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.”