Kantara burst into the consciousness of filmgoers in the past few weeks much like its Bhoota Kola protagonist: a quiet beginning shattered by an unexpectedly loud roar.
The film captures the world of Bhoota Kola that is intrinsic to Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada, located picturesquely between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea. Bhoota Kola, Kola, and Nema of Dakshina Kannada, and Theyyam and Thira of North Malabar in Kerala may be considered sister rituals. Despite differences in costume and face-painting, in the bordering regions of Kerala and Karnataka they often meld together. Even the language of the myths sung, paddanna or thottam in the case of theyyam, in the borders is a mix of Tulu and Malayalam.
As part of a contiguous geography and culture, the region shares myths, rituals and deities. Even today, Bhoota Kola and theyyam undergird the everyday lives of a large number of people, across caste and class divides. They believe that all good and bad things in life are affected and effected by the local deities, who are tied to the land. The world of these deities thus always exists and becomes embodied in the kola during the ritual.
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The origin stories, paddanna and/or thottam, of many deities speak of them travelling the length and breadth of the erstwhile Tulunadu, parts of Malanadu, and the Kolathunadu regions, either on invitation, as by the king in Kantara, or of their own will, looking for suitable places to settle in. Here they are respected and worshipped and, in turn, protect the people of the region. These myths talk of deities travelling inside empty oil containers or water pots or hitching a ride on a cane umbrella, sometimes unbeknownst to the carrier, or on large ships accompanied by a retinue of followers in search of new homes.
“Kantara places front and centre a seemingly marginal culture restricted to a small geographical region.”
In these narrations, a deity’s relationship to a territory and its people is very specific. Once a favourable home is offered or found, the deity settles down and the people live and worship in peace. The underlying conviction is that the land belongs to the deities, who have merely left it in the custody of the local chief (also known as raja). It is the raja’s duty as the deity’s representative to be a fair and just ruler, an ideal king, maintain justice and order in the land in his care, and worship and propitiate the deity periodically. The deity in turn blesses the land with prosperity or, if needed, by guiding an erring polity.
For many people in these regions, rituals such as Bhoota Kola remain an anchor, returning them periodically to a sure and familiar world, despite everyday changes and uncertainties. When the immanent world of the deity manifests through the kola, people transcend the prosaic to participate in a ritual universe.
Land ownership has always been heavily contested in these regions, especially between landowners, tenant farmers, labourers, and indigenous people. Brahminical origin myths such as the Keralolpatti or Tuluva Gramapaddata marked out territories and laid claim to land for Brahmin settlers, believed to have been brought to these parts by Parasurama or Mayura Varma. These texts elaborate the unequal status of different castes through ceremonial duties and their interdependence.
The lands thus claimed were worked on and serviced by oppressed caste groups in return for foodgrains and patronage for specific ceremonial duties, which were passed on hereditarily and fashioned as “rights or privileges”. Such canny stratification and oppression succeeded in checking resistance to shifting power structures among the indigenous people—the Dravidians—and the Brahmin settlers. Colonialism followed by Independence and the modern state with its land reforms gave rise to further anxieties surrounding land, ownership, belonging, and identity. It is thus not surprising that the question of land and its ownership forms the crux of Kantara’s three-way conflict between landlord, state, and people.
We see in Kantara this collision of an immanent world anchored in an ancient idea of justice, where one’s word is proof enough, with the modern world and its judicial systems that rely on evidence and paperwork. It is a confrontation between two kinds of sensibilities—the indigenous and the modern; the people of the region who live by an ancient promise versus Murali, the forest officer armed with maps, borders, and rules. Taking the individualistic approach characteristic of modernity, he fails to recognise the idea of community and the shades of grey that operate within this idea. The institution that Murali represents is a legacy of our colonial past that ushers us into a seemingly rational modernity. However, the ways in which such bureaucratic institutions function hardly seem rational, and even his seniors, perhaps with more experience and empathy, warn him to be more flexible in a world largely untouched by modernity.
Murali’s own learning curve in the film is somewhat steep, and much has been written about the inconsistency of his characterisation. Since Kantara focusses more on high-octane drama than on the interiority of its characters, the change of heart seems pat. It is only when he realises that the villagers have been duped does he recognise the precarity of their lives, which depend heavily on forest produce. Only when he begins to perceive the stakes involved, for both the forest people and the landlords, does any kind of understanding and empathy emerge.
As for the landlord, he is depicted as “benign” as long as modernity and its institutions do not interfere with his profiteering. The villagers are under his control; the young and aggressive local hero Shiva functions as his henchman, naïve and to be activated when required. He hopes to use this to his advantage. But when the forest officer begins to ask for land deeds in order to demarcate government land, he realises for the first time that his authority in the area can be challenged.
Rich cultural milieu
The villagers are illiterate and have not been particular about documents; he uses this to his advantage, hoping to dupe both the local people and the government. As the descendant of the original raja who gave away this land, he believes it still belongs to him. He scorns the ancient pact between the deity and his ancestor but cannot ignore Murali, who traces the paper trail.
The shift from deities pronouncing judgments to modern legal institutions makes the landlord nervous, hurtling him down the path of self-destruction. While the former relied on the oral pronouncements of the kola and was based on faith, the latter works on proof and signatures. The strong element of faith is reinforced when the current kola, Guruva, because of his connect with the deity, has a disquieting dream about an impending calamity and pleads with the landlord to rectify things. Thus, even before the kola ritual, the landlord has been cautioned to change his ways.
Kantara thus places front and centre a seemingly marginal culture restricted to a small geographical region. This is evident in small details such as the post-prologue Kambala race with which the film begins, a race ritually linked to the first ploughing of the sacred field belonging to the deity, before the Bhoota Kola performance. On the sidelines, events such as cockfights, football, betting games take place and stalls are erected in the manner of small village fairs. The rich cultural milieu of the region is established.
Despite their ostensible marginality, the deities of this culture are worshipped and propitiated by people across classes and castes to this day. Texts like the Keralolpatti consolidated hierarchy and caste inequalities but also gave birth to local traditions and rituals that are now an amalgam of the indigenous, the Dravidian, and the Sanskritic/Vedic.
In the paddana/thottam narratives, however, these amalgamations can often be deciphered as inconsistencies and discontinuities through which connections to Vedic/Puranic deities are incorporated into the pantheon of kola and theyyam deities. Accusations against Kantara’s makers of Brahminic/Vedic/Hindu appropriation of indigenous cultures have led to a multi-way debate. However, apart from the “Varaha Roopam” song (itself in the middle of a plagiarism controversy), an overt allusion to Vishnu’s Varaha avatar as Panchuruli Kola, there is little else in the film that reiterates the Brahminical connection.
On the other hand, across the length and breadth of Tulunadu and Kolanadu where Bhoota Kola and theyyam take place, such songs making Puranic connections are common and often played on loudspeakers. Even the deities refer to themselves as amshams (parts)—of Shiva, Vishnu, Parvati—making direct connections to Puranic gods. The survival mechanism of Hinduism has long been the complete encompassing into its fold of all local deities, worships, and beliefs (as well as of heterodox philosophies). Today’s Hinduism is a sum of innumerable local practices and rituals such as Bhoota Kola or theyyam, and modern Hindu life is a strange amalgam of such varied practices that emerged due to ethnic and political compulsions. What one sees in Kantara is a reflection of this.
What is disturbing, however, is the appropriation of the film’s success by followers of political Hindutva. Some of the gushing praise for the film, while seemingly inclusive of the diversity of ritual practices, seems to have murky political designs that push for a monolithic understanding of Hinduism—a political co-opting that assimilates and subsumes all cultural and ritual diversity under “Hindu,” with little recognition of antiquity, nuance or diversity.
Some of the criticism of Kantara, too, is a reaction against such political designs. Allegations that the film is regressive and promotes superstitions seem to be a reaction against the current political climate as well as a recognition of Karnataka’s rich lineage of rationalist thinkers who worked for the modernisation of society and often paid for it with their lives. In such debates, rituals function almost as a political tool to reorganise networks of power.
As early as 2003, Carrin and Tambs-Lyche, scholars of Bhoota Kola, noted that with the increasing polarisation of the ideological discourse, the embrace of the ritual has begun to signify revivalist Hindu policies while its rejection seems an attempt to signify a politically secular position. Kantara’s success has returned these debates to the forefront.
Among the many debates of appropriation, one usual argument seems missing—how can a Shetty, belonging to a land-owning, feudal caste, perform a Bhoota Kola? How could he comprehend the struggles of persons from the oppressed castes who perform the kola? In real life, a Shetty would or could be a landlord but never a kola, so could this be considered appropriation? Of course, there are no easy answers. However, to Rishab Shetty’s credit, the story is told with empathy and nuance without reducing characters to hero or villain. Instead, they muddle through their confused identities and negotiate a fraught relationship with modernity or tradition through the mediums of state, judiciary, traditions, and rituals.
One might wonder what explains the unforeseen success of the film. But this story about protecting the land and the environment recalls Amitav Ghosh’s exploration of the uncanny, the recognition of a seemingly familiar non-human agency that humankind has turned away from. Here perhaps is a different way of telling a story, one that is capacious enough to accommodate uncanniness. While Kantara proposes no solutions, the much-lauded finale comes tantalisingly close to a conventional deus ex machina by which, in many narrative traditions, earthly problems are eventually resolved through some inspired or (as in this case) dramatically fierce divine intervention.
Gita Jayaraj is a freelance writer and editor with an interest in ritual, performance, and gender. She is currently a research scholar at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Madras and has an MPhil from the Centre of Linguistics and English, JNU, New Delhi.
- Kantara captures the world of Bhoota Kola that is intrinsic to Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada.
- For many people in these regions, rituals such as Bhoota Kola remain an anchor, returning them periodically to a sure and familiar world, despite everyday changes and uncertainties.
- Kantara thus places front and centre a seemingly marginal culture restricted to a small geographical region.