going on to talk about the “monster that had been implanted in our souls through centuries of persecution and pogroms.”

His homeland, too, was marred by oppression. Although independent from the Spanish by the early-nineteenth century, Chile was plagued by a tragic economic aftermath and despotic self-governance. Jodorowsky wrote of Chile in his fictionalised autobiography Where the Bird Sings Best—“Chile is not Europe ... A few people live in paradise, and all the rest live in the greatest misery.” And of the US intervention of the twentieth century, he told Third Rail, “The Americans in Chile during the 1930’s were like the English in India.” It’s strange that despite recognising so intimately the complex histories of colonised communities, Jodorowsky did not approach Tusk with a less orientalising gaze.

Before moving to France permanently, Jodorowsky spent a significant portion of his adult life in Mexico, which is also the location of films that precede and follow Tusk. “For me, to make a picture in India,” Jodorowsky said to Third Rail, “was like making a picture in Mexico. Almost the same climate, almost the same food.” Unlike his India, though, Jodorowsky’s Mexico is filled with surrealist possibility, where natives appear as monks, gunfighters, murderers, magicians, clowns, mystics, seductresses and dwarfs. But India is painted with a falsified sense of ethnography, relegated to being a mystical culture that at once needs to be saved from tyranny and be accorded deep respect. To Third Rail, Jodorowsky described India as an enlightened land that has “the elephant” in its “third eye.”

We are occidental. We don’t experience the elephant. We experience the Cadillac … we experience the Ford. We are sitting in a Ford which is not in the world. It is out of the world. It is running. But at that time they experienced the elephant. And this is important for me … in a selfish way.

Although he believed his film is sensitive to Indian culture (his Indians are not savages), he unwittingly made a caricature of it. As he hammered on with anti-colonial comment, he lapsed into cliches to make his point. The Indian butler bemoans, “none of us are free here,” while the sadhus must make the white man one of them to prove their superiority.

In his enthusiasm for anti-colonial commentary, Jodorowsky drenched the evil white people in bad slapstick comedy—the maharaja’s American wife tortures the elephant and drinks its blood, and Shakley and Greyson smoke camel fur, eat monkey shit, and have one too many embarrassing altercations with the infinitely superior sadhus. As he tears at an alcoholic, conversion-espousing reverend—along with the rest of the film’s bad white men—Tusk emerges as somewhat of an aimless revolutionary. Still, Jodorowsky, adamant to praise his muse, was convinced this elephant mimicked “the spirit of India.”

AFTER THREE MONTHS OF FILMING, the Europeans left Mysore. Oriole, because of her insistent mother, was one of the few in the India unit who actually got paid. Pasha said, “they did some ghichpich with the money and ran away.” Dasgupta clarified, “None of us got paid,” and Zerfas said locals who had participated in the making of Tusk asked him about their payments for many years after the shoot ended.

Back in France, Jodorowsky himself never received his full payment, as the producer filed for bankruptcy. Tusk failed miserably and Jodorowsky disowned it. It would be almost a decade before he made his next feature, Santa Sangre, in 1989. In the meanwhile, Tusk fell away into the mouldy depths of some archives.

An impoverished Jodorowsky moved to a small house outside Paris, and began reading tarot cards for a living. During this time, he began developing what would become his well-known performative healing practice—Psychomagic. As Jodorowsky defined it in his book, Psychomagic is a “purely spiritual approach,” where the therapist prescribes the patient an act to alleviate her suffering of some personal trauma.

Much of Jodorowsky’s work, including films and books, since Tusk has freely referred to India, elephants and stories of Hindu gods—Ganesh most of all. RAPHAEL GAILLARDE / GAMMA-RAPHO / GETTY IMAGES

This healing practice, created in the dark period following Jodorowsky’s departure from India, rings with Indian lessons. He spoke of Psychomagic as a product of him quelling his own ego, an idea he says is “the core in the Hindu doctrine.” In Psychomagic, he even went back to Tusk and described the experience of riding an elephant, of realising the power of the Muladhara chakra (located near the genitals) by feeling the “monumental strength of the earth between your legs.”

In his other books, be it The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky or Metagenealogy: Self-Discovery through Psychomagic and the Family Tree, he referred freely to India, elephants and stories of Hindu gods—Ganesh most of all. Jodorowsky’s films, too, occasionally nodded to Tusk. Santa Sangre’s most noted scene is an elephant’s funeral at which a raving mob devours the elephant. It would seem Tusk stayed with Jodorowsky for many years after he deemed it dead.

Most recently, in The Dance of Reality (2013), the first in a five-part series of autobiographically inspired films, a young Jodorowsky learns the Heart Sutra from Theosophist—a tattooed, langot-and-beads-wearing holy man, whose forehead is adorned with a pair of elephant ears flanking an Om.

The Dance of Reality, so unlike Tusk, is a marvellous film. The late film critic Roger Ebert called it a work of “wild imagination,” filled with “awesome things.” The second part in the series, Endless Poetry (2016), which is slated for a general release this year, has been hailed by Variety (who panned Tusk many moons ago) as possibly Jodorowsky’s best.

As he recounts his life through an accomplished constellation of films, I wonder whether Jodorowsky will revisit the escapades of his buried Indian catastrophe; and I wonder if he will retell those episodes, this time, with better cinematic flair. Jodorowsky did say in a 2014 interview with IndieWire, “With ‘Tusk’ I am searching for the negatives ... I want to redo the color and it could be a fantastic tale for children. It’s beautiful. We are searching, because the producer died and we are wondering where the negative is.”

Here, in India, no one in the unit saw Tusk, though they all wondered for decades what became of their work. And no one heard from Jodorowsky either—they only heard stories through intercontinental grapevines. Nitin Sethi, one of the members of the film’s crew, said he ran into Jodorowsky some years later on the metro in Paris. He reported that Jodorowsky looked bedraggled and impoverished. But the story that lasted among those who had tried to track both Tusk and its director’s fate was a different one—when Jodorowsky returned to Paris, he rode to the film’s premiere, past the Eiffel Tower, on the back of a circus elephant.