Sometimes I wonder where a pet badge, a pet licensing program we had done long back, and a film about a man and a dog all come together. They do in 777 Charlie. Directed by Kiranraj K, it is one of the simplest, most beautiful, and grittiest tales of a love that passeth all understanding, a love that happens despite yourself not because of yourself - that between a person and a dog. And it’s a tale that is not only well-told but well researched. It drills down into the newer woke realities of animal welfare that cover adoption, the casual crime of illegal breeding, and even resultant tragic genetic disease.
777 Charlie is also a tale of falling in love, of a slow yet abrupt awakening. As a person who has made this journey of love 22 years ago with my dog, my little girl, CJ, I felt every heartbeat, I resonated with every milestone as I watch a strong man, who becomes defenseless and crumbles to the love of his dog; a love that is so epic, so basic, and so relentless. I could only smile at Dharma’s (played by Rakshit Shetty) inexorable, inevitable downfall. But the smile was pulled a little to the side because we all know how sometimes the sweetest of stories end. I can talk about snow and melting ice cream, I can talk about an unemotional man, a young little girl, a bike sidecar, a dog with more personality than we have been prepared to protect ourselves from. But what’s most relatable is Dharma and his dog Charlie’s journey that has to be made across the plains and hills of the country.
From a person with an animal welfare perspective, seeing the nuances around the new prevention of cruelty to animals rules, breeding, and eventually, adoption, the pathways of caring, informal structures around cruelty prevention in the film was very heartening. I never expected this level of sensitivity would be shown by a filmmaker on the gentler nuances of having a pet and companion animal, and was pleasantly surprised.
The research for this film started well before the pandemic. I had no idea what this film was when the research team kept calling me on whether a pet license number could be three digits, how pet licensing camps were conducted, and whether there was a pet licensing number ‘777’. They even wanted to come to the dog park in Cubbon Park in Bengaluru to see how the pet registrations were conducted by the city corporation. I directed to them all the photographs and videos of our previous pet licensing programs from our Facebook page, The Cubbon Park Canines. I had to share with them a picture of CJ’s pet license badge from over two decades years ago to show them how a badge looked. It was years after she died that I set up CJ Memorial Trust in her name, but looking at that license badge, that etched oval of brass brought all the grief back. But now, I know the reasons behind the 777 Charlie research team’s unrelenting questions.
I had also requested them to use an indie dog for the film, and they said they would try. A few months later, when they called for another input, I reminded them of the same. The person on the other end said it’s difficult because it’s harder to get an identical double for an indie compared to a labrador. Four labradors were used for the film - two young ones and two adults. I still requested him to keep the focus on ‘adopt don’t shop’ - an animal welfare movement that encourages the adoption of dogs in need over shopping, especially exotic breeds. I insisted on this because I am among those who were pained at the rush to buy pugs after the Hutch puppy ads came out, and then saw how the poor brachycephalic breed was hunted down, bought and bred, only for many to be abandoned and discarded. I did not want the same happening with our already overbred poor labradors after this film.
Then COVID-19 happened and two years passed. I had forgotten about this film. Then, I heard that the movie was restarting and the teaser was released. I was so worried that there would be no warning about the perils of breeding and buying labradors. If there was no information on the rules, this could cause another labrador purchase rush. I had no idea of the story except it was about a man and his dog.
Even when we spoke a few times, because of the tightness of the script, the researchers and filmmakers didn’t mention how they were approaching the issues of breeding and buying dogs. So, as part of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), we wrote a letter to the filmmakers, requesting for three specific messages to be sent out to the audience: a focus on not buying labradors, promoting indie dogs, and on ‘adopt don’t shop’ and helping people understand that it is wrong to buy from illegal breeders.
I’m glad that letter from SPCA went out as a matter of form, as a matter of process, and as a matter of focus on how films on animals should be made in the country. But I can tell you in hindsight that I had no reason to fear as 777 Charlie handled the issues with love, empathy, and sensitivity without going overboard on sentimentality. While the last few lines of caveats/messages in the film could have been more prominent and in larger font, I am glad that it was shown with a practical ending on what is needed on the ground. For that, the 777 Charlie team’s openness to being guided by welfare experts like Sudha Narayanan of CARE must be lauded.
There are only a couple of disconnects - the dog show, references to the Animal Welfare Board, and the possible pups, but these are minor. Charlie Chaplin, the factory floor, and road trips across the breadth of India are the setting for a wonderful actor. Rakshit has, except for a couple of scenes of deep emotion, played his part with restraint, surliness, and sensitivity. And for the dog whose deep black pool-like eyes just loved Dharma until he drowned in them, I have no words.
I have to confess I didn’t watch Marley & Me, but I can say that 777 Charlie is a movie that is a journey and a coming of age for Indian cinema. I’m proud of my state and my country has made this film and I’m proud of an oeuvre that has reminded us not just the love we can have, but also how we should have it whole-heartedly and responsibly.
Priya Chetty-Rajagopal is a citizen activist also focused on animal welfare advocacy. As Founder of CJ Memorial Trust, she has helped set up SPCA Bengaluru and the Karnataka Animal Welfare Board.