Director: Rishab Shetty
Cast: Rishab Shetty, Kishore Kumar G, Achyuth Kumar
It is difficult to write a review of the Kannada film Kantara, starring Rishab Shetty, Achyuth Kumar and Kishore Kumar, among others, because an experience can only be gone through, never explained. From the trailer, it was evident that among the choreographed set pieces would be actor-director Rishab Shetty performing the Bhoota Kola and taking part in the Kambala, where he competes with other youth, running with buffaloes in a slushy field.
Both these are riveting and are wrapped up in the first half hour of the film. But, you understand why writer-director Rishab does that, defying the norm, because he has more aces up his sleeve.
Kantara (translates into mysterious forest) is where the film is set. Villagers live around the forest, living off minor forest produce. A hotshot forest officer newly posted there (a fabulous Kishore doing what he does best, be the character) seeks to redraw boundaries and reclaim illegal, unauthorised encroachments. His intentions are in the right place, but his methods lack finesse. The village head of sorts Dhani (Can Achyuth Kumar do anything wrong?) seems to bat for the villagers though his father was not as generous. He seems liberal, but his caste pride raises its ugly head quite often. After a point, everyone seems clothed in shades of grey.
Kaadubettu Shiva (Rishab has given this role his all) is the son of a man who performs the bhoota kola and who grows up moving farther and farther away from his heritage. It is left to his cousin to carry on the family tradition of Bhoota Kola. He’s the village ruffian, picking up quarrels, drinking himself silly and loving Leela (a radiant Sapthami Gowda, who is such a natural) in the way he can. But, he’s also the grown up terrified of his mother, and the one who does not hesitate rushing in to sleep next to her when nightmares plague him. After all, this is a boy who went in with a torch searching for someone in the jungle and returned empty handed. Shiva has many demons in his head, and eventually, his salvation comes only after he learns to read what the apparitions tell him.
But is Kantara just about the story of its characters? Is it about the struggle for land? Is it about a generous ancestor who gave up vast wealth but whose kindness and ability to keep a promise did not percolate down generations? Is it about the plight of those who dwell near a forest that is scheduled to be declared a reserve forest? Is it about the terrible power politics that makes people change colour, like a chameleon? Or, is it about that rare precious thing called faith, and how destiny finds a way to fulfil itself? Actually, Kantara is all of the above, and if I had a grudge with the film, it is that it takes on too much when it does not really have to. It would have worked fine with a strand or two less.
The writing is solid, and the cusswords-rich, sarcasm-and-humour-laced dialogues of the region have surprisingly made it to the final version. The women are well-etched too. Leela has an arc, she’s the local girl the village pins its hopes on, but she joins the forest department and has to redraw the lines after the land survey on her very first day at work. She also loves Shiva, and asks aloud why she’s being treated badly for doing her job. Shiva’s mother Kamala is the firebrand, the frail single woman who has raised a son and who wonders what will become of him. She’s the most foul-mouthed of the lot, and everyone’s terrified of her.
Many tend to assume villages are not passion hotspots and that sexual escapades and furtive love are restricted to the cities. This film breaks all of that, and how. There’s so much physicality in the way the characters see each other. A torch is used as a signal for an illicit union in a farm, the bushes sometimes reveal a couple or two. And, everyone is ready to run at the slightest disturbance.
The last 15 minutes of the movie feature a fabulously choreographed and shot sequence, where Rishab seems to have been in a trance of his own. Actor, writer and director Raj B Shetty, who coincidentally played Shiva in the last film he and Rishab collaborated on, Garuda Gamana Vrushaba Vahana), choreographed the Bhoota Kola sequences. Kannada cinema can be incredibly proud of both the Pili Vesha in Ulidavaru Kandanthe (2014) and Garuda Gamana and the Bhoota Kola in this film — both have been recreated on screen by those with roots in the region, and so you don’t see it as just a geography marker or for a pop of colour, but as the devotion at its core. Something similar happens to the Bhoota Kola here. And, like the forest official who does not believe, but ultimately sees the kola for what it is, fear and awe for the external form and love for what is within soon switch places.
For me, the film is about how a man eventually accepts his destiny, and how his heart expands to love those who he previously loathed, including the forest officer. And how, one day, his heart and mind are full, and he knows he has fulfilled his destiny. The last five minutes are incredibly moving. The long-lost father and son dance, smiling, and surrender themselves to the forest to whom they worship.
Among the biggest pluses in the film is Arvind S Kashyap’s cinematography. At times, the camera snakes into the narrow huts that make up many people's homes, at others, it lords over the vast greenery, owning it. The same can be said about music by Ajaneesh Loknath (esp 'Singara Siriye' among the songs and the throbbing background score), which is evocative, moving and rousing all at once.
Watch Kantara in theatres, because this is a film made for the theatre. The film is as Kannada as it can get and is among the handful of movies that is all heart. So much hard work has gone into making this film, and it shows on screen. And, if more such movies are to be made, rooted in a region’s culture, without exotisising it, the audience must mark its presence.