With a duration of 2 hours and 30 minutes, Kantara is many things at once but a large part of it is also focused on a localised brand of horror, rooted in genre-specific jump scares as well as the folklore endemic to the geographical region (a fictional village in southern Karnataka in this case).
The last time we saw such an ambitious and visually original blend of fantasy and horror in India was perhaps with the 2018 Hindi feature Tumbbad, another modern classic that you can stream on Prime.
Before we delve further into the horror aspect of it, Kantara’s controversies cannot be ignored. Right from the time when it was released in theatres, the central theme of the Bhoota Kola practice was much debated.
Kantara doesn’t shy away from showing the plot’s Hindu roots with the film’s logo itself bearing an “Om” symbol. Then, the protagonist, much like his ancestors, is expected to perform the Bhoota Kola, an annual ritualistic dance to communicate with the village’s deities and spirits. While the film showcases the Kola as a Hindu practice in post-Independence India, activists in Karnataka turned against the film claiming that the Kola was actually an indigenous practice of the region’s adivasi populations, only to be hijacked later by Brahmanical Hinduism.
Once you finish Kantara, you can do your own research on the cultural assimilation that went behind the evolution of Kola. But if we choose to judge Rishab Shetty’s directorial venture (who also serves as writer and lead actor) solely on the basis of cinematic merit for a moment, then Kantara would mark a watershed moment for contemporary Indian filmmaking.
As stated earlier, the plot focuses on a man who bears the ritualistic burden of the men before him. Shetty’s protagonist Shiva is a carefree, alcohol-guzzling man who wakes up in cold sweats on some nights, thinking about his father who literally disappeared in thin air during one of his Kola performances. Since then, Shiva engages himself in leisurely pastimes like hunting in the forest and even competitive sports such as the kambala race.
As you would have seen in the posters and trailers, Kantara’s first half boasts an exhilarating display of the race which is intrinsic to the culture of several Kannadigas. Two buffalos are tied together and the racer runs with them in mostly a muddy, slushy field. The whole kambala scene is shot to perfection under the supervision of cinematographer Arvind S Kashyap, focusing on rich details like the spraying brown water, and the defined muscles of the racers.
But all fun and games aside, the film’s 1990 setting also emphasises how the government’s forest authorities are eager to map out regions of wilderness (like Shiva’s village) and convert these lands into forest reserves. With the villagers doubting the State Forest Officials and even lacking the required paperwork, a rift arises between Shiva and the newly-appointed uptight forest officer Murali.
And given the backstory of Shiva’s father and his disappearance, some supernatural and fantasy elements are bound to be thrown in the mix and this is what makes Kantara more than just a period drama. While themes like family and culture are explored to the fullest, the stylish execution of the kola performances as well as some haunting dream sequences make it a perfect display of a truly Indian brand of horror.
Be it organised religion like Catholicism or folk traditions like paganism, Western horror has always had a fascination with faith and its spiritual aspects. So, while the “haunted house” or “spirit possession” tropes in The Exorcist or The Conjuring franchise might seem dated, new-age folk horrors are elevating the genre to new levels. Just take Hereditary, The Witch, Midsommar, The Empty Man as recent cases in point.
But closer home, Tumbbad is maybe one of the few examples that have been able to successfully merge local folklore and mythos with a more philosophical brand of horror. Similarly, the moments of Kantara that border on horror aren’t meant to evoke cheap thrills. The forest setting at night coupled with the colourful visuals of the Kola rather create a sense of mystery and ultimately awe of how Shiva’s arc ultimately culminates.
By now, many might have commented on the Internet on how spectacular the film’s ending is. And not to give out any spoilers, the adrenaline-fuelled third act is definitely a high point for Indian horror, action, and drama. The “Bhoota” in the Bhoota Kola tradition among the Tulu communities in Karnataka can have annotations of both deities and gods as unlike the popular Hindi usage of the word, “Bhoot” doesn’t translate to the negative entities that cheap Bollywood horrors would market on.
Similarly, despite the atmospheric horror in Kantara, the film ultimately showcases the human-made horrors in spite of an abundance of other-worldly elements. Viewers are obviously bound to debate on whether Bhoota Kola traditions should be rejected as mere superstitions or should be still preserved as cultural heritage but one thing is clear: Rishab Shetty has succeeded in creating enough discourse from a mainstream film.
A family-friendly watch with cinematic nuance, Kantara represents a new age of high-art films that are more palatable for all audiences, continuing the tradition of recent Malayalam hits like Jalikattu, Angamaly Diaries, and the like. As for Kannada cinema (colloquially known as Sandalwood), the only other pan-Indian film that could achieve this level of mainstream popularity was the KGF duology.
But in the face of KGF’s dated one liner-delivering hypermasculine hero Rocky Bhai, Rishab Shetty’s Shiva makes for a more likeable and distinguishable pan-Indian hero. Not only has Shetty succeeded in the world-building aspects of the hero’s village, he has also delivered one of the most committed performances in Indian cinema in recent memory.
And forget Yash’s Rocky Bhai, Shetty’s Shiva is also equally proficient as an action hero. In one moment, he can show his wide-toothed grins and in another, he can turn into a one-man army with fighting sequences that might be too “heroic” but are not entirely impractical. Shetty might not boast washboard abs or a gymnast’s flexibility, but his bouldering physique and impulsive attacking moves still make him look like a full-fledged wrestler in some of the action scenes. To put it simply, the action of Kantara is a good break from SS Rajamouli’s RRR-style theatrics!
When it comes to the performances, Shetty is pitted against the heavily intimidating forest officer played by Kishore (who is ironically most popular for playing the forest bandit Veerapan in a 2013 Kannada film Attahasa). Kishore’s character doesn’t wish to clamp down on the human rights of the villagers but his commitment to the uniform and short temper drive him to the path of villainy, making for a compelling morally grey character. Kishore doesn’t even need to say much, his piercing frowns are enough to make the viewers take him seriously.
It is after a long time that we have received a film where the hero and villain dynamic gives way to complex and likeable characters on both sides. RRR just had Ray Stevenson playing a caricaturish Brit while KGF-2’s Sanjay Dutt was reduced to a Viking cosplayer. As for Hindi cinema, viewers were stunned more by Hrithik in the Vikram Vedha remake than Saif, and in Brahmastra, the real villain was perhaps the dialogue writer!
But in Kantara, you get the whole package. You get morally complex heroes, villains, and even spirits. With a budget of just Rs 16 crore, Shetty manages to deliver stylish execution lacking all pretentiousness, giving enough big-budget offerings of this year a run for their money (*coughs* Brahmastra).
While the film is low on flaws, the heroine Leela could have been developed way better. An inhabitant of Shiva's village, she becomes a forest officer only to be conflicted between her loyalties between the village and the government. Sapthami Gowda gives her all in the performance but her character's internal conflict couldn't come out well when she is reduced to just the hero's love interest eventually. The eccentrically outdated flirting (Shiva pinching her waist) doesn't help either. Maybe, an extended director's cut should have done Gowda more justice.
Leela's lack of individuality aside, Kantara is a must-watch. And now that it is on Prime, watch it right away and chances are you might be as obsessed with Rishab Shetty’s Shiva as Alia was with Ranbir’s Shiva (in Brahmastra).
We’re going with 4 out of 5 stars for Kantara.