Cast: Rishab Shetty, Kishore, Achyuth Kumar, Sapthami Gowda
Director: Rishab Shetty
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
A visually sumptuous, instantly immersive spectacle mounted with extraordinary vim and vigour, writer-director-actor Rishab Shetty’s Kannada-language Kantara, now on nationwide release in Hindi and other languages, is a heady blend of history, myth, folklore, high drama and stylishly choreographed action neatly wrapped in a form firmly rooted in the cultural milieu it has sprung from.
Shetty is also the writer and lead actor of the film. As screenwriter, his output is probably just a touch shy of being perfect, but the script has enough heft and vibrancy to translate into a mass entertainer that is visceral, rousing and unwaveringly riveting.
A wide array of things makes Kantara the incredible film that it is, but the most prominent of all are the on-screen performers led admirably well by Shetty. He packs a punch that sends us reeling and continues to reverberate long after the film has run its course.
The film kicks off at scorching pace. The introduction of a divine spirit that watches over the forest and a stirring Kambala buffalo race within the first 15 minutes or so of the film set the tone. Getting accustomed to the sensory overload takes a while. However, once the two-and-a-half-hour film’s design – both visual and aural – reveals itself in all its splendour, everything falls into place and draws the audience into the spellbinding Kantara (literally, mystical forest) universe.
The potent drama focuses on the fraught power dynamics, social and divine, that have forever been at play in a coastal Karnataka village where a seemingly benign feudal lord wields unlimited, unquestioned authority over the people. He decides what is good for the villagers. The latter go along.
It isn’t servility that underpins the relationship between the master and his serfs. The key is loyalty. It has been built over decades of what feels like benevolence but may not be what it appears to be. Also central to the plot of Kantara is a conflict that arises from threats posed to the rights of forest dwellers over the swathes of land that have been their home for centuries.
In the lead role, Shetty brings dizzying energy to bear upon his performance as the buffalo race champion Shiva, a fiery young rebel with a cause. The young man has to contend with demons of his own mind – recurring nightmares in which he sees visions of the reigning deity in a wrathful avat ar drive him to the edge of despair and a constant need to give vent to his rising ire.
His impulsive response to provocations put him on a collision course with the powers that be and his own mother, Kamala (Manasi Sudhir). She frets in vain over his compulsive hunting of wild boars – an act that is linked to the unsettling dreams that repeatedly interrupt his sleep – and violent confrontations with the landlord’s henchmen.
The actor-director creates an electrifying larger-than-life figure whose volatile ways shape the frisson that pulses through the film. The young man, perpetually on a short fuse, is foresworn to protecting the village from forces out to rob the indigenous population of access to their ancestral land. Friction between him and government officials erupts because the latter are loath to accept that the forest belongs to the villagers.
Kantara, a film of phenomenal sweep and power, delivers a blindingly brilliant climax and a build-up to it that send the film soaring to the sort heights that only truly great commercial films have ever attained. The cinematography by Arvind S. Kashyap and the musical score by B. Ajneesh Loknath are magnificent. They work in tandem to create an impactful, out of the ordinary movie experience.
As tensions peak in the village and the forest’s demigod (ritualistically celebrated in the annual Bhoota Kola ceremony) lurks in the background and is always ready to strike, the nature and dimension of Shiva’s fight become clear.
Shiva’s biggest foe is an upright deputy forest range officer Muralidhar (Kishore) who will stop at nothing to ensure that the government’s writ runs. The landlord Devendra Suttur (Achyuth Kumar), Shiva’s master and benefactor, makes common cause with the feisty young man. But are the powerful arbiter’s intentions above board?
The opening moments of Kantara provide some broad historical clues. In quick succession, the script details the context of the present conflict. In 1847, the King, at the bidding of the Panjurli (boar) demigod, hands over a large expanses of land to the tribal denizens of the forest and is in return assured of decades of peace and prosperity.
Many generations later, the King’s successor, driven by greed and drunk on power, wants all the land to be restored to the royal family. The deity, infuriated at the violation of the long-standing covenant, metes out instantaneous punishment to the offender. In 1990, the year in which Kantara is set, a government officer arrives in the village with a brief to wrest control of the forest land under his charge.
Legends and myths prevalent in the area and beliefs flowing out the forest dwellers’ collective memory constitute the narrative crux of the story. The film is marked by with a deep sense of the unique ethos of the people it is about.
Shiva, a Bhoota Kola ritual performer, represents a hoary custom but has passed on the mantle to a cousin because he was witness to the disappearance of his father while he was in the guise of the demigod. The loss still haunts Shiva and spurs him on to fight for the protection of his cultural/spiritual moorings.
Shiva is a virile defender of his people and their animistic philosophy, but he isn’t the conventional, insuperable Alpha male that films such as KGF, RRR and Pushpa have brought back to the Indian cinema mainstream and made a box-office killing in the bargain. Kantara resists the temptation and is none the worse for it.
The climactic good-versus-evil confrontation – it isn’t an ordinary hero-vanquishes-villain construct, catapults Kantara to an exalted plane. It offsets the one drawback that dilutes the film’s a bit. Such is Shiva’s halo that the characters around him – his friends and his girlfriend Leela (Gowthami Gowda) – are not quite as vivid as the other technical and narrative elements of the film.
In the light of the sustained overall finesse, anything in this film that is less than totally unblemished will count only as a minor false stroke on an otherwise impeccably realised canvas. Kantara, propelled by Rishab Shetty’s blindingly good star turn and impressive directorial skills, is an insanely entertaining film. An absolute must watch.