Kantara (transl. Mystical Forest) is a 2022 Indian Kannada-language action thriller film written and directed by Rishab Shetty. The film stars Shetty as a Kambala champion who is at loggerheads with an upright forest officer, Murali (played by Kishore). However, the movie mixes mythology with present day corruption and greed. The mythology of the movie involves the depiction of the “Buta Kola” a ritual dance performance prevalent among the Hindus of Tulu Nadu and parts of Kasargod in northern Kerala, India.

According to the mythology, a wild boar perished in Lord Shiva’s pleasure garden. The young boar’s offspring was adopted by Goddess Parvati, the spouse of Lord Shiva. The young boar became destructive as he grew older and began destroying the plants and trees in Lord Shiva’s garden. Lord Shiva became upset by this and decided to kill him. Goddess Parvati, however, defended the boar and asked her husband to pardon him. So instead of killing him, Lord Shiva banished the boar to earth and tasked him with protecting the people of earth. This particular became a Bhoota (divine spirit) known as Panjurli – a spirit which is an important part of the film.

The movie begins in 1847, we are shown that there lived a king who had a great kingdom as well as a loving wife and child, but could not find peace and satisfaction. He sets out on a journey to discover true happiness and comes upon a stone in a forest occupied by Panjurli Daiva, the deity introduced earlier, that protects the villagers that reside in the forest. He donates vast amounts of his land to the villagers in exchange for taking the stone with him. Panjurli warns the king that his family and successors should keep their word and not reclaim the land, which will incur the wrath of Panjurli’s companion, the ferocious Guliga Daiva. Fast-forward to 1970, the King’s successor asks a Bhoota Kola performer, who is possessed by Panjurli to make the locals hand over the land to him, which the performer refuses and states he will die vomiting blood if he tries to. The successor raises doubt on performer’s possession by Panjurli, to which the performer replies he would vanish if he is possessed, after which he runs into the forest and is indeed never seen again. As warned, the king’s successor dies mysteriously, vomiting blood a few months later on the steps of the court, where he was going to argue the land case.

The performer leaves behind his pregnant wife, who bears him a child Shiva. Shiva, is a Kambala athlete (An annual buffalo race held in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka. Traditionally, it is sponsored by local Tuluva landlords and households) from the Kaadubettu village which forms the centre of the movie’s plot. In 1990, Murali, a forest officer, is tasked with converting the villagers’ land into a forest reserve which brings him into conflict with the villagers led by Shiva. Shiva is backed by his patron and the village’s landlord, Devendra Suttooru, who is the king’s successor in the present. Although Shiva is continually asked to perform the Bhoota Kola, he refuses due to the trauma of his father’s disappearance. Instead, his cousin Guruva takes his place. Next follows the part which screws up the movie’s essence. A whole hour of the movie is spent in Shiva and Murali’s cat-and-mouse antics and dull humor from Shiva and his friends.

Anyways summarizing all of that, Shiva’s escalations cause him to be jailed for opposing the Government’s takeover of the forest. His cousin Guruva asks Devendra, the landlord, to bail Shiva, but Devendra, who just like his father covets the land of the villagers, tries to bribe him to act as if Panjurli orders the villagers to give him their land in the next Bhoota Kola. Guruva refuses and Devendra kills him; learning that Murali has figured out his ulterior motive, Devendra decides to set Shiva against him. Shiva, after hearing about his cousin’s murder, meets Devendra, who lies about Murali being Guruva’s killer. Enraged, Shiva goes to kill Murali, but learns from his blacksmith friend Mahadeva that Devendra himself killed Guruva. Shiva is attacked by Devendra’s henchmen, but manages to escape and meet the villagers, whom Murali has told about Devendra’s land seizure. After Shiva reveals that Devendra killed Guruva, he and Murali set aside their grudge and unite the village.

Devendra and his henchmen attack, leading to an intense battle where several of the villagers are killed. After nearly dying in the fight, Shiva hits his head against Panjurli’s stone, gets possessed by the Guliga Daiva, and kills Devendra and his henchmen, in a crazed performance that borrows from some of Nicholas Cage’s wildest uncontrolled performances. A few months after the battle, Shiva performs the Bhoota Kola, and is possessed by Panjurli, where he, Murali and the villagers join hands in a symbolic gesture and blesses the villagers. Later, Shiva disappears into the forest after meeting what seems to be his father’s spirit.

The movie excels in its realistic depiction of the Buta Kola performance and providing an insight into some of the hidden rituals and beliefs in Hinduism. The movie’s start and end keep audiences hooked even though to a Western audience, most of the rituals will seem bizarre but these are ancient and belonging to a religion and civilization older than most others. The movie is however, let down by the middle portion and the dull writing. The dialogues between the villagers are repetitive and Shiva is portrayed as an angry man who runs to fight at the smallest slight and is only afraid of his mother. The actress who plays Shiva’s love interest, Leela, could have been played by a wooden pole and would have made a similar impact. The movie is redeemed by Rishab Shetty’s energetic performance but is let down in the middle by its writing and boring plot. Though it introduces a fascinating mythology not known to many Indians as well, it suffers due to the mistake of adding masala elements to something that could have been much more richer had the focus remained on the mythological plot.


Watch Kantara for its magnificent dance sequences, costumes and cultural history – ignore the masala elements to truly enjoy this movie.


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