Review: ‘Kantara’ Is Doused in Local Flavour and Tension But Is Lopsided

Rishab Shetty’s Kantara, a recent Kannada film, asks an old question that never got old: Who owns the land? Three possible answers: the king, the landlord, or the people. Or no one – land is eternal, and so is its owner, the Almighty (or nature itself). This tripartite struggle marks the screenplay, too, which cuts from 1847 to 1970 to 1990. The whole saga originated from an elemental concern: a restless ruler craving contentment.

In 1847, a powerful king searches for solace far and wide. He eventually finds it in a small statute in a forest. The king can own it on one condition, says a man possessed by the deity, he’d have to grant a large portion of the land to the villagers. 1970: the villagers continue to own the land, but the king’s descendant, a landlord, has become greedy, threatening to usurp the property via legal action. A few days later, the deity speaks: The landlord dies on the stairs of the court, his mouth spurting blood. 1990: a peaceful village, a benevolent landlord, and a carefree young man, Shiva (Shetty), indifferent to the past. But a new forest officer, Murali (Kishore), unmoved by local customs, considers the villagers encroachers and wants to restore law.

Like its subject, Kantara is a force of nature. It hurtles like a bull, gusts like the wind. It teases, captures and slays. It’s doused in local flavour: the Bhoota Kola festival worshipping the Panjurli demigod, the annual kambala event featuring darting buffaloes, and the villagers hunting wild boars. Its cameras sway, its colours scream. It’s an atmospheric visual feast: rains lashing the dense forest, fire torches slicing the forbidding nights, the camera swooping down the rural landscape.

It circles back to its triangular tension with a new design: the landlord, the people, the cop. The story has an untrammelled and unpredictable rhythm: the landlord seems compassionate, the cop villainous. But even the villagers-cops tussle doesn’t play out as straight. The forest officers have to protect the land; the villagers have to protect their livelihoods. It even foreshadows the sly treachery underpinning the story. In an early scene, during the kambala event, a villager says, “The buffaloes run; the owners win.”

But a feature film isn’t a 100-metre sprint; it’s a marathon. It must pace and plan, using varied resources. Shetty tries, but that’s when Kantara also starts to gasp. It often leans on quasi-slapstick humour, even evident in dialogues, against the backdrop of a cue-ridden background score. The gags are sporadically funny, undercutting the thoughtful detours.

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Another opening, via a romantic subplot, is marred by constant sexism. When Shiva meets his childhood acquaintance, Leela (Sapthami Gowda), a trainee forest officer, he pinches her tummy. That incident is then referenced as an overlong joke. In at least two scenes, a local woman’s protruding teeth are compared, either implicitly or overtly, to a buffalo’s mouth. Shiva ogles at Leela, invades her space and, blaming her for a decision outside her purview, slaps her. Leela gets no dialogues for a long stretch. Shiva casts an intimidating presence around her. She isn’t a person but a device — a soft tonal variation — who, of course, falls in love with him.

Kantara excels when it focuses on Shiva but flounders while depicting the other characters. Murali, for instance, a cop just doing his job, is propped up as a needless villain. He so sorely lacks an inner-life, or any shred of complexity, that he looks like a type, shutting all doors of engagement. It feels all the more contradictory because, as we find out, he isn’t a bad guy at all. Even the role reversal of the landlord (Achyuth Kumar) — a seemingly nice guy turned evil — fails to shock or surprise, as Shetty doesn’t hide his vile intentions well. Shiva’s lack of convincing relationships with these people, including his cousin Guruva (Swaraj Shetty) — the deity incarnate in the Bhoota Kala festival, who is later murdered — keeps making Kantara lopsided.

Which is why its long middle segment struggles to elicit a poignant reaction. The film regains its vigour and emotional power in the last 30 minutes, when it embraces its strength: dazzling set-pieces. Its climactic arc is a thing of bewitching beauty, following its own three-act structure: betrayal, resolution, beginning. The devices return — blood drips, sickles swish, eyes pop — making you crave more.

Arvind Kashyap’s cinematography is so assured and kinetic that it doubles up as performance. In one fight sequence, shot in a puddle on a rainy night, the camera makes a rapid circular motion, upending the frame, heightening the violent dance. These scenes underscore Kantara’s most resounding roar: that a benevolent ruler is still a ruler – that rights robbed will be robbed back. This climactic frenzy also rings with circular irony, as it contradicts the reason sparking the inter-generational conflict: a dissatisfied man looking for inner peace.

Featured image: A screengrab from ‘Kantara’.

This article was first published on The Wire.