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'Jungle Book' Love: Why I Identify With The 'Flower In Underpants'

Mowgli likes the jungle life.

Watching Disney's remake of The Jungle Book, based on Rudyard Kipling's stories, took me straight back to my childhood in India, and to Sunday mornings spent watching an animated series of The Jungle Book in Hindi, on India's national television channel. (It was originally a Japanese series, dubbed in Hindi for an Indian audience.)

This series was iconic to my generation, which grew up in the 1990s. It had 52 episodes and a title song written by Gulzar, one of India's top lyricists. The name of his Hindi song roughly translates to "A flower in underpants has blossomed in the jungle." The "underpants" would be the hero Mowgli's loincloth, which was a source of amusement for us urban kids with our urban clothing. The lyricist's use of the word chaddi, a colloquial term for underwear, made us giggle and pay attention.

The song was so catchy that I would sing it often, sometimes with my brother as we played outside, climbing trees, pretending to be as agile as Mowgli, but failing horribly, feeling uncool. (Listen to the song and watch the first episode of the Hindi animation here.)

Someone involved with the Disney movie must have known about the TV series. The Hindi version of the film, now playing in India, has a new version of the same song as part of the opening credits.

The original Kipling work has come in for its share of criticism. (George Orwell called the author a "prophet of British imperialism.") But I can only tell you how much the TV series meant to me as a young girl growing up to India — and how it touched me again as a globe-trotting adult, torn between my birthplace and my adopted home in the U.S.

Having grown up on a diet of Disney characters like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Tom and Jerry, I'd never before seen an animation with Indian characters. I could relate to Mowgli in a way I couldn't with other animated characters — even though we didn't have a lot in common. While I grew up in a small town in southern India called Mysore, watching Mowgli's adventures in the jungle made me more curious about the wild elephants and deer I saw in nearby Bandipur National Park.

I was surprised to learn that an Indian American friend of mine had a similar reaction watching Disney's first movie based on Kipling's book. This was the first story, outside of Hindu mythology, where "the protagonist was brown and without a Christian name," Kartikay Mehrotra told me in an e-mail. "At 3-, 4-, 5-years-old, I wasn't thinking about racism or prejudice. Mowgli was my hero — the first character I could relate to because he looked like me."

There was another reason why I loved the series. To me, the stories felt like another chapter of the Panchatantra Tales, a centuries-old collection of stories of different animals. You might think of them as the Aesop's Fables of India.

Originally written in Sanskrit and Pali, the stories have been translated into English and a range of Indian languages and illustrated by many artists. Each story has a moral — hard work, honesty, generosity. Some stories celebrate wit, humor and cooperation between different animals. And many stories portray a top predator — a lion, tiger or jackal — as vicious, greedy or power hungry.

Most stories find them defeated by a weaker animal like a rabbit or a wolf. Sound familiar? The similarity between The Jungle Book and Panchatantra tales feels lilke more than a coincidence to me. I don't know if Kipling ever admitted to it, but having grown up in India, he must have heard these ancient stories.

But the new movie isn't just a trigger for nostalgia. My friend Anannya Dasgupta in New Delhi said the movie made her think of "kinship and family" — and how a sense of belonging can go far beyond the traditional definition of kinship. She was especially touched by the "bond that is asserted between human-child and a wolf and beyond that between a human, a black panther and a bear." So was I.

I lived in the United States between 2002 and 2013. I had wonderful friends here from different parts of this country and the world. And yet, I never quite felt as if I completely fit in. That was one of the reasons I moved back to India in 2013, hoping to feel more at home.

Now, I am back in the States, because my husband — a man with very different roots and upbringing than my own — is an American, but also because I missed my close American friends. And my return to the U.S. gave me another reason to relate to Mowgli.

In the movie, he forays into the "man-village," the place he and his biological family came from. But unlike Kipling's original story, where Mowgli settles among humans, the new movie has him return to the jungle, to his wolf family and his beloved friends, Bageera, the panther and Baloo, the sloth bear.

So what if he is so different from them, and they from him? The bond of shared experiences, love, and friendship transcends such differences. It may sound cheesy but feels quite profound to me now.

Writer's note: Special thanks to my friend Anannya Dasgupta, who's a poet, for her poetic translation of the title of the TV series song.

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