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Kannada film Kantara, released simultaneously with Ponniyin Selvan1, in Karnataka on Sept. 30, has sparked off an unexpected storm. Rave reviews and fabulous box-office collections have brought the film into limelight that seems to give it an edge over the glamourous Ponniyin Selvan-1 in the state.  Kantara is running to packed houses with the number of shows increased at several cinemas.

Revolving around the theme of worship of folk deities, the film produced by Hombale Films that has given major hits — KGF series – was originally not intended as a pan-India film. Unlike the KGF films, Kantara was made on a limited budget and meant only for the Kannada audience as it deals with folk religious practices in a particular region in that state. Yet, the film has proved riveting and engrossing fare that has a universal appeal so the film has been dubbed in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Hindi and become an unexpected pan-Indian blockbuster.  The film’s success is buttressed by the common anthropological and cultural viewpoint even though landscapes and cultures are different, the folk beliefs and cults are common to all regions and all languages.

Folklore, folk arts, and local deities have been a part and parcel of marginalized communities from time immemorial, across the country.  Despite minor differences in the cultures, the gods celebrated and worshipped and the themes prevalent in stories and songs in all folklores have several common features.  The heroic men and women who rebelled against repression and atrocities let loose by the ruling class, over the years came to be worshipped by those forced to the sidelines.

Kantara has made the best use of common folk traditions and tales and spun a story that appeals to the collective unconscious of the audience that cuts across language, religion and region

The other common theme in folklore of the marginalised is an immense love for Nature and faith in their own gods away from the mainstream gods.

Kantara has taken the best of this tradition and spun a story that appeals to the collective unconscious of the audience across language, religion and region.

Also Read: In reality, pan-Indian KGF is a Tamil story in Karnataka

So here’s the storyline (spoiler alert): Many years ago, a king ruling over Tulu country, comprising the southern parts of Karnataka, Udupi and the Kasargod province in Kerala, is wandering about in search of peace of mind. He finds this at a spot where the local people worship the ‘Panchuruli’ deity in a forest.  Fascinated by the rural deity, he wants to take the idol to his palace. But the local tribals resist his move. A local samiyaadi, believed to be possessed of divine power, goes into a trance, his body shivering in a frenzy and asks the king, “These people worship and love me. What will you do for these people if you are very keen to take me to your palace?”

Finally at the behest of the godman, the king parts with parts of his sprawling lands of the mountainous forests and distributes them to the tribal people in exchange for the ‘panchuruli’ deity.

Cut to the present, some 250 years later, with the king’s descendants wanting to reclaim the lands gifted away. They ignore the age-old ‘panchuruli’ worship and become non-believers. Kantara then chronicles what happens when the royal descendants set out to reclaim the land for commercial gain. Their hatred of and contempt for the folk traditions, based on caste-oriented differences that pigeonhole the people as superior and inferior, leads to several turns and twists in the narrative. The casteist differences have, in a cascade effect, divided the gods too as holy and unholy, the highbrow and the lowbrow. The film brings to the surface this basic flaw in the religious society, spinning a tale engaging and entertaining.

Though the story and the scenes have elements of familiarity, director and hero Rishab Shetty’s treatment ensures that audience identifies with the narrative. Heroine Sapthami, Prakash Dhuminadu, Pramod Shetty and Manasi Sudhir make up the cast. Actors Kishore and Achyuth Kumar are familiar to the Tamil viewers.

The hero, who performs the ancient dance form called ‘poothakolam,’ reminds us of Kamal Haasan who performs ‘theiyam’ in the film Uthama Villain,  a kind of dance form in north Kerala and also reminds us of similar dancers who perform at folklorist rituals and festivals in several parts of Tamil Nadu

The strengths of the film are cameraman Aravind Kashyap’s strikingly rich visuals and Ajaneesh Loknath’s music that lends a sort of esoteric divinity to the screenplay. In terms of histrionic skills of the actors and glossy technology, the film comes out neat and excellent.

The word Kanthara originally means an illusory man and has celestial connotations.  It is a familiar word across the country, resounding in epics, puranas and folklore.  In Tamil Nadu, the goddess Kanthari is a well-known folk deity (Remember the name of the wife of Dritharashtra in Mahabharat?)

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The hero, who performs the ancient dance form called ‘poothakolam’, frenetic and passionate, in the film, reminds us of Kamal Haasan who performs the ‘theiyam’ in the film Uthama Villain,  a kind of dance form in north Kerala and also reminds us of similar dancers who perform at folk rituals and festivals in several parts of Tamil Nadu. This feature is a great binding factor for the viewers from all languages.

The climactic shot of the hero smearing his forehead with a pinch of soil has a cathartic effect, conveying the message from the hero that this soil and its people are his. Though modeled on the famous MGR template, the denouement strikes a chord with the audience. Finally the film stirs all memories, buried for centuries on end, in the collective psyche of human society. That explains the reason the film has turned a blockbuster.

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