Arts movie review

A perfect blend of action and folklore rooted in Indian culture

An immersive and holistic cinematic experience that must be appreciated on the big screen

Directed by Rishab Shetty
Starring Rishab Shetty, Kishore, Achyuth Kumar, Sapthami Gowda
Rated 13+
Streaming on Amazon Prime

I walked into Apple Cinemas Cambridge having eagerly waited to watch Kantara, a feature that has been garnering attention in the Indian film industry. Following Kantara’s success in its original language of Kannada, it was dubbed into four other Indian languages to make the movie available to a wider audience.

Kantara starts in the mid-1800s, where a king (Vinay Biddappa) finds that happiness eludes him despite having all of life’s supposed necessities. In search of this happiness, he travels far and wide. He stops in a forest when he comes across a stone slab that embodies the essence of “Panjurli Daiva,” the divine spirit of a wild boar. He feels immensely happy just by looking at it and negotiates with a shaman who is possessed by “Guliga,” the guardian deity and a companion of “Panjurli,” to lend a portion of his land to the locals in return for taking the “Panjurli” deity with him to his kingdom.

We then witness the Bhoot Kola performance, taking place after a few decades, which is a highly stylized dance ritual held in reverence to local deities. During Bhoot Kola, the king’s successor asks the Bhoota Kola performer possessed by “Panjurli” for the villagers’ lands to be handed over to him, to which the performer denies. At this, the king’s successor raises doubts as to whether it is the deity or the performer in the guise of the deity talking to him. The performer promises to clear his doubts and runs into the forest to vanish in a blaze of flame! Thus, Kantara, which in Kannada translates to “a mystical forest,” opens in the “Kantara” with the deity proving his existence.

A few years later, Shiva (Rishab Shetty), son of the Bhoota Kola performer, has become a champion of Kambala, which is an annual buffalo race held in some parts of southern India. Shiva is at daggers drawn with the forest officer Muralidhar (Kishore), who is tasked with the job of converting the forest lands into a reserve. On the other hand, unbeknownst to Shiva, the seemingly kind village landlord Devendra (Achyuth Kumar), who is a descendant of the king’s successor, is waiting to usurp the villagers’ lands. The rest of Kantara shows how Shiva and the villagers settle their disputes with Muralidhar and protect their lands from Devendra, as well as the role of the Bhoota Kola tradition in this process.

We see Shiva as someone who is only interested in hunting, drinking, and gambling most of the time. He shows no inclination whatsoever towards taking part in the family tradition of performing in the Bhoota Kola, partly due to the trauma he experienced as a child when he witnessed his father vanish in a blaze of flames in the forest. However, he is extremely passionate about his village and goes to any extent to protect his land and people. This is evident in the fierce fury he demonstrates against Muralidhar, who tries to convert their lands into a forest reserve. While Muralidhar is right in his own way and only doing his duty, it takes quite a while for both Shiva and Muralidhar to understand each other’s points of view.

The character arcs of Shiva and Muralidhar develop naturally. Shiva’s actions are never glorified — he is instead castigated by his mother and villagers for his mistakes. Kantara takes him on a journey where he identifies his mistakes and becomes a better person.

Shetty does a fantastic job of portraying the traditions of Kambala and Bhoota Kola sensibly and respectfully in Kantara. While many are unaware of their existence, Kantara captures the spirit of these traditions and brings them to the masses. There is also a deeper meaning associated with Bhoota Kola and the characters in the film: the village (portrayed through Shiva), forest (portrayed through Muralidhar) and the deities (“Panjurli” and “Guliga” who possess the Bhoota Kola performers) are all interconnected. Kantara emphasizes that life is ultimately about maintaining a healthy balance and protecting one another.

Kantara is extremely suspenseful, which lighting effects effectively maintain in some of the sequences shot in the forest. There are several jump scares, but all of them feel very natural to the script of the film. Kantara takes us on a rollercoaster of emotions where we laugh at the hilarious situations involving Shiva and his friends, get scared just like Shiva in his nightmares, and are extremely emotional about the plight of the villagers. All the sequences in the movie culminate in an electrifying climax that stands out and will remain in memory for a very long time!

After watching the film, I can confidently say that there is no one better suited to play the role of Shiva than Rishab Shetty. All the actors in the movie do justice to their roles by bringing their characters to life on-screen and captivating the audience with their performances. Even actors without much screen time communicate impressively through their expressions alone.

Adding to the brilliant story and the terrific performances is the background score of Kantara. B. Ajaneesh Loknath has given a fabulous score to the movie which amplifies the emotion quotient multifold and gets us immersed in the film so we empathize with the villagers. Kantara also has a few songs, perfectly placed, with the lyrics communicating the deeper meaning of events and characteristic traits of various characters in the film.

Overall, this epic action-thriller of a film, set in the backdrop of mythological folklore and showcasing the conflict between villagers and a landlord bent on usurping their lands, is sure to give you an immersive and complete cinematic experience.