Just three weeks after its release, the Kannada film Kantara (Mystical Forest) was rapidly dubbed into multiple Indian languages and catapulted to becoming a pan-India hit. Not just that, the epic drama, which pits two characters representing man and nature against one another, also became IMDB.com’s top-rated Indian film, replacing the other Kannada hit from 2022, KGF: Chapter 2.
Rishab Shetty, the writer, director and lead actor of Kantara, had been working overtime to get the dubbed language prints ready for their release last weekend, as well as promoting his movie in many territories.
Shetty attributes Kantara’s success to its narrative, which is strongly rooted in local tradition. “I believe regional is universal, and the man-nature conflict is a universal theme,” said the Bengaluru-based movie artist, whose previous work includes Ricky (as writer-actor-director) and Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana (actor).
Shetty plays two characters in Kantara: Shiva, a rebellious wastrel and bull-racing champion haunted by nightmares, and Shiva’s long-lost father. For this film based in folklore and steeped in local rituals and locales, Shetty drew inspiration from his own memories of growing up in coastal Karnataka. He recalled an incident when the forest department was pitted against the villagers over issues of encroachment and hunting, after the Forest (Conservation) Act was implemented in 1980. “This triggered an idea about a man hunting wild boar that would destroy his rice fields,” he says. “From there I got my timeline of 1990 (when the conflict was at its peak) and two characters—a villager (Shetty) and forest officer Murali (played by Kishore) and their clash of egos,” said Shetty.
“Coastal Karnataka has its own belief system. I thought of the Bhoota Kola (spirit worship) festival and the role of Daiva (deity). Daiva is pure energy and the Devaragni is the bridge between man and nature,” he said.
Indeed, both the Kola performances by Shetty in the film, costumed in an elaborate ritual dress and make up, are among the scenes that have awed audiences across the world. Other spectacular scenes include the buffalo race or Kambala, another local tradition, and the expansive, action-packed climax with its haunting holler.
Arvind S. Kashyap’s cinematography, B. Ajneesh Loknath’s music and Vikram More’s action further elevate the onscreen drama. Shetty worked closely with these departments to bring his vision to life. This included video-calling his director of photography from the forest at midnight to show him exactly what kind of lighting he wanted for his mystical forest in the film. “I wanted the Kantara world, the moonlight, to look a little fictional and mysterious as we had many night-time shots. We spent a lot of time lighting those. It was not easy but the locations, close to my birth place, helped. I drew ideas from all that I have seen since my childhood. It was important for me to believe in it first before I could expect the audience to believe.”
When an intoxicated Shiva, in a cloud of smoke, learns the truth about his brother’s death, the music that plays is haunting. A highly stylised fight sequence follows. Shetty called it a “joining the dots moment”, when he wanted the audience to “also get the same high. That’s why the dialogue and camera movements are that way.”
Speaking of the breathless climax, Shetty revealed that he had only four shots in his head when he went into shooting. He knew the composition he wanted to achieve. “None of it was in the script. I just performed, and everyone on set got goosebumps. I feel blessed that the energy protected me. And the scene when I bring Murali and the village folk together, that is unity, the theme of Kantara,” he said.
To prepare for the role, Shetty spent six gruelling months practising martial arts, bull-racing and learning to dance with a 50-kilogram costume, sustaining many injuries along the way. So why did he decide to wear so many hats? “Because this Shiva could not have been done by anyone else. I have wanted to play such a character (for a long time). I believe in the rituals. As for direction, I get an idea, then I share it and then decide if I want to do it. And I wanted to do this.”
From Shiva to his gang of friends, his nagging mother and the forest officer, every character is in some measure flawed, a little grey. Shetty did this consciously, to make the characters more realistic. They womanise, drink, get high, hunt and fight—Shiva included. For Shetty this serves as a narrative device. He explains: “Shiva’s character is supposed to follow rituals and traditions. However, what he saw happen to his father, and the nightmares he has, these have sent him in a negative direction. More than that, Shiva represents the human thought process, which oscillates between negative and positive. We see this a little in Murali too.”
Tamil and Telugu films have been ruling the box-office. With KGF and now Kantara, Kannada films seem to be catching up. Shetty believes it’s a cycle. He recalls the late 1980s and early ‘90s as the golden age of Kannada cinema, when artists like Dr. Rajkumar, Ravichandran and Shankar Nag were prolific. “They are among the legends of Kannada cinema,” he says. “There was experimentation at that time. But every industry goes through its ups and downs, like they are now saying about Bollywood. Every genre has an audience, from parallel and experimental to commercial cinema.”
“In between the balance was off. After KGF, things are looking up. Plus, we have good producers, creators who are telling rooted stories and making strong collaborations. The language barrier has also been broken.”