‘Kantara’ is a Kannada movie written and directed by Rishab Shetty. He also stars as the main protagonist along with Achyuth Kumar, Kishore and Sapthami in key supporting roles.
The movie traces a mythical legend from 1847 set in Dakshina Kannada region (Udupi and Kasargod districts). A King is travelling in his territory looking for peace and happiness. He meets with Panjurli Daiva (a God of the tribals. Panjurli in Tulu means a wild boar offspring) who grants him a boon of whatever he wants in exchange of some part of the land to be given to the local tribes that are forest dwellers. The King agrees to transfer the land to the tribals and continues to live a happy life. However, the land comes with a protection clause to whoever wants to go back on their word. Guliga Daiva (Guli in Kannada means a wild bull) will protect the resources of the tribals that belongs to them. And that sets the base of the story.
The movie is set in 1990. Muralidhar (Kishore) enters the area as a forest officer tasked with redrawing the boundaries of a group of tribal villages to convert it into a reserve forest. Shiva (Rishab Shetty) is a hot-blooded village youth who decides to take on the officer to save their territory. Devendra Suttooru (Achyuth Kumar) is the local zamindar who has ensured the land stays with the villagers by striking deals with the earlier forest officers.
The rest of the story is how these three characters end up in a confrontation and how it resolves itself.
The story has many layers
- Layer 1: The Mythical legend. Shiva is a descendent of the priest family that performs the Bhoota Kola (an offering to the Bhootas – around 350 of them exist – to protect the tribals). His younger brother, Guruva, dons the paint as the demigod in the festivities. Devendra Suttooru is descendent of the King. Muralidhar is the symbol of the change in the situation. Some believe that the Bhootas are a sect of the Ganas – followers of Shiva. Our hero is named Shiva. And then we have the villagers as the bhootas!
- Layer 2: The Social construct. Shiva and his family are untouchables (lower caste) despite not just performing but being the God during the Bhoota Kola. Devendra is zamindar and obviously upper caste. But when the zamindar is praying to his gods inside his house, Guruva is made to stand outside the house! That sequence is pure brilliance!
- Layer 3: The Art and the artist. Bhoota Kola is a puja/ worship where it is believed that the Spirit/ God comes and possesses the person performing it. This spirit/ God proceeds to resolve disputes and answer troubling questions. The question is (which is also asked in the movie), is the performer answering this or the God? Who is the artist and what is the art here? What is the change being addressed? Within this we can see this in multiple ways:
- Art: The Forests. Artist: Nature. Patrons: Human beings. Change: Human v nature conflict.
- Art: The movie, Kantara. Artist: Rishab Shetty, Patron: Audience, Change: Global audience for a Kannada movie.
- Art: Tribal practices. Artist: Tribespeople Patron: all the other villagers, Change: Religion/ Govt./ uniformity taking over.
- Art: Bhoota Kola. Artist: The priests Patron: Zamindars. Change: How it started in 1847 to 1974 to how it is in 1990 to how it is now. The last part is not addressed in the movie though.
The craft of film-making
The hero introduction shot has got to be one of the best in recent memory across any commercial cinema (yes, even KGF!). The wait for the introduction is built up to perfection by showing the cutouts and the prize. You know that the hero has got to come out now. And when he does, it is breathtaking. Not just the art and sets, the cinematography and the sound is perfect. Shiva who belongs to the family of the Panjurli Daiva performers – Panjurli is a representation of wild boar God. He comes out shouting with two bullocks to win a Kambala race (annually held buffalo race in these areas). Bulls are representation of the Gulige Daiva. Here are the Panjurli-Gulige Daivagalu in action together!
The dialect of Dakshina Kannada/ coastal Karnataka language has been used as is. I have learnt and spoken the Mysore dialect of the language. Usually, this dialect is used in the comedy tracks of a mainstream commercial Kannada movie. Quite like what the Telangana dialect was to mainstream commercial Telugu cinema. The subtitles helped me navigate wherever I missed a slight nuance. However, I think I did not miss much. I am sure those who know the dialect will enjoy it the best!
Just like the dialect, the social construct the movie is based in is also showed as is. There is no hint of overemphasizing the caste angle nor has the writing avoided it completely (under the guise of commercial cinema constraints!). Hence, it probably helps that the movie was made by someone who has had a lived experience of whatever he has shown. And isn’t a third person account of the real aspects of the story.
The music is well hmmm… how do I say this…. the design of the music is rooted in tribal folk music. And they have got the sound so right. The background score accentuates the emotions well. The only letdown has been the discovery that the music isn’t entirely original.
Singara Siriye and Apsara Aali have a very close resemblance in their tunes. My suspicion is that both have their grounding in some local folklore tunes. Hence, they sound the same. However, you decide for yourself. Here are the two songs:
A similar unfortunate resemblance is found in Varaha Roopam and Navarasam. Again decide for yourself.
Here is the position of our courts on this claim. Very unfortunate.
I found the choice of music and the theme music sitting in brilliantly with the overall movie. It was really very well done. While watching the movie, I never felt that the music should have been better or was not fitting or anything like that. So the choice of music/ sound was spot on. Just that they should have done a plagiarism check.
The cinematography by Arvind Kashyap is very good. I would still rate 777 Charlie as his better work on a visual scale. However, on the basis of my preliminary technical understanding of cinematography, I would rate the climax sequence that has been shot in complete darkness with fire all around as very tough to execute and shoot without loss of resolution in the final product. And then there’s the requirement to show the colour saturation properly there. It is mind-boggling how they got it so right. And without taking away an ounce of focus from the intensity that sequence demanded. However, I would have liked a few seconds more of landscapes of the Dakshina Kannada forest cover. Every time they showed it, I felt they hurriedly cut to the sequence (that it was set in 1990 might have influenced the edit). A minor squabble in an otherwise magnificent piece of camera work.
The sound of the movie is crucial. The cry of the Gods is integral to the experience of knowing how the spirit is now embodied. Sometimes it is perhaps too loud. But after the first instance of watching the cry, you know when it is going to come next. And you are mostly bracing for it. In fact, in the climax, that’s the peak entertaining moment. I simply loved the way they have shown the way it happens! However, a few people have felt that these loud cries may not be suitable for children. So, please exercise caution when you take children with you for this movie. The sound of this movie is integral to the immersive experience that we get to enjoy! And I think the sound design was brilliant. Even the Panjurli Daiva is mostly shown through sounds. Sound plays an important role in this movie and it has been done commendably well! Kudos to the sound design team (Raju Albert, Sandeep Kumar, and Arun S Mani)!
Kishore is an actor par excellence. In the role of the forest officer, he has the right amount of aggression. Not an overdone act here or there. His eyes convey the required intensity. There’s a scene where he has to observe Shiva walk into the midst of a gathering of all the villagers. He doesn’t know what Shiva is thinking. And when Shiva reveals what he thinks, the expression he gives is what makes the actor brilliant. It is a combination of relief without losing the exterior of being a forest officer. And quickly picks the side he wants to be on.
Achyuth Kumar is a living legend if you ask me. Nobody recognizes him as that yet. The man is a sheer chameleon on the big screen. I remember watching him in some Tamil films a few years ago. He always seems so familiar when he comes on screen. I was discussing his familiarity with a friend when he pointed out to me that we saw him in ‘Vikram Vedha’ (Tamil, 2017) as the corrupt cop. And then in ‘KGF’ of course! This movie requires him to perform in a restrained fashion and he delivers absolutely delightfully. You hate him from the bottom of your gut when you have to. His character is the one character that you are never comfortable with throughout the movie. And his body language sets the discomfort up so well. He looks too comfortable in his skin and as the audience you are always wondering if you are reading it wrong. Maybe he’s alright. But then there’s the climax that helps clarify everything.
The climax brings me to Rishab Shetty. He towers over every scene, every frame and every moment of this movie. The intensity he brings to the scene with his mere presence is indicative of what only good actors can bring to the screen. As in actors who have graduated from the theatres is where I have seen this. Pankaj Kapur constantly comes to mind as I try to recall his performance in this movie. Just that is a compliment in itself, isn’t it? The introduction and the climax sequences are enough for us to see his ability as an actor. An actor-par-excellence. Performing while directing is one of the toughest jobs on a film set. And this man does it so well! It’s as if this is the role he was born to do! I now want to go and watch all his other films. A friend recommended Bell Bottom.
There’s a scene in the movie during the ‘singara siriye’ song where he is watching his love interest, Sapthami, chopping fish sitting on the floor using a floor blade (ilige mane in Kannada). His eyes convey the lust just so easily yet so intensely. Only a well-trained and an actor who knows his job inside out can bring such expressions.
That brings me to Sapthami Gowda. Shiva’s love interest. And at some point I thought she was going to be the symbolic to the land that is under conflict. But no such complex thought processes in this script. She is Shiva’s love interest (rightly named) Leela. This is her second movie. And she has played the role of a beautiful, capable, rustic, dusky village girl very well.
A rare piece of cinematic brilliance
The movie is a rare piece of cinematic brilliance from the Kannada Film Industry. It has gone in the opposite direction of conventional film making knowledge. When we think of a movie that has to be successful, we think on a scale of the Titanic for example. The biggest ship ever to connect the biggest cities of the world across the world’s coldest oceans that was supposedly unsinkable and then it sank! Or we need a KGF type of a buildup. A lost city. Lakhs of sufferers. One saviour. Supreme being. Unable to be caught by anyone from Delhi to Interpol. The canvas is always that big in terms of a big film to be mounted. Like RRR, Bahubali, PS-1 – you get the drift, don’t you?!
Rishab Shetty has taken the opposite route. Gone into the hills of a forest where tribals live. Captured their lifestyles. Their ways of living. Which are fast being forgotten or taken over. Who really cares about the tribals nowadays? In a market-driven economy, these are the people who cannot ‘consistently produce’ anything and they instead loot all the natural benefits from our forests, isn’t it? Haven’t you heard this narrative? I am sure you have. This movie also addresses this problem briefly. So how do you even begin to convince yourself that someone out there would be interested in such a story. Hats off to Rishab Shetty for making this choice. For staying true to his conviction. The honesty is visible on the screen!
With the intensity of his feeling towards this story, he could have very easily gone the docuseries direction. But he has brilliantly scripted it into the commercial cinema style. It has a hero introduction, a villain, a love interest, land squabble, human-nature conflict, superb music, mystery, supernatural goings on, and a climax you won’t forget in the near future!
I love every choice he has taken to make the movie into what it is. I wish many other filmmakers also took this route. There are so many such stories wrapped in our dialects, forests, small towns, and simple people. This is just one such. I wish to see more such movies come out of hyper local situations that make the world stand up and take notice!
Thank you, Rishab Shetty! Thank you, Sir! And thank you to the entire team that believed in this movie!