2022 / Kannada

Kantara (2022)

Kantara, Bhuta Kola, and the Collective Unconscious

“Wait!”, warned my better half, “fold your hands before the Kshetrapala before you enter the divine precincts of our Daiva.”

I complied, yet protested: “What for, it’s just a stone?”

“It is He who protects this forest. Without His permission even the winds dare not pass,” she replied.

Thaka, Thaka, Thaka, Thaka

Before I could interrogate her further, the shrill beats of the tembere combined with the taase drums drew me to the Daiva Mane (house) where preparations for a ritual where in full swing.

Bhuta Kola

Bhuta Kola: And Justice For All

Surrounded by guddas (hills) big and small, enveloped in lush greenery as far as the naked eye could see, somewhere deep in the heart of Kenjar, the performer was preparing himself for the ritual. He started by applying intricate manjal (turmeric) and organic dye make-up, followed by an elaborate costume made from coconut trees, areca trees, banana plants, and other organic flowers and shoots.

After a series of preliminary rituals and prayers, the performer adorned the thalleypatta (headgear), the holy gaggaras (anklet) to start the annual Bhuta Kola ritual. Later, he is also presented the weapons, and mukha (mask) after which the performer starts his dance macabre.

Daiva from Kantara

Performer or Daiva?

A Bhuta Kola, or simply Kola, is a performance-based ritual practiced in Tulu Nadu and other coastal parts of Karnataka, where a performer, who is trained for many years, invokes spirits (also known as Bhutas or Daivas), such as demi-gods, animal deities, forest deities, and guardian deities amongst others.

Unlike Yakshaghana, a Bhuta Kola is not a folk dance for the general audience but a set of rituals specific to the Daiva being invoked and family conducting the Kola. In a Bhuta Kola, it is believed, the performer is temporarily possessed by the Daiva for a small fraction of time during which he becomes the personification of the Daiva. Family members use this opportunity to request the Daiva for guidance related to land dispute, family feuds, future predictions, and other social matters. The Daivas, in this way, play an integral role in Tulu society in delivering justice, resolving conflicts, and maintaining a balance between man and nature.

Having married a Tuluva, I was privy to witnessing a Bhuta Kola first-hand. Many questions piqued my curiosity: Was the performer merely playing a role or was he the divine Daiva Himself? How was the performer able to precisely predict past, present, and future events? How was he privy to information only known to the questioner?

Rishabh Shetty’s latest directorial venture Kantara, in which he also plays the protagonist, in more ways than one sets to answer these and other similar questions.

Set in Kundapur, Dakshina Kannada, Kantara’s narrative spans three timelines—1890, 1970s and 1990s—each mystically delving into our culture, mythology, and folklore where the past, present, and future culminate into a timeless tale of man versus nature or greed versus faith.

Shiva Shooting

The Monomyth: Shiva’s Journey

If on the one hand we have Forest Officer Murali (Kishore) who is duty-bound to protect the forest from illegal hunting and encroachment, on the other hand we have the village favourite Shiva (Rishabh Shetty) who loiters during the day and hunts at night.

Shiva belongs to a family of Bhuta Kola performers but unlike his father he refuses to accept his vocation despite his mother’s constant bickering. How then destiny takes Shiva on the proverbial Monomyth Hero’s Journey, to aesthetically culminate into poetic justice forms the crux of Kantara.

What stands out in Kantara is how our cultural practices like the Bhuta Kola beautifully assimilate folklore, mythology, faith, and justice into an organic way of life that is designed to maintain the equilibrium between man, nature, and the mystical energies that reside in the forest. It is exactly this primeval energy, which pervades Kantara’s narrative, that has struck a chord across audiences in India; across what Carl Jung defined as our Collective Unconscious mind.

Put differently, irrespective of culture or region, common themes, motifs, symbols, archetypes, and practices are prevalent across the mythologies and rituals of the world, which is why audiences are able to relate to Kantara despite it being a very region-specific movie.

Kantara Poster

Mystical Forest of Kantara

Fortunately, much of the culture, like the kambala, the kolas, and the Daivas, that Kantara explores is still intact in the land of Parashurama: Mangalore. It is this culture that reminds us of our ancestors, our past (bhoot-kaal); of the five elements we are made of (pancha-bhuta); and of the demi-gods and deities of the spirit world (Bhutas).

Witnessing the Kola reminded me of a story from The Ramayana, where once Raavana disguises himself as Lord Rama to woo Devi Sita. Having adorned the vesha (role) of Lord Rama, despite himself, Raavana had temporarily embodied the virtues of Lord Rama and couldn’t lie to Devi Sita. If even Raavana could temporarily become Rama, who was I to question the performer?

On my way back from the kola, I couldn’t help offering my obeisance to the Kshetrapala, thankful for the experience of epiphany. Like Shiva in Kantara who listens to the forest, for those willing to surrender, Kantara offers more than just an experience; it offers a Divya Darshanam.

The Kshetrapala

To Be Experienced on the Silver Screen: The Kshetrapala of Kantara

– Prakash Jashnani

Co-author: Laxmi Jashnani

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