With Kantara’s success, the world has appropriated Bhootha Kola as its own

Is the movie serious about highlighting the rights of forest dwellers or is the issue just a source for intense dramatic conflict that can captivate the audience till they are led to submission and complete faith, asks filmmaker Ramchandra PN.
A Bhootha Kola ritual still from Kantara
A Bhootha Kola ritual still from Kantara
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Warning: The article has major spoilers including a discussion on the movie’s ending.

The phenomenon of the worship of Bhoothas (benevolent spirits) is imbibed deeply in the social fabric of coastal Karnataka. The divine power of these spirits is believed to both protect and punish. These spirits have their own backstories, and most times in their earthly avatars they themselves have lived battered lives. After a saturation point, they give up their lives by ‘disappearing’ magically, post which they become guardians of other living battered souls.

The life stories of these spirits are narrated in a folk song form locally called Paaddana; the spirits themselves are generally represented by abstract totems. The Kola ritual is an animistic form of worshipping these demi-gods wherein the spirits themselves are supposed to enter the bodies of designated mediums – invariably hailing from a lowered caste – and communicate with people giving them solutions to their worldly problems. Psychologists term this phenomenon Possession Syndrome – where a person has societal sanction to temporarily lose his/her identity and get tranced by an external body. Although Kantara, a recent Kananda film whose title means mystical forests, has no such rational world view, it does have as its protagonist one such designated medium.

The central plot of the movie is set in the 1990s, but its narration dates back to about 140 years earlier when a local chieftain bargains with the aboriginals of a forest area to exchange their animistic totem in lieu of ownership of the land that they inhabit. The plot then shifts to the 1970s wherein the Mumbai-returned descendant of the chieftain wants the land back. He insults the father of the protagonist, who is a Bhootha medium in the Kola ritual and hails from the same aboriginal community. The insult, which is taken as done to the powerful spirit itself, prompts the father to angrily head into the forests and mystically ‘disappear’ but only after cursing the descendant to death.

Twenty years later, Shiva, the son of the Kola ritual performer and our protagonist, refuses to inherit his father’s profession. He does not want to become a medium for the spirit, the ‘disappearance’ of his father playing heavily on his mind. Otherwise, he is a carefree, not so young-looking youth whose male masculinity would make the protagonist of Baahubali proud, his forceful aggressive behaviour with his sweetheart being a case in point. The woman is educated and has a job in the Forest Department but has to come back to her roots – shedding the forest uniform to wear a sari – to wed him later in the movie.

But initially, Shiva does the odd biddings of his landlord, who himself is the offspring of the person whom the ‘spirit’ had cursed to death, in the illegal timber business. But the plot forgets this century-old deal and the 20-year old curse to focus on the constant conflict that Shiva has with a seemingly upright forest officer. The latter is working towards realising a government order of converting the area into a protected reserve forest by evicting the forest dwelling community, who are seen as encroachers.

The amount of screen time and build-up given to this forest officer and the collision that he has with Shiva makes one think that the movie is about the rights of forest dwellers. In this conflict, Shiva and his fellow villagers hit back at the forest officials who try to evict them forcibly with violence. The use of crude bombs and handmade guns by Shiva and his friends have the danger of being labelled Naxalite activities if the movie was made by a progressive filmmaker. In Kantara, such activities are celebrated not for any deep-rooted ideological issues concerning countering violence with violence – but because it gives rise to drama and comedy.

As it turns out, the social concern of the movie seems to be a red herring. After unabashedly treading this path and developing this theme for about two-thirds of the movie, the officer, for no convincing ‘character motivational’ reasons, becomes sympathetic towards Shiva and his community, and to their cause and way of life. Once this happens, the forest officer becomes a mere decorative item whose job is to give deep pondering looks at the Bhootha loving community and little else.

The probable subtext here is that through its representative the forest officer, the all-powerful state too becomes submissive as it supports the aboriginals – a scenario we hardly see in real life. That this submission is more due to the powerful nature of the Bhoothas rather than anything else is what comes across later in the movie. Suffice to say that the burning social issues that were raised due to the forest officer’s large and long presence – that of forest dwellers’ forestry rights vis-à-vis the need to conserve nature – is completely forgotten in the movie’s later part. This raises a doubt. Was the movie ever serious about this issue or was it just a source for intense dramatic conflict that would hold captive the minds of the audience till they are led towards submission and complete faith?

As it turns out, the focus of the movie in its later part shifts back to where it started – the land that was donated to the community about a century ago by the chieftain and the unsuccessful attempts by his descendants to reclaim it. The person responsible for the last such unsuccessful attempt is Shiva. And who or what helps Shiva in his endeavour? It is of course the benevolent spirit itself.

All his life Shiva had avoided being a medium for the Bhootha, a post that was available to him by heredity. But when his community is massacred by the evil feudal landlord and he, too, is all but dead, the spirit itself takes cognisance of matters and enters his body. The atrocity of the upper caste is too much to take even for the ‘spirits’. Magically as in a mythological movie, Shiva and by default the Bhootha destroys the evil and restores faith completely and how! While the old mythological movies are mostly about the reaffirmation of the Vedic gods, Kantara seems to be a celebration and the affirmation of the faith in the totemic divine spirit, the Bhootha.

The ones who don’t believe in the power of the Bhootha like the Mumbai returned landlord or his cold-blooded son are mercilessly killed. The righteous ones, who are apprehensive of the spirits, like the forest officer and by default the modern state, conform, albeit after an internal struggle. The ones who are reluctant to respond to the community’s ‘call for action’ to become the medium of the spirit, like Shiva, are made to fall in line by none other than the Bhootha itself. By the end of the movie, despite his lifelong aversion, Shiva becomes the medium for the spirit and a good one at that. In the last sequence, Shiva, dressed as the medium in the Kola ritual, runs into the forests after symbolically uniting the various communities. He meets his disappeared father, also in his Kola avatar. The two of them then ‘disappear’ together – implying that Shiva too becomes a ‘benevolent spirit’.

So, is the movie really serious about the issue of the oppression of the marginalised community by their upper caste counterpoints? Or is this conflict just a source of intense drama, post which the audience could be deftly guided to the power of the ‘benevolent spirit’ and the universal submission to it? It is always the mise-en-scene that betrays the true intention of a movie. The 20-odd minutes given to the killing of the evil by the Bhootha and the subsequent attempted sublimity of the Kola act itself being a case in point. In another giveaway, the movie does not use the original Paaddana songs while the Kola ritual takes place. Instead, what is used as music are dramatic modernised songs that have Vedic connotations to them. This transgression in the sound track is reflective of the times that we live in.

The cult of Bhootha is predominantly a Dravidian phenomenon, a non-Brahminical one at that. But this is changing rapidly. Shunning their totemic qualities, temples built for the Bhoothas these days are akin to any other temple built for modern day deities like Rama, Shiva or Krishna. Vedic rituals are now practised in these temples to please the Bhoothas.  Appropriation by the dominant way of life is the name of the game.

Organising the Kola ritual is a huge event. Such an act is an offering in itself. It would mean that the entire village has to be fed, and so on. Without the benevolence of the upper crust of the society – usually the upper caste – the Kola is not possible. It therefore means that the active worship of the Bhootha by the lowered caste is possible only with the support of the upper caste. To beget the ‘benevolence’ of the divine spirit, the ‘benevolence’ of the landlord is essential.

By the end of the movie, as all’s well that ends well, a Kola ritual is held in the community’s village. In this Kola, we see the presence of another landlord – the rival of the antagonist who was killed by our hero/the Bhootha. It could be implied here that it is this rival landlord who has now befriended the community and sponsored the Kola just as the original landlord had done earlier with the ulterior motive of land-grabbing. By the mere presence of this new landlord amidst this forest dwelling community during the Kola ritual, the filmmaker is matter-of-factly acknowledging the caste-related status quo in the plot. A build-up to this new association was provided to us earlier when it was shown that it was this very landlord who had provided bail to a jailed Shiva. The tormentor landlord is killed, but long live the new landlord!

While the subservient might feel that they are adequately represented through the movie, the gaze of Kantara is that of the upper caste and its unambiguous affirmation of a stratified society. So, there is something in it for all tastes and makes it strategically a win-win. With the success of this movie, the world is now well aware of this hitherto lesser known hybrid form of cathartic worship of the divine and has probably annexed it as its own. After all, like the cannabis joints that Shiva intakes in the movie, this form of worship, too, is out-of-the-world and transcendental.

Many decades back, during the Emergency era, the super success of the Hindi film Jai Santoshi Maa (1975) heralded a new goddess who quickly became popular – Santoshi Maa. Need I say more on Shiva, the modern day ‘benevolent spirit’ in Kantara?

This article was first published on Upperstall. It has been republished with the author’s permission.

Ramchandra PN is a filmmaker from Udupi in coastal Karnataka. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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