Rishab Shetty’s Kantara is a meta tale of folk legends. On one side, the film relies heavily on the mystique of centuries-old folklore and traditions like Bhootha Kola and presents a microcosmic world that is deeply rooted in this. And simultaneously, the same mystical energy allows for the hero of the film to pave a rite of passage for himself and transcend into a living myth in front of his own people. Where Rishab Shetty succeeds the most is in presenting his self-referential tale in the garb of a masala film that is not only entertaining but also uncannily original.
Rishab also plays the hero Shiva, a valiant but hot-headed Kambala champion who is also the living embodiment of the abandon of his village. The people around him are a unique blend of pious and unabashed – the men chug down arrack as if it were Gatorade, the women chastise their men constantly as they plate up fish fry, and yet, the tradition of the place unites them all. But the hero of the film is still an uninspired man who has nightmares of running into a Bhootha Kola artist (typically dressed in the Yakshagana attire) in the depths of the surrounding forest. At first glance, this is a simple manifestation of the trauma of watching his father, a Bhootha Kola performer, disappearing into the forest and never returning. Or, if you looked closely, could those nightmares mean epiphanies for Shiva who, despite all the fear, somehow finds himself night-after-night in the same forest on casual hunting expeditions? Who knows, maybe there is a divine intervention waiting for him.
But for Rishab, the journey to that point of ultimate catharsis is through that of a bona fide masala entertainer. He starts off the story in the 19th century to set a beguiling premise of how a wandering, unhappy king encounters a sacred stone and gives away a large mass of land to the people living nearby. Cut to about 100 years later and the land has grown into a village, still caught in the clutches of ancestry but also ambitious and self-serving in its way of living, much to the dismay of the new Range Forest Officer Murali (Kishore). RFO Murali is honest, determined but can also be a grump who disses the village traditions by referring to them as shoki or fanciful afflictions, threatening to trample on the celebrations for as long as he is around. So, when Murali’s stubbornness encounters Shiva’s bravado, it’s a clash of epic proportions and we feel we are nudged towards an ultra-masculine, egotistic faceoff that is similar to the one in the 2020 Malayalam film Ayyapanum Koshiyum. But Rishab subverts again and seems to tell us with a wink: “Well, that’s not really what I’m trying to do.”
Rishab intentionally underplays the Shiva-Murali saga and directs the narrative towards the third most important character of the plot, Achyuth Kumar’s Devendra Suttur. Suttur is the local landlord and a congenial well-wisher of the village (and of Shiva, in particular), but it doesn’t take much to guess that there’s more to him than meets the eye (we are even told that he is heir to the land that the king “gave away” many moons ago). Where Rishab the writer infuses nuance is with this character. He presents the landlord all along as the sly enabler of Shiva & gang, makes subtle suggestions that he can’t be trusted, and yet doesn’t fully reveal the dark side until the opportune moment. Instead, Rishab builds the world of Kantara with everyday mundanities – Shiva’s squabbles with his mother, run-ins with the law, his romance with the village forest guard Leela (a delightful Sapthami Gowda) – and gradually mounts Murali as the chief antagonist of the story.
It’s an effective ploy because even though we see Suttur as the bigger potential threat, we realise that idea is to close in the walls on Shiva and unleash the Bhootha lurking in him. The template of using not one but two nemeses is nothing new but it’s the staging that does the trick. And just as we anticipate or even settle for a cliched ending, Rishab pulls his final trick on us to deliver a most outstanding and glorious climax sequence.
Rishab Shetty, the actor, is particularly effective in the film and that’s because he is fully aware of the pitch and tone of his performance. He looks the right shape and size for a Kambala sportsman and exudes a fine balance of naivety and arrogance when it comes to the ‘manly’ side of his personality. Consider the scene when RFO Murali tries to pull the plug on the annual Kola celebrations. It’s the classic clash of one-upmanship, of two distinct but similar personalities coming face-to-face for the first time, and yet, the entire scene is played out verbally despite Murali carrying an official gun and Shiva having the entire village behind him for physical support. Shiva is drunk in the scene and so is Murali, but it’s the former who exercises control (and even does a quick sniff-check for alcohol) because he knows that it’s his land. It’s a scene that’s staged perfectly by the writer, performed brilliantly by the actors and shot superbly by Arvind S Kashyap, who never cuts into the crowd for reaction shots but keeps everything at a distance to let the chaos simmer underneath and not blow up just yet.
Arvind’s cinematography is quite easily one of the main highlights of the film for it not only maintains that distant-yet-unique gaze on the characters but also captures Shiva’s rage with an astute eye. The Bhootha Kola sequences, in particular, are exquisite both with respect to the aesthetic and the subliminal energy they carry.
But that said, the writing falters a bit in this mega balancing act. While we see the village and the people playing a huge part in the conflict, their individual stories and problems are never made fully relevant to the story. This isn’t a concern of lack of information but rather of empathy, and although the underlying purpose of the film is to make Shiva realise his true potential, the outward issue of land grabbing and deceit does not really become a major concern for us. The attempt to make Murali a more relatable-yet-formidable opponent too comes across as diluted because the script doesn’t elevate the tension between him and Shiva: instead, we see repetitive scenes dished out about their ideological differences. For a film that’s so driven by conflicts of myriad kinds, the lack of anything substantial can be a little underwhelming and this can only be attributed to the slight half-baked approach in writing.
These concerns, however, are completely negligible because director Rishab is in no mood to let the energy drop. The drama unfolds relentlessly (thanks to the editing of KM Prakash and Pratheek Shetty) and Rishab combines the force of all his top technicians to put together a film that pulsates on its own rhythm and beat, never letting its inherent commercial trappings come in the way. And the film has a literal beat too which comes from B Ajaneesh Loknath’s eclectic and empowering musical score that ranges from mellifluous 1990s tunes like ‘Singara Siriye’ to the fitting operatic rock anthem for the climax portions. Ajaneesh lends the percussive edge to the film which, in a way, becomes a fly-on-the-wall-like character of the film that embellishes all the key moments with a blend of humour and objectivity.
Kantara is a Rishab Shetty show by all means but that doesn’t come without the support of all the key players. This is new-age storytelling in Kannada cinema that’s constantly peaking, mainly because the filmmakers are not shying away from showing their mainstream inclinations. Kantara is embedded firmly in the heartland and it utilises every bit of the local milieu to paint this vivid portrait of folklore and tradition but also the people associated with it. It’s a film intended for pure mass entertainment but made with all the heart.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.