Kantara’s success welcome but let’s not overlook its flaws
As viewers poured out of the cinema hall, many would have been tempted to check if their ear drums were still working. Such was the decibel levels of the Kannada flick Kantara – unrelentingly loud throughout, with the final scenes appearing to touch the sound barrier.
Either the movie hall in the mall on Bengaluru’s Old Madras Road turned the volume knob to full blast or it was the inherent loudness of the movie, whatever it was, that is what will remain in memory after months and years.
Kantara, or The Mystical Forest (in Kannada), is premised on a powerful evergreen theme: the dispossession of land belonging to tribal communities and the interplay between local vested interests and the organs of state power. Each pretends to protect the tribals before the vulnerable community realise they have been taken for a ride.
The filmmaker Rishabh Shetty, who is also the protagonist, not probably wanting to be seen as anti-establishment, ensures that the tribals and the state eventually are on the same side with the landlord turned into a scapegoat. In real life, the state and the tribal community have historically been at odds over what constitutes government property and what belongs to the ancient tribes – a fight that has been going on for a long time and, which, still continues.
Having been drawn into watching Kantara following recommendations from friends who had seen the film and media adulation on its unexpected success, the feeling of being let down is overwhelming. Besides the cultural context and the Dakshina Kannada setting there’s really nothing out of the ordinary in the film’s narrative.
Gender sensitivity goes for a toss
In fact, parts of the film are quite distasteful. A female character who is repeatedly made fun of because of her buckteeth is particularly appalling. Even conceding that in a purportedly serious commercial film, the filmmaker feels the need to provide some lighter moments for the audience, body shaming surely cannot be the way to evoke a few laughs. Sadly, the laughs do ring out in the hall during those moments.
Overall, the projection of women in the film gives the impression that macho men dictate the narrative in the region. This is particularly ironic given that the dominant Tulu-speaking Bunt community in the coastal belt follows a matriarchal system and women are considered strong-willed and have the reputation of carrying their families on their shoulders.
In the movie, the landlord and a few characters in the community exhibit promiscuity with a sense of entitlement while the women are shown to meekly succumb to their overtures. No doubt everyone is free to do what they want, consensually. But, these portrayals stick out sharply as they contradict the general impression of the region and its much-touted gender equality.
In case anyone missed the point about male alpha power there are the gallons of liquor and sticks of smokes, accompanied by swagger, to accentuate the species’ superiority. And, to complete the circle, there is one fight too many – kitschy, faux and prone to give a headache.
Tapping into exotic elements
It is obvious these negative depictions have not come in the way of the box office success of Kantara. Either audiences don’t care or they see nothing majorly complain-worthy with such skewed projections.
What however appears to work for the movie is the fact that it is set in Dakshina Kannada (aka Tulu Nadu), a region that has in recent years been making its mark in Kannada cinema.
In the last seven decades, Kannada films were largely set in the Old Mysore part of the state. Viewers had got used to the language and the dialect of this region, their cultural practices and a predictable denouement.
Karnataka is among the most heterogenous states in the country. Although Kannada is the official language, even locals cannot understand all the languages and dialects spoken across the different regions.
Tulu, the primary language of Dakshina Kannada, is largely unintelligible for an individual from the Old Mysore region, where the capital Bengaluru and the old princely city of Mysuru are located. The Kannada spoken in Dakshina Kannada is of a different dialect with local intonations and influences and just about discernible for people in other parts of the state.
The filmmaker has leveraged the curiosity and the ‘wow’ factor, turning Kantara into an immersive experience for the audience in the rest of the state. Imagine being part of one state and suddenly getting exposed to the folk history and the “exotic” culture of another region of the same state.
Take the “Bhuta Kola” (literally, spirits’ play or dance) for instance. Kantara is woven around this traditional ritual and is central to the plot. It is an ancient tradition that depicts the practice of spirit-worship among a majority of the people in that region. There are many spirits that are worshipped, among which is “Panjurli,” the spirit of the wild boar. The film’s quasi-protagonist is Panjurli.
During the Bhuta Kola, the spirit Panjurli which “protects and safeguards the community” from the rampaging wild boar is believed to possess the dancer-priest. Whatever emanates from the dancer during this time is regarded as the voice of the spirit. People revere the instructions and are mandated to follow them.
A similar practice exists across traditional tribal communities in various parts of the country. For example, the Yakshagana in the nearby Uttara Kannada district. Yet, rarely have these formed the backdrop of mainstream Kannada films.
There are similarly other virgin regions in Karnataka with their own versions of history and subaltern cultural practices as in Kodagu and across north Karnataka. Filmmakers who recognise the bounty to be made in exploring films set in these regions have a good chance of making it to the top of the charts too.
In keeping with the dominant trend set by popular films like Bahubali, the magical-mystical element of Kantara too has apparently done the trick for the film, which is now the recipient of many a hyperbole, including being described as a trend-setter and India’s possible choice for an entry into the Oscar.
The combination of nostalgia by the non-resident people of Tulu Nadu, their word of mouth recommendation, and curiosity of others in the state appears to have given a massive push to the success of the film, despite its narrative shortcomings, cliched projection of the good vs bad and an avoidable sexist bias.