Kantara: Where Cinema Transcends Into A Spiritual Experience
In a regular village scene, I could distance myself and become aware that I was watching fiction.
But in every scene with the gods, I lost all sense of reality, as I sat with folded hands, partaking in the emotions felt by the gods.
“Kantara – ondu danta kathe”
The words flash on the big screen, formed from the embers of the Panjurli Daiva’s torch, waking you up from the surreal trance the legend has held you in, for two and a half hours.
A cinematic story narrated in the style of a folk tale spanning many generations, this visual celebration of all things folk, from the remote lands of Kundapura in coastal Karnataka, packs in rich detail from every realm of community life of that region – an impossible feat, you would think, and yet, here it is.
Just as art serves the gods, entertainment serves the mortals. This movie, while couched in the form of entertainment, is, as the viewer quickly finds out, a playground for the gods.
There may have been many Indian films that show rituals of worship as a backdrop or a story prop, but never before has there been a movie where the worship of deities and their intimate relationship with communities are the hero and the central plot.
The archetype of the king who loses his way in the world, uneasy and restless, who finds his way into the deep, dark, unknown forest in search of truth and salvation is as old as humanity, and just as universal.
Whether as Siddhartha who left the royal palace and his wife and son in search of the root of all suffering; or King Suratha who lost his kingdom and learned the great power of the Goddess in the refuge of a forest, as depicted in Devi Mahatmyam; or as in Kantara, as the king who finds the love of a mother and the embrace of a maternal uncle (a nod to the matrilineal culture of Coastal Karnataka) in the Panjurli Daiva of the forest. It is a deeply human experience to lose our way and find ourselves and our faith in the darkest, most difficult paths of our lives.
And when we find our divinity, regardless of what we choose to call it, do we deal with it in good faith? In other words, do we keep our word to our gods? What happens when we don’t?
Kantara maps this relationship between man and faith, man and his community, his ancestors, his environment, his land and finally his calling, his yearning and his nightmares when he refuses to answer it. It is not a simple tale of retribution – that would be too black and white. Nothing about Kantara is simple, except the hearts of the people depicted in it.
The story, with a quick introduction of the origin of the daiva, is largely based in present-day Kundapura, where simple-minded folk live on a tract of land at the edge of the forest, which they believe was given to them by the gods’ decree. Their gods are of the forests – Panjurli, a benevolent daiva who embodies the boar, Varaha Swamy, and his brother Guliga who protects the oath between humans and gods fiercely. These two gods – there are many others in the region – are the focus of this story.
What does this belief mean in the twenty-first century, where land is not valued in terms of faith, but in currency? Where boundaries and ownership are not just transactions between humans, but even the non-human world is expected to adhere to them?
The story goes on to explore the complex relationships of a village community that barely understands the present-day law that governs their lives and fates, the usual fights over petty stakes, the jealousies and intrigue over food, sex, love and money, the taut tensions over family feuds that could erupt at any moment, wound tighter by the “outsider”, the dogged officer of law, who neither cares nor sympathises with the blind ignorance of simple village folk.
These themes are all too familiar but barely depicted in mainstream entertainment, clearly because they are too “sensitive” and our lens as urban people who care for the environment or for the forest people (it is rarely both) is often coloured by outsider bias.
But the writers and the director here masterfully navigate these themes and manage to show remarkable sensitivity to every side of this conflict. It was heartening to see that the narrative did not dive into labelling a “ruthless State” or made victims of people.
This maturity is seen throughout the movie, in every aspect. The non-believer is not condemned, you don’t find yourself cheering for one side or the other between the State and the community. Even amidst the tragedies that are wreaked on the community, there is a beautiful reconciliation in the end. Both the community and the officers of the State realise that the deep distrust that divided them were wedged by selfish individuals with their own agenda fuelled by greed.
The distrust arises, in the first place, from having entirely different world views.
The secular State sees the people’s divinely ordained claim on the land as cunning manipulation using faith as a deterrent. The community sees the government’s claim over their land as imperialistic and heavy-handed.
The reconciliation, at the end of the movie, is no less than divine intervention, brought about by the protective god, with a compassionate smile, pulling everyone to himself in a slow dancing sway.
In the modern system of democracy, people’s voice may outweigh those of the gods, not everyone may even believe in the same system of faith, but ultimately, the state, the people and the individual are united in their purpose – prosperity and protection of the land and everyone within it. And whether we believe it or not, this is what the gods want for us too.
Now for the cinematic experience of this beautiful story – Rishab Shetty has pulled off nothing short of a miracle with this production.
With a modest budget of Rs. 16 crores, shot entirely in Kundapura, it is visually breathtaking in almost every scene without the aid of CGI and green screen techniques.
The only scene with CGI aided imagery was the one that could not be made with human actors.
The cinematography is spectacular, blending a realistic, rugged and rustic feel of a village with surreal, magic realism in the scenes of the forest and the gods, seamlessly.
The mood in every scene is achieved primarily through flawless lighting and camera angles. If the scenes weren’t so enchanting, they would make a great study for hands-on cinematography.
The make-up and costumes are painstakingly authentic and visually arresting. Rishab Shetty transforms from the rustic paan-toothed troublemaker Shiva to the graceful, extravagantly styled deity with elegant dance moves in a heartbeat.
Physicality is a huge part of this film, and the actor nails every nuance of the dance of Panjurli, the final death-dance of the fearsome Guliga with their unique signature moves.
Rishab Shetty stands out as the star of this film, but he is by no means, the only one. Sapthami Gowda holds her own in a movie where the female lead is not just a pretty prop. As a woman with a modern education, she brings her own set of conflicts to the stage – of carrying the burden of family expectations and their ire when they are disappointed by what her education and a government job mean to their sense of community and beliefs.
Achyuth Kumar, the predictable baddie, can turn any character unpredictable, tricking the viewer into complacence as you sense the usual, run-of-the-mill meanness and cunning, but quickly switches into diabolical cruelty that stuns you into disbelief.
The inimitable Kishore plays a righteous Forest Officer who has very little patience for ignorant transgressions. Every member of the cast – Manasi Sudhir, Pramod Shetty, Prakash Thuminad, Naveen Padil, Swaraj Shetty and Vinay Bidappa lend harmony to the depiction.
Tying all the performances together, in sync, is the rich and energetic background score by B. Ajaneesh Loknath, that uses extraordinarily diverse techniques, such as throat singing, chants and rock riffs along with traditional dolu and other instruments, and still sounds refreshingly true to the land.
A final word about the gods – who I fully believe – breathed through this movie and not just metaphorically.
In my tweet, typed right after watching the movie, I said, “We got back our gods”. This may have sounded like a hyperbole, but as I watched the movie, the gods were the most real part for me.
In every regular village scene, I could distance myself and become aware that I was watching fiction. But in every scene with the gods, I lost all sense of reality, as I sat with folded hands, partaking in the emotions felt by the gods – of love, of compassion, of kinship, of camaraderie, of life, of incredible and heady joy of human connection, of loss, of sorrow, of grief.
I laughed with the gods, cried with the gods, felt their sorrow deep inside my gut, felt touched by their love and blessed by them.
At this point, this was not a movie anymore. This was a deeply spiritual experience. A blessing.
To have a profoundly life-changing (and I don’t mean it in the way of email marketing copy) connection with the gods, sitting in a movie hall -- as non-religious and profane a space as any -- is the unmistakable evidence that the gods have decided to cut through the mesh of impenetrability we have woven around ourselves, and touch our hearts anyway.
Is this what our elders call “Kripa”?
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