Rishab Shetty’s action drama Kantara has turned out to be quite the sleeper hit. Released on September 30, 2022, the Kannada film gained in popularity over the first week of its run, prompting the filmmakers to distribute it in several other languages. At the end of a month, Kantara had become the most profitable Kannada-language film of all time, with the exception of K.G.F: Chapter 2, which set the box office on fire earlier this year. That this astonishing success was made possible by word-of-mouth publicity is reassuring in an era of colossal marketing budgets, and it is also oddly appropriate for a work that foregrounds oral modes of knowledge transmission.
But word-of-mouth publicity is only part of the reason behind the film’s reputation. Like any work today with high visibility, Kantara quickly became an object of culture wars and significantly benefited from the ensuing controversy. The bone of contention, specifically, was the film’s emphatic use of the Bhoota Kola, a performative ritual prevalent among the Adivasi or indigenous communities in the coastal region of southern Karnataka. In this form of invocation, a designated medium, in expressive makeup and elaborate costume, works himself into a trance, channelling a guardian spirit, which addresses the concerns of the community.
Champions of Kantara on the right of the political spectrum have seen in Shetty’s film—and its nationwide acceptance—the expression of a pan-Indian Hindu identity, a native metaphysics that allows Hindu audiences across the country to connect with the themes of the story despite its cultural specificity. Critics fault the film precisely for this conflation of indigenous practices with Hindu mythology. In particular, Shetty’s overlaying of Bhoota Kola performances with the Sanskrit hymn “Varaha Roopam”, whose lines invoke the third avatar of Vishnu, has been seen as an “appropriation” of Adivasi rituals by the homogenising forces of Hindutva. It is not the goal of the article to pass judgement on the debate—to determine whether Bhoota Kola is part of Hinduism or not—but to retrieve a work buried, within weeks, under the debilitating debris of political discourse.
Kantara carries the subtitle “a legend” and opens like a fable. An off-screen narrator tells the tale of a king who, in the mid-19th century, trades off vast stretches of his wooded demesne for obtaining the protection of a tribal deity. It is a pact not just between the raja and the forest-dwelling tribe who worship the deity, but with the deity itself, who speaks through one of the tribesmen, warning against violating the covenant. We see the dire consequences of such a transgression soon enough; a contemptuous descendant of the king challenges divine law by mocking a Bhoota Kola performer and dies when he tries to retrieve the gifted land through legal means.
This supernatural prelude, which concludes with the withdrawal of “god” from the world, frames a largely secular story set in the 1990s. The king’s next-generation descendant is now a landlord by the name Devendra Suttur (played by Achyuth Kumar), who lives in guarded harmony with the tribe while profiting from the produce of their land. A hired hand at Suttur’s timber factory, Shiva (Shetty himself), comes from a family entrusted with the hallowed Bhoota Kola ritual, but lives a profane life dominated by liquor and boar hunting. His provocative ways run up against Murali (Kishore), a newly appointed forest officer who wants to stop Shiva’s poaching, nationalise the forest lands where the tribal community lives and whose resources it uses, and relocate its inhabitants.
Kantara thus turns around this symbolic three-way conflict between the secular state (represented by the unbelieving forest officer), the faithful majority (the descendants of the tribe), and the transitional remnant of the old order (the extractive landlord who nonetheless abides by community rules). Each of these forces comes with its own perception of the land; if the officer is armed with the objectivity of maps and the landlord with acreage information, the villagers have a more empirical, corporeal relation to their dwelling place. The expanse of land gifted to them in the prelude is determined simply by the reaches of a primal scream that the deity emits and which becomes a recurring formal element in the film.
But subtextual analysis will only take us so far. Shetty is not an intellectual or an ideologue. To treat Kantara as the expression of a comprehensive world view is to mischaracterise the work, which relies significantly on narrative convention and melodramatic abstraction for effect. For most of its runtime, the film chugs along on lines familiar to the Indian audience, recounting the story of a lovable rural rascal who finds his cause. Secondary characters are defined by a single trait—the intransigent forest officer, the crafty landlord—with no dialectical streak to soften them. When they are not romantic props, women are either absent (the officer’s deserting wife), mute (the landlord’s silently suffering spouse), or reduced to a neurotic wreck (Shiva’s mother).
Such simplifications come with the territory, and for a film unfolding like a myth, they are defensible. Kantara’s shortcomings, on the other hand, are dramaturgical and stylistic. With character motivations weakly sketched, the film progresses through a series of coarse contrivances to arrive at its conflict and resolution, especially around the figure of the forest officer. This lack of dramatic cogency is aggravated by a restless style of rapid edits and strident score that does not allow the film to linger on a moment or an image. Whether portraying the forest officer, or the landlord’s lawyer, or Shiva’s friends, almost every actor operates on a uniformly ultra-high pitch, constraining the film to an unvarying emotional profile.
This agitated, exaggerated style undermines the film’s climactic passage, when a done-and-dusted Shiva is resurrected by the deity and animated into a murderous frenzy. Because Shiva has been larger than life throughout the narrative, capable of taking down hordes of henchmen single-handedly, this godly intervention proves moot, scarcely different from the influence of alcohol or cannabis that so far gave our hero his preternatural fighting abilities. Instead of an epistemological shift in our perception, what we get in Shiva’s final transition is a literal deus ex machina, a banalisation of the divine.
Notwithstanding the novelty ascribed to this heavenly visitation, Indian audiences are not alien to such irruptions of the irrational in their cinema, where stories of rewarded devotion held sway at one point in time. Kantara, in fact, inherits from the last wave of these “mythologicals”, the beloved Amman/ Ammoru films of the 1990s and the early 2000s that flourished and faded with India’s economic liberalisation. Where these movies put their pious protagonists through trials by domestic injustice, Kantara takes its agnostic hero through a worldly tale of social injustice. The viewer has, even so, no trouble suspending disbelief and never doubts for a moment that a man could really die vomiting blood as punishment for defying the gods.
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Yet something does transform in Kantara’s quarter-hour home stretch. As Shiva’s battered body is visited by the deity, speech, psychology, and plot recede to make way for the pure spectacle of a manic performance. Bare-chested and ash-faced, Shetty takes a leap into the void, carried away in religious transport. He crawls, jiggles, rolls, and dances, his limbs splayed in all directions, tongue out, head thrown back in convulsions. Words yield to full-throated howls as he taunts his adversaries, breaks their bones, and converts their lethal torches into ceremonial aarti. At one point, he gorges on puffed rice offered in pacification. In the midst of this vortex of gestures, this sublime silliness, the audience is suspended in a mixture of fright, admiration, and nervous laughter.
At the peak of this sacred rage, Shetty cuts to a tender scene of peace and reconciliation. Having at last owned up to his heritage, Shiva now performs the Bhoota Kola ritual, his individuality wholly subsumed by the role. Scored to the “Varaha Roopam” hymn, and shot seductively in slow motion, this moving coda finds a fully costumed Shiva directing a series of gestures at the forest officer, gestures that are defiant, authoritative, affectionate, trustful, and submissive all at once. He draws the officer’s hand to his chest, inviting other onlookers to follow suit and uniting them into a single mass around him. As he leans back, the swirl of emotions on his face gives way to serenity, like a rogue tune that has finally found its home note. Shortly after, he withdraws into the forest upon hearing the call of his forebear, and when he does meet him, the serenity blossoms into joy. Shiva, who has always been running away from this call, and his calling, heeds to it at long last. The circle closes. It’s a potent sequence that tugs at the traditionalist fibre in the viewer.
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Little wonder, then, that conservatives have embraced the film with vehemence and turned it into an emblem, one more mallet with which to bash Bollywood, which to their eyes has lost connection with the customs of the land. The formal risk of the ending should not be understated. For nearly all of its last 10 minutes, Kantara suspends all exposition to surrender to its lead actor’s unexplained, idiolectic gestural work. The scene’s success is that, despite its relative abstraction, it has made the audience go into raptures.
Even so, very little in the film supports or leads up to this powerful closing episode. The Bhoota Kola ritual, which opens and closes the film, is employed for its spectacular and dramatic potential, its exotic value played up in symmetric framing and a beguiling soundtrack. Whether or not Bhoota Kola was assimilated “upwards” into mainstream Hinduism by the Sanskrit verse of “Varaha Roopam,” the verse and the Carnatic tune themselves have been upsold, rendered cool in a heavy metal garb palatable to deracinated ears.
On the other hand, critics and commentators have connected Kantara’s triumph to its “rooted” storytelling, one that is bound to a particular place, its culture, and its people. In interviews, Shetty has expressed that his desire was to depict and celebrate his native region of Tulunadu in southern Karnataka. To this end, he saturates his film with sights and sounds from the area, including his hometown of Keradi in Udupi district, all of it enhanced in post-production. Shetty’s introduction scene has him participating in the famed Kambala race. We see impressionistic glimpses from village fairs, men in banyans and lungis engaging in cockfights, imbibing toddy served in frond cups, downing chicken sukka, wearing kadas, wielding licensed rifles, hunting boars, and cursing generously in local dialect.
This recourse to local colour is not new in South Indian cinema. The Tamil film industry, for instance, is still reeling from the “neo-native” wave of rural, Madurai-centred movies that emerged in the mid-2000s with blockbusters like Paruthiveeran (2007) and Subramaniapuram (2008). The continued commercial success of these films, particularly in metropolitan areas, suggests that their geographical specificity, far from being deterrent to enjoyment or “relatability”, has perhaps a special appeal to urban viewers displaced from their native habitat through economic migration.
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Cultural anchoring, however, is neither necessary nor sufficient for a film to be accepted by the wider public. Neither has, say, Bhojpuri cinema captivated South India in any significant way, nor has the fuzzy universalism of Hollywood’s superhero movies come in the way of its worldwide adoration. Deciphering a film’s success is ultimately a fool’s errand, doomed to yield only glib generalisations, since the canonisation of any given work is the result of a long, sedimentary process determined by a multitude of interrelated factors, sociological, industrial, political, technological, and above all aesthetic.
To be sure, Kantara’s forceful marriage of mainstream moviemaking tropes and vivid mythical elements plays an important role in cementing its reputation. But the fulgurant popularity of recent south Indian films, including Shetty’s, cannot be explained without taking into account the domestication of mainstream south Indian cinema through years of dubbed television broadcast in the north, the country’s telecom boom that turned every smartphone user into a precise target of digital marketing, the concomitant dissolution of the “family audience” into ephemeral interest groups, and often the culture wars that turn these works into ideological footballs to be possessed and kicked around. In this sense and others, rather than as an aesthetic object in itself, Kantara proves more interesting as a symptom of our times.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a Bengaluru-based film critic and translator.
- Kantara turns around a symbolic three-way conflict between the secular state (represented by the unbelieving forest officer), the faithful majority (the descendants of a tribe), and the transitional remnant of the old order (the extractive landlord who nonetheless abides by community rules).
- Critics and commentators have connected Kantara’s triumph to its “rooted” storytelling, one that is bound to a particular place, its culture, and its people.
- Kantara’s forceful marriage of mainstream moviemaking tropes and vivid mythical elements plays an important role in cementing its reputation.
- The fulgurant popularity of Kantara cannot be explained without taking into account the domestication of mainstream south Indian cinema, the country’s telecom boom that turned every smartphone user into a target of digital marketing, and often the culture wars that turn these works into ideological footballs to be kicked around.
- Kantara proves more interesting as a symptom of our times.