Well, if Brazil now has Lula da Silva to reclaim their Amazon rainforests, then we have our Rishab Shetty to thwart wily, treacherous landlords and huntsmen troopers and invigorate our fast-disappearing green cover.
Kantara is unwavering in its premise of foregrounding the subtext of the subaltern, agricultural/pastoral communities belonging to the Dakshina Kannada (Tulu Nadu) region, spicing it up with loud theatrics that is alluring to the senses while at the same time asking existential questions of ‘ownership’ of land and nature, and if we humans aren’t just strangers on this celestial earth.
Shetty, who himself belongs to Keradi village of Kundapaura Taluk in Udupi district, has actually shot the film in his own coastal backyard, capturing the vivid history and culture of the region; the native tradition of the Kambola (bullock race) and the Bhoota Kola ritual where the chosen performers paint their faces enveloped by an elaborate headgear, dancing to a heightened frenzy to the thrum of drums with a screeching ghostly howl thrown in.
There is no doubt that some of these are breathtakingly shot and ably captures the mystic mood that the story aims for, but for the most part, the film is akin to a male chest-thumping marathon fest with scenes where the hero wantonly parades his male superiority complex over a woman that sadly thrusts the film down a dark, grungy hole.
Apart from Kantara, this year there was Rakshit Shetty’s 777 Charlie that hit the box office bulls-eye with Rs 150 crore (approx.) against a budget of Rs 20 crore (approx.) and Kiccha Sudeepa’s Vikrant Rona, which too earned well at the Kannada box office and in other markets apart from the massive hit KGF–Chapter 2.
Interestingly, last week saw the release of the late Kannada star Dr Puneeth Rajkumar’s film Gandhada Gudi or The Abode of Sandalwood Trees. Rajkumar tragically passed away last year.
Shot in a documentary drama format by JS Amoghavarsha, it is an ode to the young actor’s passion for nature and wildlife, in many ways a heartfelt tribute to one of Kannada film industry’s much-loved actors, popularly known as Appu, and also the youngest son of Dr Rajkumar.
Post its success, Kantara became a ground for polemics when Chetan Kumar, a Kannada actor and social activist, stated that the Bhoota Kola ritual could not be viewed as a Hindu-Brahminic ceremony, as it had its roots in the ancient traditions of the indigenous people of the coastal region of South Karnataka, that pre-dated known traditional aspects of Hinduism.
When asked about this, Shetty chose not to comment and favoured scholars in the religious realm to be more proficient in providing some much-needed light.
Whatever be the take, one thing is sure: the sheer ingenuity of Shetty in bringing a Tulu-Kannada folklore and having pan-Indian audiences sit up and take notice has a Biblical hat tip in the Book of Proverbs 22:29: “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.”
It is over half a century since meshtru—or teacher in Kannada—as UR Ananthamurthy was lovingly called, brought his own story Samskara to the screen in 1970, and later Ghatashraddha in 1977 directed by Girish Kasaravalli.
From there till now, the weather-beaten, chaotic trails it has covered has proven that the Kannada film industry has a vast and tough wingspan. And the exciting spell it is going through now, with earnest tales rocking at the box office, would surely have the avid storyteller in Ananthamurthy proud.