In a chat with TNM, Rishab speaks about how ‘Kantara’ came into being, the world he’s created, the writing process and how the team went about making a film that fuses Nature, divinity and human greed.

Rishab Shetty in Kantara
Flix Interview Monday, October 10, 2022 - 19:24

By now, everyone is speaking about the climax stretch of Kantara and how writer, actor and director Rishab Shetty has come up with his best performance till now. But, Rishab prefers calling that an “experience”. “And, I don’t wish to speak about that experience. I’d like to savour it myself for some more time before sharing it,” he says.

The film, said to have been made on a budget of less than Rs 20 crore, has made more than double that in just the first week of its release. It was released only in Kannada with subtitles across the country and abroad. Shows are being increased across the board, and the film is being released in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam from October 14 onwards.

As always, even on the day of release, Rishab is composed. That’s because he runs a tight ship as director, spending enough time on the writing, and pre-production and workshopping before shooting at a brisk pace, and promoting it well. The rest he leaves to the destiny of the film. Rishab confesses he has a temper, but that emerges only when someone on set is tardy or not giving their 100 per cent.

The idea of Kantara came about in April 2021, and the team began filming in August that year. For a film of this scale and grandeur, that is a pretty quick turnaround time.

In a half-hour conversation en route to Mysore from Bengaluru, Rishab speaks about how Kantara came into being, the world he’s created, his team that backed him to the hilt, the writing process and how they went about making a film that fuses Nature, divinity and human greed. Excerpts from a conversation punctuated by people greeting him on the film’s response.

Today, Kantara stands as an example of a script done right, and it has worked cinematically as well as commercially. How did it all begin?

When I began writing, I thought of a story of a forest officer and a villager. I got to hear some stories of conflict and thought it would work well on film. And that is how the two main characters were born. At that stage, there was no daiva araadhane (worship of the gods) and no Kambala (a traditional race with buffaloes in a muddy field) in the script. Even Shiva was not written like this.

And then I thought that if we are setting a film in this land, a film that speaks about the conflict between people over land and forest, then we must really root it. Dakshina Kannada is called Parashurama Kshetra, there are traditions unique to this land. I decided to take that route. And so, the wild boar entered the picture, the animals of the forest, Kambala, Bhootha Kola, all of them walked into the script. I believe a land is not merely a geographical entity, it is also a repository of stories, a melting pot of culture.

Watch the trailer of Kantara:

The film is now going to be dubbed in various languages. But why did you initially take the brave call to first release it only in Kannada?

I knew we would eventually dub the film into other languages either for theatrical release or for OTT, but I first wanted it to have a direct Kannada release. The culture we speak about in the movie is different, and I thought the idea of daiva araadhane would come across better in Kannada. I wanted the film to retain the dialect of this belt and the snatches of Tulu too. We stayed true to the spirit of the script and thought our film should be rooted and true to its identity.

We have seen Pilivesha and Bhootha Kola in other films, but they are used more as geographical markers. They take on a life of their own in films directed by those from the Dakshina Kannada region, even if they now live elsewhere.

Well, we might live elsewhere but this is our root, this is where we come from and this is what we follow. Bhootha Kola or daiva araadhane is not just a symbol here, but a way of life. It offers balance in a society that believes in the concept of the Daiva. And Kantara is a story set in this region about man and nature and livelihoods. So when you see a Bhootha Kola in that backdrop, it takes you to the core of what it is. When those of us from this region showcase it, we do so knowing its history and current place in our lives.

Special mention must be made of the sets. The village was not all tiled or thatch homes but a living, breathing village. How did the team manage that effect?

We did not want it to look clinical with paved pathways, we wanted it to look lived in. This is the terrain we have lived in. We knew people with different livelihoods lived together and their homes reflected that. We needed someone making tiles, someone making jaggery, someone cultivating rice and grain, someone sharpening weapons and agricultural implements… they together make up the village. And, paths to people’s homes are carved over time. We wanted that too.

Kadubettu Shiva begins as a sweet child with wide eyes, but is an aggressive adult with betel nut-stained teeth. Did you ever doubt how he’ll be received?

Not really. The first time around, you’ll only see his aggression. But there’s redemption. The second time, you might realise that there is still a young child within him that returned empty-handed from the forest. He’s constantly running away from his destiny. And then he realises what he’s meant to do.

Caste is an important subplot in the film. Even the usually aggressive Shiva, who shares a drink with the landlord, stops himself from entering his house when his friend is beaten up…

You do get some details in the first watch. But there are layers you’ll spot during a second watch. It is gratifying when your audience gets you. For instance, in Santosh Theatre in Bengaluru, I was shocked to see people reacting exactly the way I hoped they would for a certain moment, even though they were watching it for the first time. That part of the film was set in the 90s and I had to stay true to that time. We usually hesitate touching upon anything related to such issues, but I definitely believe that if you do so with clarity, people will understand it in context. This film offered me a great opportunity to do just that.

Kantara is also a film about furtive love and there is a lot of physicality, something that films set in villages don’t really showcase. There’s been a fair bit of criticism for the scene where Shiva pinches Leela’s waist.

To love is human nature and we will not be telling the truth if we insist nothing of this sort happens in villages. Yes, we did lend it a certain hint of humour. As for Shiva and Leela, I envisioned them as Shiva and Parvathi. They’ve known each other from when they were kids and are deeply attracted to each other. She’s equally physical with him. So, it was not meant to be harassment but to signify the fact that they knew each other from before they grew up. They are very passionate, but Shiva is more devoted to the village. When he has to choose between his village and Leela, because she’s working for the Forest Department, he temporarily splits with her.

Kamala, the mother, is very interesting. She’s frail yet controls those towering over her with her sharp tongue and a stick.

Manasi Sudhir, a dancer, did a fine job. I wrote the mother as someone who did not fall into any of the image traps. I loved the bond the mother and son shared. They are vulnerable with each other only when one of them is low. The rest of the time they fight or argue or chase the other.

Many seem shocked by the fact that a film of this scale was released in just about a year since shooting began. Tell us a little about your KFC (Keradi Film City, as the village was called by the team)?

I was clear as to what I wanted, and writing and pre-production went on parallelly. Luckily, the team knew what we were exactly looking at even in terms of set design. We knew and were seeing how the houses looked, how the pathways curve and narrow. However far we have moved on, a part of us carries those visuals, no?

Helping us execute this was our amazing technical crew. Cinematographer Arvind Kashyap was my backbone. His team of Manu and Vishwas and gimbal operator Jayasimha are an important reason for why the film looks the way it does.

Art director Dharani Gangeputra and his team of Abhi, Bharath and Dhanu knew how these homes should look. They knew what colour the grass should be.

If Kantara looks real, credit will also go to Suhas Shetty who took care of all the props — he sourced everything needed to make the houses and place look real. My brother Praveen Shetty and Suhas worked together to handle this side of the film. Our production manager Gagan Murthy held things together.

My wife Pragathi handled the costumes. She was pregnant when we were shooting. She was on the sets, ageing the costumes with costumer Ramkumar to ensure they fit the timezones we were speaking about.

What do I say about Ajaneesh [composer Ajaneesh Loknath]? He’s done a fab job, with music that is completely rooted. He visited Mangalore, met folk artistes, met those who play the Dollu. That’s why you connect so well with the music.

Mime Ramdas, who also plays the character of Naaru, composed ‘Vaa Porliya’ (meaning ‘How Lovely’ in Tulu) using local instruments, and we retained it for authenticity. It gives you the feel of a daiva procession.

Everyone on the set helped make the film.

The film has some very organic performances. How did that come about?

Every character has a graph, and no one knows who is a good person and who is not. We followed a process and had repeat narrations. We workshopped extensively with all the actors, including seniors such as Kishore Sir and Achyuth anna. This helped everyone pick up the dialect. Our heroine Sapthami, in fact, trained for three months just to get the dialect right. This helped us wrap the film up fast.

Would you like to say anything about your Bhootha Kola performance?

I don’t think so. My heart is still full. I’ve heard so many stories about the Kola process and of people who’ve died after challenging the Daiva. When I worked on this with Raj (writer-actor Raj B Shetty, who directed the 2021 hit Garuda Gamana Vrushaba Vahana) who choreographed the Bhootha Kola sequences in the beginning of the movie and the one towards the climax, it felt more like an experience and less a performance.

We went by instinct and let the mood carry the Guliga performance. My team kept asking me how we were going to shoot it, because it was written with a certain expected impact. I had some images in mind, I did not tell anyone about it. I could not rehearse either. So, I confidently told them that we’d go for the take. And once we began, it just fell in place. 

It was a very spiritual experience and a beautiful process. I felt blessed and I felt our film was blessed that we were able to pull this off.

Finally, are you surprised by the extent of reaction to the film? It is running housefull in many centres outside of Karnataka too.

I’m very surprised. This happens to some films. It is never planned. Films just happen. After a point, it is not in our hands. There was a certain energy while making the film and we were there to channelise it. That is how I see it.

Subha J Rao is an entertainment journalist covering Tamil and Kannada cinema and is based out of Mangaluru, Karnataka.

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