Kantara lead Rishab Shetty says bhootas a part of Hindu tradition, stirs controversy

While ‘Kantara’ has received many positive reviews, it has sparked a discussion about appropriation of non-Hindu cultures in the film.
Rishab Shetty in Kantara
Rishab Shetty in Kantara
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Rishab Shetty’s recently released Kannada film Kantara has managed to win praise from audiences and filmmakers, and has seen considerable success at the box office. However, the period action thriller, which is set in a village Udupi, has also sparked a discussion about appropriation of non-Hindu cultures in the film. Set against the backdrop of a dominant caste landlord grabbing the land of the local tribal community, Kantara is intertwined with native cultures and rituals practiced in coastal Karnataka such as Yakshagana, Bhoota Kola, Daivaradhane and Kambala. 

In a recent interview with the Tamil channel Cinema Vikatan, Rishab Shetty — who wrote, directed and starred as the lead in Kantara — kicked up a row by suggesting that the Bhoota Kola tradition of the Dakshina Kannada region is a part of Hindu culture. The interviewer asked Rishab whether Panjurli — a bhoota who takes the form of a wild boar and is the protector of righteousness — was depicted as a Hindu god in the film. Rishab responded, “Those gods, they are all part of our tradition. Definitely, it is part of Hindu culture and Hindu rituals. Because I am a Hindu, I have belief and respect for my religion. But I will not say others are wrong. What we have said is through the element that is present in Hindu dharma.” 

This clip of the interview is being shared widely on social media, and comes in the wake of criticism that Panjurli in the film is depicted as the Hindu god Vishnu’s incarnation, Varaha. Critics referred to the song ‘Varaha Roopam’ that plays towards the end of the film, which has Sanskrit lyrics, and refers to Panjurli as the incarnation of Vishnu. One social media user wrote, “So, #Kantara - I have many, many  thoughts. But most significantly, equating panjurli daiva with Vishnu/Varaha is a blunder - an attempt at appropriating folk traditions of Tulunadu. I wish the Tuluvas would get more offended by this rather than memes etc (sic).”

Bhoothas are distinct from the gods of Brahminical Hinduism, with the custom predating the arrival of vedic culture. Their stories are recorded in oral narratives or paaddanas. They are often real people who fought different kinds of injustice, such as Koti and Chanayya, Tuluva warriors who fought against caste and feudal discrimination in the late 16th century. Some of the earliest bhoothas are animals like panjurli (wild boar) and pilichamundi (tiger). It is a common belief that each bhootha controls a particular aspect of life and that praying to the appropriate bhootha will help a person overcome their problems. Bhoothas and daivas are not worshipped on a daily basis like some Hindu gods. Their worship is restricted to annual ritual festivals, though daily poojas are conducted for the ritual objects, ornaments, and other paraphernalia of the bhoothas.

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