Before walking into the theater, I had already heard the buzz around the film Kantara (originally in Kannada, the film is also available in Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi and Tamil). A friend had recommended it, telling me that I simply must watch it. So, I went in with high expectations and a smidge of skepticism. After all, how many movie viewing experiences were ruined because of the hype surrounding it? I, for one, was not prepared for what I was about to witness.
Folklore Built Around Forests
Kantara (mystical forest) is a tale that is rooted deep in the heartland of Karnataka. It is rustic, raw, visceral, thought provoking, and magical at the same time. The film opens with the voiceover of a father narrating a tale to his child.
In 1847, a king sets out to seek peace. He stumbles upon Panjurli daiva/Bhoota (a spirit/demigod worshiped by the locals). He strikes a deal with Panjurli that in return for peace and happiness, he would give the forest land to the local tribes. The king is told that should he renege on the deal, the Guilga daiva (the guardian or family of Panjurli) will make him pay.
Years later, in 1970, a descendant of the king tries to take back the land given to the tribal people but dies mysteriously.
The Past Meets The Present
The story then moves to 1990, where a forest officer Murali (Kishore) is there to survey the land and conserve the forest. He is soon at loggerheads with the village lout and Kambala (annual buffalo race) athlete, Shiva (Rishabh Shetty). Shiva also works as a strongman for the landlord, Devendra Suttooru, a descendant of the king and the son of the man who died mysteriously in 1970.
Along with his group of friends, Shiva spends the day smoking, drinking, hunting, and picking fights. He is a hothead ready to pummel someone at the slightest provocation. He also steadfastly refuses to perform the Bhoota Kola festival as he witnessed his father disappear while performing the ritual. The rest of the movie chalks the escalating strife between various parties, leading to an explosive climax.
Contemporary Depiction of Ancient Folklore
It is difficult to pin the genre for this movie. It is a contemporary story with the backbone of an ancient folklore. In the view of the current climate crisis, it is an existential tale, asking poignant questions about the connection of man and nature.
Through Shiva, we see the people whose life is the forest. They eke a living out of it, their sustenance depends on it. But Murali seeks to conserve the forest. He is passionate about his job, mindful that the resources are limited, and one cannot simply keep taking. A third party represents man’s greed. The need to have that which is not theirs. And then there is a power, beyond human understanding which is always present. Watching. Waiting. Its rage slowly building.
The Caste System Explored
The movie also explores caste system and the hypocrisies of those in power. Shiva and his friends sit on the ground and eat off leaves, they are given copper glasses to drink from, a man is slapped and humiliated, just because he put one foot across the threshold of the one from a higher caste. While the same upper caste man sneaks off in the night for a romp with a married tribal woman.
On paper, it might seem like way too many themes to explore in one movie, but writer-director-actor Rishabh Shetty masterfully blends it all together. As Shiva, he is a force to be reckoned with. This is a very physical role—starting from the buffalo race that Shetty performs himself, to the fluidly choreographed fight scenes, to the phenomenal climax, and the Bhoota Kola performances as both the father and the son. His screams during the Bhoota Kola performances are haunting, eerie, and powerful. They really sent shivers down the spine.
Shetty is aided by an able supporting cast. Pragati Shetty’s costumes, especially for the Boota Kola performances, deserve an applause. Cinematographer Arvind S. Kashyap beautifully captures the locales of Keraadi in coastal Karnataka. B. Ajaneesh Loknath’s music takes the film to a whole new height. I especially loved the music that played when the goons attack Shiva in the blacksmith’s shop.
I’m compelled to write an individual paragraph for the climax because it is unlike anything I have seen before. As the mounting tension reaches its crescendo, the two factions collide in a violent, bloody battle. Unbeknownst to the two sides fighting, the power that has been watching, waiting, finally unleashes itself. What follows is a scene that is frightening, exhilarating, and enthralling to watch.
Rishabh Shetty, who had been performing at a “10” throughout the movie, notches his performance up to a “12.” He is a sight to behold. The movie deserves a watch, just for this scene alone. This is easily the best movie I have seen in 2022, and will definitely find a place in my “Top Ten” movies.
The Film Does Have Its Flaws
That said, though, I would be remiss not to mention the flaws of the movie. It has a slow buildup and can get a little draggy in places. The romance felt jarring and out of place, especially when the camera lingers on the waist and thighs of Leela (Sapthami Gowda) for a little too long. I also cringed at the subtle, blink-and-you-miss dig at Islam. Not cool.
Overall, this is a movie that should be watched. Preferably in Kannada, and in the theaters. This movie proves that Indian filmmakers do not need to ape the west. That in folklore and local tales, we have a treasure trove waiting to be explored.