Kantara and its Vanishing Heroes

The story of Kantara weaves contemporary issues with Tulu legends and folklore. The effect is magical, but is there a threat of erasure in the way it shows local culture?
Kantara and its Vanishing Heroes

In a misty forest, a king hears the jingle-jangle of anklets. To us in the present, anklets may be associated with femininity, but to the 19th century king, it’s a sign that he’s in the presence of divinity. He follows the sound and finds himself before a stone slab that possesses the essence of Panjurli, a boar god who signifies the balance between aranya (the forest) and gramya (the village). The stone is sacred to the local forest dwellers who consider themselves Panjurli’s people and so the king, who wants the stone for himself, must negotiate. He finds himself in conversation with a man possessed by the spirit of Panjurli’s companion Guliga, a kshetrapala or guardian deity. They reach an understanding. The king can take the stone that is the symbol of Panjurli if he accepts that the indigenous forest dwellers are the rightful lords of this land.

A hundred years later, when the king’s descendant wants to usurp the land, he comes back to the village in the forest to attend a Bhuta Kola, a ritual performance in which the gods are said to possess the body of the performer. The king’s descendant, now a landlord, says he will go to court to declare himself the legal owner of this 100-acre village. The performer, possessed by a divine spirit (also known as the daiva), mocks the landlord and challenges his authority before disappearing into the forest.

This act of vanishing, or mayaka, is an important part of the Bhuta Kola tradition, which Kantara uses in ways that are visually spectacular, thought-provoking and disturbing. Vanishing into thin air is a magical act and symbolic of heroic identity, both in the folklore and in the film. The bhuta — divine figures who are usually described as demigods — appear during the kola and disappear at the end, but remain invisible presences who watch the real world while being removed from it. In Kantara, Rishab Shetty — he plays the lead and has written, directed and produced the film — uses the disappearance of the daiva to establish a superhero origin story of sorts and this connects to a long tradition of mythmaking.

In the folklore of Tulunadu, bhuta (also known as daiva) are divinities who are worshipped through the ritual known as Bhuta Kola. In Kantara, the daiva is Panjurli, the young male boar feared for his disruptive strength by both animals and humans. He is accompanied by Guliga, a kshetrapal (they make up a group of deities who were originally worshipped as lords of farmland). If Panjurli stands in that limbo between forest and village, signifying a respectful status quo between the two, Guliga is the one who makes sure equilibrium is maintained and boundaries are respected. In Kantara’s climax, we don’t see a conventional fight between a villain and a hero. Instead, we get a kola in which Guliga appears and devastates those who have stood opposed to the villagers who live at the edge of the forest.

Traditionally, kola are rituals that are part celebration and partly an effort to maintain a balance. Devotees come to the daiva-possessed performer and speak of their worries. If there’s a grouse or a complaint, that would often be aired at a kola. Older accounts show the daiva acting as a moderator, listening to the complainant and suggesting a way for the accused to repent. This was a system of redressal that marginalised communities relied upon and Kantara points to this. For those who cannot easily access courts and law enforcers — like the villagers in Kantara, who are treated with prejudice and contempt by both the state and the upper-caste landlord — the kola is where they can hope for justice. The daiva is above the hierarchies that mortals live by and before them, the landless labourer has as much by way of rights as a landlord.

In the folklore of Tulunadu, Panjurli is one of many daiva and it’s worth noting that these divine figures are often rooted in history. Dalits who defied hierarchy and achieved extraordinary feats often became daiva — especially if they had untimely deaths. Their legends speak of the heroes vanishing, which is generally considered a euphemism for them being killed. However, instead of erasing them, Bhuta Kola and oral epics ensure these heroes continue to be remembered. They become reminders of both the excellence and valour the daiva showed in their lives, and the injustice they suffered when as mortals, they were killed and forced to vanish (often, they’d be left to die in forests). These absent presences are revived through the kola when their lives are remembered through song and the ritual performance of possession allows these icons to briefly return to their community.

When we first meet Shiva, the hero of Kantara, he’s competing in a buffalo race, known as kampala in southern Karnataka. It takes some doing to dominate a frame that also has two gigantic buffaloes in it, but Shiva, bristling with roaring strength, does just that. Soon after winning the race, he gets into a brawl and once again, he towers over others, radiating rage and power. Yet when Shiva is faced with the landlord or his mother, he deflates into submission. He’s not a hero despite his charms. He spends his days gambling and drinking alcohol while others work. He refuses to follow the family tradition of performing kola even though he’s the only one who can actually see Panjurli in the forest. Ultimately, Shiva becomes a hero after he has been through a set of trials and has become worthy of divinity — by being possessed by Guliga. Then, like so many daiva who are worshipped through kola, he disappears into the forest at the end of the film. The act of vanishing makes Shiva a legend. He seems absent but is present through memory, story and performance (namely, the film you’re watching).

At the heart of Kantara is a conversation about indigenous culture and finding a balance between conflicting forces. Shetty is deeply respectful of the folk traditions that he shows and uses to tell Shiva’s story in Kantara. He takes the colourful drama and electric energy of a kola and folds it into the language of masala movies to create something that’s uniquely rooted in tradition while feeling modern and contemporary. Spectacular and moving as it is to see the kola in Kantara, there are also details that make you wonder about what it means to translate folklore, what is gained by translation and what the tradition may be in the process of losing. Bhuta Kola is a living cultural legacy that seeks to remember those who have been marginalised so that they are not forgotten. It’s a ritual that is performed for and by communities that were kept out of the spaces that are regulated by upper-caste Hinduism. While Shetty’s story doesn’t whitewash the casteism of the privileged, Kantara does perform the kola for Panjurli to a song praising Vishnu’s Varaha (boar) avatar. The two may both be boar gods, but they’re not the same. Experts don’t have an origin story for Panjurli, who is considered among the oldest of the bhuta tradition, but that’s not a good enough reason to conflate Panjurli with Vishnu, which Kantara does through its soundtrack. For the issues that Kantara is concerned with — indigenous land rights, encroachment upon forest areas, respecting the wild — Panjurli is the perfect daiva for this story. However, in the process of being turned cinematic, Panjurli’s identity seems to have been recast to align with more mainstream and dominant Hindu traditions.

If you look up Bhuta Kola, you’ll find news stories about kola performers who have struggled during the pandemic. Since public gatherings were not allowed, kola could not be performed, but even before the Covid era, this tradition was faced with a slow withering. Fewer young men are interested in continuing the old ways, which steadfastly refuse to allow women into the domain of these religious performances (this is unwittingly reflected in Kantara, which sidelines all its women characters). While Bhuta Kola struggles to continue in the real world, being translated into film gives the tradition a new kind of immortality. Will this mean that the distinction between Panjurli and the Varaha avatar will become more and more blurred? Does Shiva’s machismo-rich story becoming popular open up the possibility of other daivas — who include figures of all genders — being forgotten? Or perhaps watching Kantara will inspire new stories and new daivas who by chance or design ensure the diversity of our myths don’t vanish.

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