Kantara is Starkly, Stunningly Different
Content from the southern states has always been bolder, courageous and much more experimental
Kantara – the Legend is a huge commercial blockbuster from the Kannadiga film industry, with a massive pan-India success graph, after having made its big bucks in Karnataka. Its tremendous success breaking language barriers is a half-mystery. It breaks most stereotypes of cliched box office cinema, especially the typical formula of Bollywood films without story or plot, oozing with loads of glamour, glitz, crude item numbers, pretty and mostly dumb female actresses playing second fiddle to the good-looking super heroes, bare-chested or otherwise, and leaving the audience in an arid zone of emptiness as the film ends. Kantara is starkly and stunningly different.
Thankfully, the male protagonists in similar South Indian films do not follow the time-tested trajectory of the run-of-the-mill Rs 100 crore or plus super stars of Bollywood. Okay, Amitabh Bachchan did it in that famously brilliant scene, talking to himself in the mirror, fully drunk, in Amar Akbar Anthony, surely, one of the all-time, finest entertainers by Manmohan Desai in Hindi cinema. Bachchan did carry it off with spoofy brilliance, as he did with the bottle, drinking neat, on the rocks, in Muqaddar ka Sikandar, etc.
However, but most of our good-looking heroes, virtuous and non-violent, or macho and muscleman, often trapped in family values amidst obscenely opulent homes in India, or, gallivanting in exotic locations abroad, will never do, what the hero, or the anti-hero, does in Kantara.
For instance, Rishabh Shetty as director and lead male actor in the film drinks country liquor, straight from the half-bottle or otherwise, alone or with his rootless buddies, almost all through the film, be it morning, afternoon or evening. When he gets those repeated nightmares of a wild boar chasing him with scary spiritual and primordial symbols terrorising him in the dark forest, he would wake up, and quickly gulp down alcohol.
After the madness of the bull race in the muddy waters, which looks more exciting than even high-voltage formula car racing, and after the first bout of mindless violence, how is he appeased? He is given the first prize by the landlord, the de facto king of the inherited dynasty, and several bottles of whiskey. Besides, when he drinks scotch, he gets drunk too fast, unlike what good scotch should do to those who are connoisseurs of high-end alcohol.
Shiva, the hero, is not good-looking or handsome in the Bollywood sense, nor does he roll his eyes to woo the heroine, or send mushy messages. In their first meeting as adults, he pinches her, a jarring, crude and obscenely macho act.
The heroine (Sapthami Gowda, as Leela) is not a beauty queen. She is as ordinary and simple as she can be, wearing ordinary clothes with no make-up. She has an intrinsic and deep beauty which shows. She is a woman who works as a forest guard, is trying to be empowered and independent, and knows her mind. First, she disagrees with lover, and then aligns with him in the final quest for justice.
Apart from the scenes of violence, Shiva is generally nice and friendly. Despite the jarring note of the crude 'pinch' with which it all started, his relationship with Leela is almost sublime, soft and sensuous. He is never violent with her, even when differences emerge.
Despite the differences, she brings food for him and his friends, who are hiding in the forest. He refuses to eat. And then, his arrival from the 'underground' with a bouquet of fish for Leela at midnight, as a gesture of reconciliation, is a beautiful moment of enduring friendship and love. In love, or, in romantic moments, he is gentle, gracious, respectful, towards her. And Leela reciprocates, with a certain expressed and nuanced sense of deep admiration and love.
Her lover has no sartorial ambitions or finesse. He is a tall sturdy fellow, not a body-builder or a gym-going hero flaunting his muscles, with a thick beard, wearing literally one lungi, folded above his knees, and the same shirt all through the movie. He rides a motorcycle in the forest by-lanes with his drinking buddies. They are full-time loafers and good-for-nothing village bums, but are good-at-heart, and deeply involved with the forest community where they live.
Their lumpen activities include, among other things, poaching in the night in the forests, hunting wild boars and cutting trees, despite the 'Forest Department' with its strict 'Forest Officer' having prohibited it. Then they would sit in an outpost near the jungle, cook the meat, drink lots of country booze, and generally have a gala time.
Kantara is certainly different. It defies the stereotypes, says distributor and producer Sreyashii Sengupta, especially when it comes to heroes. The film is exceptionally loud, including the background music, the hero is loud, especially in the final scene, but, yet, it's classy, the acting and the incredibly cathartic performance as the grand finale.
Say Sengupta, ''A feat in itself for those who are actors and who are behind the camera too. Content from the southern states has always been bolder, courageous and much more experimental, be it commercial, mainstream or independent cinema, which includes its variety of actors. Dravidian films are ready to break norms and comfort zones.
"Perhaps that is where their success lies,in being brave to bring to a varied audience stories from lived and local experiences, stories which are closer to reality than magical glass houses that are slowly becoming unfathomable and unbelievable.''
According to her, the new audience, inside the home, on Netflix, on laptops and mobiles, and even inside multiplexes, are looking for rich, pulsating, non-conformist local and regional stories, with their unique locations and flavours, which she describes as 'Indian content' which is not Bollywood-driven. In this pan-Indian diversity of the new cinema audience, she argues, language is not important anymore.
''I wished we didn't have to watch the film in a Hindi dubbed version. The whole 'national language' trend is more disturbing. Let content and languages be rooted in their own tradition, inheritance, location and history! Audiences are pretty comfortable watching subtitles (ironically, we also had English subtitles, even in a Hindi version of Kantara),'' she says.
The film picks up a theme which seems impossible in contemporary or recent Bollywood, though, these were similar themes which ruled Indian celluloid, from the post-Independence despair and hope, bitter realism, idealism and optimism, to the apparent destruction of the great Indian dream in the 1970s.
This trajectory was best signified by the films of Bimal Roy, for instance, from Do Bigha Zameen (a landless farmer from a village struggling in big city Calcutta), Sujata (on untouchability, a Dalit girl and an upper caste male protagonist who rebels by loving her), to Bandini (an honest woman condemned in prison), to 'Nehruvian' Naya Daur, which celebrates the building of a road. This is followed by the phase of romantic hits with great songs and music, with Rajesh Khanna as the new 'phenomena', and, then, the anti-catharsis of a lost dream with the emergence of the anti-establishment, anti-hero, as in Deewar.
There were umpteen films from Mother India onwards which showcased the suffocating, feudal oppression in rural India, or the brazen inequality and daily struggle for the working class and ordinary people in big 'capitalist' cities like Bombay, both, as a sign of reality, and as a longing to overcome it. Sahir Ludhianvi's songs, among other lyricists like Kaifi Azmi and Shailendra, for instance tell this narrative in both nuanced and overt terms: Aiye Dil Hai Mushkil Jeena Yahan, or Chino Arab Hamara, Hindustan Hamara, or, Woh Subah Kabhi Toh Ayegi…
In Hindi cinema since the 1970s, rural India, or the urban India of daily struggle, and, especially, small town India, has all but vanished, and so has the common woman and man. All we have is largely mindless entertainment, NRI stories of the rich and successful, huge, obscenly opulent houses, exotic locations, item numbers, and pretty girls and boys, men and women, frolicking around for no rhyme or reason. Or, the magic realism of fantastic, mindless violence – as in Rohit Shetty's films – one hero, with one wave of a fist, vanquishing god knows how many flying gangsters, SUVs, you name it.
Stories, plots, sub-plots, script, screenplay, cinematography, music, lyrics, dialogues, editing, sound-track, and film direction – they can all go get damned. The ageing, male, super hero carries the multi-crore film on his macho shoulders with a dainty young lass half his age, or, simply, watches the film's inevitable doom – as is the latest trend in Bombay with a series of big bucks movies flopping without a trace, clearly reflecting a shift in audience-taste in the post-pandemic era.
According to Souvikk Dasgupta, Content Lead of Bengali OTT platform 'Hoichoi', in Dhaka, Bangladesh, ''Kantara is undoubtedly an out and out commercial film, albeit with doses of high melodrama and patriarchy. But an interesting point is the stark messages through it all. It talks about the struggle for Jal-Zameen and Jangal (water-land-forest) which is a long-time demand of our tribal and rural communities across India.
"We have witnessed how in the name of development Indian laws or bills have ignored the rightful demand of the indigenous communities like the tribals. It's good to see Kantara addressing this topic in a typical, mainstream film. Issues such as commercial content is a good sign (and even more so with it being extremely successful at the box office) that mass audiences are accepting socially-messaged films at a commercial level and it's not being relegated to independent, festival and art house cinema."
Certainly, Kantara, despite some of its cheap dialogues, its plotless waywardness, its action-replay of violence with the anti-hero winning the final round single- so predictably, follows the forgotten, old-fashioned making of a film, despite the superb, modern techniques used to lift it to a hyper-magical scenario. For instance, the entire film is located in a dense and expansive forest.
The film rotates around people who live in the forest, as a strongly-knitted community — no one knows if they are tribals or rural folks – and there is no apparent timeline to this geography or history. Suspension of belief and disbelief is a priori before you enter a multiplex (with hugely expensive samosas, popcorn plus coke in a big tray) to enjoy this top-class 'human rights entertainer'.
The plot is old-fashioned. It starts with an unconventional and uncanny story. The king, who lives in a big house which is not an opulent palace, has no peace of mind; he is restless and suffers from insomnia and nameless sorrow, which neither he nor anyone else can explain. He tries every religious and spiritual trick, does all kinds of philanthropy and sacrifices, but nothing can give him his peace of mind. So, he leaves everything and goes on solitary exile.
After his long travels and finding no respite, he comes upon a stone in a forest. His sword drops. And that is when he realises that he is face to face with a magical and divine power – which is not God, which is a stone, an anthropological symbol, a primitive icon, a community deity, a 'daiva'. The deity enters the body of the local 'priest' who performs its 'kola' – the deity's dance. He gives all answers to all the riddles of life in the name of the 'daiva'.
This incarnation of the deity, after long and loud screams, tells the king that he should give the forest and land to the people, from here, till the sound of his voice and its echo in the far-distance. Only then will he get his peace of mind.
The king readily agrees. He wants to take the stone along. It is refused. The stone belongs to the forest and the indigenous community who live in the forest. The king, thereby, happily returns to his kingdom, his peace of mind restored, and all's well that ends well.
The film, with all its inconsistencies, mistakes and missing clues, is not celebrating revivalism or one-dimensional Hindutva, as is being alleged by some sections. It has picked up a narrative, one among many such subaltern narratives, among various indigenous and rural communities, including in the remote forests, celebrating the synthesis of human beings with nature, trees, sky, earth, stars and rivers, as much as a certain primordial spirituality which is sharply different from mainstream Hindu or Brahminical ritualism.
This includes the folk dance forms and the oral traditions, and the collective participation and belief in this folk tradition. The last scene in the film celebrates this synthesis of man and woman with nature, the spiritual, anthropological icon as a scaffolding and catalyst.
According to Dr Venkatachala Hegde, professor at the Centre for International Legal Studies (CILS) in JNU, ''Bhootaradhane (worship of the holy spirit) is unique to the coastal part of Karnataka, especially Dakshina Kannada (South Canara), bordering Kerala. 'Daiva' is a broader word in Kannada to mean 'destiny'.
"These holy spirits provide all the necessary protection to both the materialistic and non-materialistic aspects of life. The mode of worship, which is known as kola (Bhoota Kola) is conducted by a Patri (priest).
"These priests are not like traditional Brahminical priests. Even the formal worship has several components to include song, dance, drama and several rituals that are essentially non-Brahmanical. The offerings to Bhoota or Daiva could include vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes.
"Daiva speaks through a definitive messenger after invocation of certain ritualistic formalities. These holy spirits cut across barriers of caste and community. Both Hindus and Muslims in the coastal parts of Karnataka and Kerala (there are Muslim holy spirits mingling with the Hindu ones such as Alibhoota), together, worship and invoke these spirits.
"The other well-known holy spirits are: Jumaadi, Khoraga, Taniya, Panjurli, Guliga, and others. These holy spirits are also part of the Kannada literary genre. Many well-known Kannada writers, including celebrated Dr Shivaram Karanth, have references to these holy spirits in their literary works.
"Crossing over to Kerala from Karnataka, the process of invoking the holy spirits is known as Thaiyyam. Besides academic studies, many documentaries and films have also been made based on these themes. Kantara, of course, is the latest addition.''
In the film, most of the king's inheritors follow his doctrine. Unless one upstart, urban inheritor comes from Bombay and wants to usurp the forest and land, since its commercial value is mind-boggling – despite being forbidden by his own father. Predictably, he dies somewhere in the city, puking blood. The revenge of the stone deity.
The plot thickens, thereby. The latest landlord is not puking blood, but his motives are sinister. He stabs to death the local 'priest' because he refuses to make the 'divine' announcement that all the land and forest should belong to the landlord. Thereby begins the class struggle, with the primordial daiva and spiritual icon on the side of the people.
Forest communities fighting for their land and forest rights against a corrupt and ruthless landlord – that is the main plot. The forest officer joins in with the people, suddenly, doing a U-turn which the story does not explain, after trying to unsuccessfully bully the locals.
The hero, Shiva, arrives from jail. He discovers the diabolical plans of the landlord. He waits with the community, mashaals, axes, and localised weapons in hand – no guns or bombs etc -- as the private army of the landlord arrives. Then it all starts, with Shiva's girlfriend, the forest guard, throwing the first mashaal at the landlord – it is the declaration of war!
Amidst all hell breaking loose, and much blood-letting, the hero almost dies. As he resurrects, or reborn, he emerges from the dead, and takes the form of the primordial deity, or, the daiva chooses him as its messenger and avenger. He dances, screams, shouts, shivers, performs the kola, his face and body full of mud, his naked body in melodramatic movement, his eyes red and bloodshot.
The daiva, or, the forest icon, returns through him to fight for justice against the evil landlord, and to bring justice to the forest community, so as to reclaim their rights to the forest.
Soon after, the kola begins, the dance in the dark, nocturnal forest, under the stars, the eyes of Leela, and Shiva's suffering mother full of love, moist with tears, with pride and joy. Besides, Leela is pregnant, and it is happiness, hope and contentment all around for the forest community deep inside this beautiful forest with a rippling river flowing by.
That is the end, and the beginning, of the fight for justice against injustice, love against hate, the ordinary against the mighty, forest rights against land grabbers. This is also the reassertion of primordial symbols of indigenous communities, dance forms and oral traditions. This is indeed the mass-messaging of the commercial block-bluster from Karnataka: Kantara – the Legend.