'Kantara' Embodies Resurgent Kannada Cinema Of Subaltern Tales And Sumptuous Narratives

Kantara adds to the repertoire of Kannada films that has astonished moviegoers, blurring borders of language and culture.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A screengrab from the official trailer of Kantara.&nbsp;</p></div>
A screengrab from the official trailer of Kantara. 

The late Kannada litterateur, academician and polyglot Udupi Rajagopalacharya Ananthamurthy constantly exhorted those around him, especially potential writers in their native languages, to always "think", "speak" thoughts and words in their mother tongue as a way to offset an all-pervading English consciousness.

He had also reminisced about his closest companions during his early adolescent years, the elements of nature—the boisterous relentless rain, the chittering leaves swaying to a gentle or sometimes wildly mocking wind, the obsessive slush that clung to him over undulating acres of paddy fields.

It is straddling these worlds that Rishab Shetty’s monstrous Kannada blockbuster hit 'Kantara–A Legend' has been set, embellished with ancient folklore, traditional rituals based on local folk deities, testimonies on nature and the increasing speciousness of mortals mired in selfishness and greed.

Kantara adds to the repertoire of Kannada films that has gone on to astonish moviegoers alike, blurring borders of language and culture, speaking in a universal cinematic dialect, and that also has the domestic box office working overtime.

Even a month after its release, the Hindi dubbed version is seeing mind-blowing occupancies in cinemas of over 42% in the evening shows, almost double that of the latest Bollywood releases, Akshay Kumar’s Ram Setu (22%) and Ajay Devgn’s Thank God (18%).

It has achieved blockbuster status at the Kannada box office and has minted over Rs 250 crore and counting, from all over the country since its quiet release on Sept. 30.

According to Sacnilk Entertainment, that tracks film collections, it has had the biggest fifth Sunday collections in the history of Indian cinema, with a total all-India net collection of approximately Rs 12.9 crore on that day.

Produced by Hombale Films, who had earlier released K.G.F Chapters 1 and 2 to a thundering response across the country, Kantara once again puts the Kannada film industry in the limelight, as it strives to rewrite the humdrum framework that used to run the brass tacks of its filmdom—a big leap indeed as the industry had been always playing catch-up with its more starry and prominent Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam neighbours.

Shetty, the actor-director of Kantara, has gone on to say that the idea behind the project was just to make a simple, locally rooted film on a small budget, and he wasn’t prepared for the thunderous response it has received. Whatever the intention, he has ensured that the shelf life of his offering trapezes way beyond stints by a Liz or a leafy lettuce.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A screengrab from the official trailer of Kantara.</p></div>

A screengrab from the official trailer of Kantara.

Hallowed Numbers Roam The Box Office Hinterland

Defying current trends, made on a shoestring budget of around Rs 16 crore, the film took just a year to be made, and the outstanding results bear out the immense belief that producer Vijay Kiragandur reposed both in the script as well as the homegrown talent of Shetty.

It has had a massive release in terms of a dubbed regional film this year, the third after KGF 2 and RRR, and has already been certified as a hit in its Hindi version. In terms of records, the film has garnered the highest number of footfalls for a Kannada film in its history, beating records of KGF I and 2 to become the most-watched film in the state.

This is Hombale Films’ fourth massive hit after Raajakumara in 2017 (Rs 76 crore approx.), KGF 1 in 2018 (Rs 250 crore approx.), KGF 2 in 2022 (Rs 435 crore approx.) and now Kantara—each going on to better the other in terms of box office numbers—though KGF 2 still holds the record of the biggest grosser.

The production company calls itself the disruptor in the Kannada movie scene, and it is not difficult to see why. It is a veritable Dharma Productions, Yash Raj Films and AKFPL (Anurag Kashyap Films Pvt.) all rolled into one, on steroids and then some added creative collagen to boot.

Though it started off with a flop with Ninnindale in 2014, they were quick to change tack and penciled in Yash for Masterpiece in 2017 and KGF–Chapter 1, going on to make films that spring-boarded their way to become mind-boggling successes across the country.

The company strives to tell stories that are rooted in the state from disparate sources nurtured by the best scriptwriters, mounted on a large scale with strategic planning and sound marketing skills for its final products, while at the same time unafraid to take risks with new talents across the creative horizon.

Breaking it down language-wise, till now it has collected Rs 43 crore in Hindi, Rs 5.14 crore in Tamil, Rs 31.32 crore in Telugu, and Rs 6.84 crore in Malayalam for an all-India collection of over Rs 250 crore, and is getting tagged as an all-time blockbuster.

Hombale Films, after working with Bollywood stars Sanjay Dutt and Raveena Tandon in KGF 2, have now cast Telugu superstar Prabhas and Malayalam star Prithviraj in their next venture, a Telugu film titled Salaar due to release in 2023 and helmed by Prashanth Neel, director of the KGF series.

Welcome To Sleeps Ville

Till a decade or so ago, the Kannada film Industry, unremarkably named Sandalwood by netizens or film critics on Twitter, just went through the motions of lights, camera, action it would seem.

If anyone was queried about Kannada filmdom outside Karnataka in the '90s or even at the dawn of the millennium, the names of Dr Rajkumar, Ambareesh and Vishnu Vardhan would have done the rounds with an aside that the Tamil box office supremo Rajnikant was originally from the state.

Only a film aficionado would venture to name Girish Kasaravalli, Girish Karnad, Shankar Nag, Saroja Devi, Anant Nag, BV Karanth, Prakash Raj, MS Sathyu or even Singeetam Srinivasa Rao.

Though the Kannada film industry played an important role in ushering in the parallel cinema wave in the country in the '70s and '80s, it did not break new ground on the commercial film scene, dishing out emotional family melodramas and romantic yarns inspired from hit Hindi films or just lazily peeking over to see what Madras and Hyderabad were conjuring up for their film audiences.

As Kannada stars did the wooing and dancing amid multicoloured pirouetting water fountains at Brindavan Gardens, singing popular melodious numbers, the industry remained content in doling out more of the same fare as their counterparts from Tamil and Malayalam cinema stole the thunder from atop Chamundi Hills to serve out a diverse thali of films to their own respective audiences.

Later, even as Telugu and Tamil films broke new ground with pan-Indian dubbed releases of their big or successful films, Kannada preferred to play it gawky and shy, seeped in a shell of docility.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A screengrab from the official trailer of Kantara.</p></div>

A screengrab from the official trailer of Kantara.

A Legendary Tour De Force

Well, if Brazil now has Lula da Silva to reclaim their Amazon rainforests, then we have our Rishab Shetty to thwart wily, treacherous landlords and huntsmen troopers and invigorate our fast-disappearing green cover.

Kantara is unwavering in its premise of foregrounding the subtext of the subaltern, agricultural/pastoral communities belonging to the Dakshina Kannada (Tulu Nadu) region, spicing it up with loud theatrics that is alluring to the senses while at the same time asking existential questions of ‘ownership’ of land and nature, and if we humans aren’t just strangers on this celestial earth.

Shetty, who himself belongs to Keradi village of Kundapaura Taluk in Udupi district, has actually shot the film in his own coastal backyard, capturing the vivid history and culture of the region; the native tradition of the Kambola (bullock race) and the Bhoota Kola ritual where the chosen performers paint their faces enveloped by an elaborate headgear, dancing to a heightened frenzy to the thrum of drums with a screeching ghostly howl thrown in.

There is no doubt that some of these are breathtakingly shot and ably captures the mystic mood that the story aims for, but for the most part, the film is akin to a male chest-thumping marathon fest with scenes where the hero wantonly parades his male superiority complex over a woman that sadly thrusts the film down a dark, grungy hole.

Apart from Kantara, this year there was Rakshit Shetty’s 777 Charlie that hit the box office bulls-eye with Rs 150 crore (approx.) against a budget of Rs 20 crore (approx.) and Kiccha Sudeepa’s Vikrant Rona, which too earned well at the Kannada box office and in other markets apart from the massive hit KGF–Chapter 2.

Interestingly, last week saw the release of the late Kannada star Dr Puneeth Rajkumar’s film Gandhada Gudi or The Abode of Sandalwood Trees. Rajkumar tragically passed away last year.

Shot in a documentary drama format by JS Amoghavarsha, it is an ode to the young actor’s passion for nature and wildlife, in many ways a heartfelt tribute to one of Kannada film industry’s much-loved actors, popularly known as Appu, and also the youngest son of Dr Rajkumar.

Post its success, Kantara became a ground for polemics when Chetan Kumar, a Kannada actor and social activist, stated that the Bhoota Kola ritual could not be viewed as a Hindu-Brahminic ceremony, as it had its roots in the ancient traditions of the indigenous people of the coastal region of South Karnataka, that pre-dated known traditional aspects of Hinduism.

When asked about this, Shetty chose not to comment and favoured scholars in the religious realm to be more proficient in providing some much-needed light.

Whatever be the take, one thing is sure: the sheer ingenuity of Shetty in bringing a Tulu-Kannada folklore and having pan-Indian audiences sit up and take notice has a Biblical hat tip in the Book of Proverbs 22:29: “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.”

It is over half a century since meshtru—or teacher in Kannada—as UR Ananthamurthy was lovingly called, brought his own story Samskara to the screen in 1970, and later Ghatashraddha in 1977 directed by Girish Kasaravalli.

From there till now, the weather-beaten, chaotic trails it has covered has proven that the Kannada film industry has a vast and tough wingspan. And the exciting spell it is going through now, with earnest tales rocking at the box office, would surely have the avid storyteller in Ananthamurthy proud.

Anand Mathew is a social development consultant based in New Delhi and writes on films.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.