Rishab Shetty, the director and writer of Kantara, spoke to Frontline on the runaway success of his film, the culture of coastal Karnataka, and allegations that the film appropriates aspects of local culture to portray it as part of Brahminical Hinduism. Excerpts:
Kantara’s success has perhaps exceeded even your wildest expectations. Why do you think the film clicked with the audience?
As a writer, I had certain ideas as to what should be the takeaway of the film and I have always believed that the “‘regional is universal”,’ so I made the film from a regional perspective.
How did you come up with the story of Kantara?
Around 20 or 30 years ago, an incident took place in my village which helped me begin writing Kantara. This incident involved a fracas between a forest officer and a farmer over a piece of agricultural land. When I recalled the incident, I didn’t see these two persons as mere individuals but as representatives of humanity and nature, their clash representing this conflict. I started thinking about this and about how our entire culture in coastal Karnataka revolves around agriculture. Linked to this agriculture-based culture are the daivas (local deities), who are an intrinsic part of our lives, which I brought into my story to complete the tale of the conflict between the elements of nature and humanity. According to me, daiva aradhane (worship of local deities) bridges this conflict.
Daiva aradhane brings together everyone equally in its rituals. Even to this day, when daivas are worshipped, members of a particular village, along with their families who may be scattered across the world, ensure that they gather for the rituals. There is no caste element in the Kola (the ritual dance which is part of daiva aradhane) and it even transcends religion, as there are Muslim and Christian daivas. That’s why I have included the character of Garnall Abbu in the film who is a Beary Muslim (a Muslim community from coastal Karnataka). Thus, I brought in the idea of coexistence as demonstrated in daiva aradhane.
The subtitle of the film is Ondu Danta Kathe (a legend). Is the film actually based on a legend of coastal Karnataka?
Not directly, but we have thousands of daivas in coastal Karnataka, each of whom has a story. All these stories have come to us come to us as folk songs. There are many sagas where the daiva is challenged, or the daiva performs miracles, and these have actually been witnessed by people who have recorded these instances. How does a story become a legend? Generations of storytellers repeat the same story, giving birth to a legend. I brought together many real incidents, legends, and bits of folklore that I’ve heard over the years and set my fictional story in the world of Kantara.
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You have effectively portrayed the culture of coastal Karnataka through the kambala (buffalo race), kola, daiva aradhane and the Kundapur dialect of Kannada.
This is something a lot of filmmakers do. A filmmaker may belong to north or south or coastal Karnataka but the film becomes a strong film if they incorporate the legends, folklore and ideas of their regions. It is also our responsibility as filmmakers to not only provide entertainment but also, in some way, to document aspects of our culture for the viewers. There are famous Kannada litterateurs such as Shivaram Karanth and Kuvempu who have set novels in their regions. When it comes to filmmakers today, there is a natural apprehension whether films set in a regional milieu will work or not, but when the story is packaged in an interesting way the audience will engage with it.
The climactic scene has become the most popular segment, with many viewers awed by the way in which it is conceptualised. How did you come up with this scene?
It is difficult to answer your question because it’s not easy to communicate what I experienced during the shooting of this scene. In the screenplay, there was only one line about this scene, which stated that the spirit of Guliga daiva would enter Shiva on the instruction of Panjurli daiva. When the daiva’s spirit enters a person, that person struggles to withstand the energy and loses consciousness sometimes. I had to portray this frenzied moment and I prepared for this by watching thousands of videos of Guliga daiva on YouTube. I had also seen the Kola from my childhood, and a team of daiva nartakas (ritual dancers) was with me throughout and I was discussing the portrayal with them continuously. As a devotee myself, I was clear that the portrayal should be accurate because these are sensitive matters of belief, and the visuals of the scene played out in my head.
The Karnataka government announced that it would provide Rs.2,000 as pension to daiva aradhane artistes. You must be happy with this decision.
Yes, I’m very happy with this decision but I would further request the Karnataka government to provide similar pensions to other practitioners of folk arts in the State. After I made my previous movie Sarkaari Hiriya Praathamika Shaale, Kaasaragodu, Koduge: Raamanna Rai (2018) on Kannada schools and language politics, a lot of people adopted Kannada schools. Nowadays, there is a feeling that cinema does not have any tangible impact but as these instances show, cinema does have the power to change people’s lives.
Kantara has become the second-highest grossing Kannada film. This year has been especially good for the industry, with superhits such as KGF 2, James, Vikrant Rona, and 777 Charlie. What does this mean for Kannada cinema?
We are passing through an important phase in the journey of Kannada cinema right now. When we look at the history of Kannada cinema, we see that it has played an important role in the cinematic history of India. We have had legendary actors such as Dr Rajkumar, Ambareesh, Shankar Nag, Lokesh, and Ananth Nag, and directors such as S. Siddalingaiah and Puttanna Kanagal.
Have you seen the 1970s film Bhootayyana Maga Ayyu directed by Siddalingaiah? It was a film that was far ahead of its time, both technically and in the way it discussed issues like caste. Then there was Ondu Muttina Kathe which starred Dr Rajkumar and had scenes shot underwater. Kannada cinema pioneered many technological innovations in India. Web series are popular now, but Malgudi Days was the firston Indian television.
Every industry has its ups and downs, and Kannada cinema has seen these phases, but we are living in an era where language barriers are breaking down and the distinctions between regional cinema and Bollywood are disappearing. For the audience now, which is very perceptive, there is only Indian cinema, and quality of content ensures that a variety of films are accepted.
You have made it clear that you will direct and act in only Kannada movies. With the massive success of Kantara, you must be highly sought after by Bollywood and other language cinemas, so why this insistence?
Definitely. I will make only Kannada films. Kantara has been appreciated and the film has been dubbed into several languages; this has given me a lot of confidence. If the approach I had towards cinema while making Kantara changes, my art will become corrupted, won’t it? I want to continue making films the same way. For Kantara to be a global superhit, the stage was provided by Kannada cinema and Kannadigas. I owe it to Kannadigas who watched the film and reviewed it on social media, after which the accolades spread like a forest fire. How can I forget that?
After the release of the film, there were comments that daiva aradhane is not part of Vedic Hindu culture as shown in the film. There is also the critique that while local rituals are integral to small communities, when transposed onto a larger frame, as in your film, they can be co-opted into a national project like political Hindutva. How do you counter the charge that daiva kola is not part of Hindu dharma, as claimed by the right wing, but a non-Brahminical practice?
Ideally, it is not me but the daiva nartakas, who have been performing these rituals for generations, who should respond to this question, as it pertains to their practices. I’m merely the storyteller. I have portrayed this [cultural practice] on screen without harming anyone’s sentiments. Just as critics have a right to question, I, too, have the right to bring in whatever aspects I want to in my film. The freedom of expression of the storyteller is also important, isn’t it? I have said what I had to say through my film.
How do you respond to the criticism that the film has relied on regressive customs and that it promotes superstition and irrational belief systems and practices?
Indians are deeply religious people and have spiritual beliefs and live their lives according to this. People who don’t share these beliefs call such practices superstitions, but even they have their own belief systems. Throughout human history and even before the rise of civilisations, people had strong belief systems. People who criticise these practices as superstitions are entitled to their opinion and I will not cross-question them. I am someone who believes in these practices and as a writer and filmmaker, I have portrayed these aspects.
Kantara has a strong subtext of caste discrimination built into it. What inspired you to underline this aspect?
As a writer, my strength is my keen observation of society. I have seen this society [of coastal Karnataka] very closely from childhood and I’ve grown up seeing caste discrimination. I belong to an upper-caste community (Bunt) but the ill-treatment of lower castes made an impression on me. Nowadays, caste differences are reducing as societies progress but because Kantara is set in the 1990s, I had to incorporate aspects of caste discrimination as well. It was important. .
In an interview on a Kannada platform, you said the forest officer represents “nature” and the villagers represent “culture” or humanity. One could say that this is a superficial distinction: that an agent of the state like the forest officer can never represent nature because he only represents power; that, in effect, it is the forest dwellers who represent nature. How do you respond?
I am not talking about all forest officers in Kantara; only about the character of Muralidhar in my film. Towards the end of the film, you would have noticed that a transformation takes place in Muralidhar’s character and he becomes enlightened. He even offers help to revert the land that has been lost by the villagers. I was trying to convey the message that everyone can live together, so that is why I say that Muralidhar represents nature. I was speaking to an officer from the Karnataka Forest Department recently, and he told me that now even the department is following this concept of coexistence, allowing tribals to live within the forests and providing them with jobs, and so on. I have depicted such coexistence in the 1990s in Kantara and this is just cinematic liberty, that’s all.
There are thousands of legends and myths about supernatural forces, particularly in South India. Girish Karnad, for example, dealt sensitively with such a story in Nagamandala. With your experience of making Kantara, what would you say are the precautions to be exercised so that such films don’t end up becoming exotic stereotypes of ‘primitive culture’ for mainstream consumption?
My intention has been to not exoticise the culture of daiva aradhane. That is why I attempted to portray the rituals as accurately as possible along with incorporating elements of folklore. We have exaggerated some of the dance sequences for cinematic purposes but these actually exist in milder forms.
You have introduced an educated tribal woman who becomes a guard in the Forest Department, but the film gives her no substantial role to play. The film’s two main women are two-dimensional.
In Kantara, I have attempted to tell the story of Shiva, the son of a daiva nartaka. He is supposed to continue the rituals after his father’s disappearance but he goes astray. Towards the end of the film, there is a point of realisation for Shiva when the daiva himself reveals his [Shiva’s] destiny and, ultimately, he comes to the point where he does what he’s supposed to do. Thus, the story is about Shiva and not about his mother or Leela. They are only the support system for Shiva’s character.