The Kantara Phenomenon
The National, the Regional and the Local in Contemporary Indian Cinema
M. K. Raghavendra
The ascendancy of South Indian cinemas in the Indian film market and eclipsing Bollywood has taken filmdom by surprise. Reasons are being offered and many of them are plausible, especially the astronomical fees charged by Bollywood stars making most films unviable. Whether a film is a blockbuster or a flop is widely debated about - in the context of the actual costs incurred. This cost is often exaggerated in order to sell the film and when it does not recover that sum, the declared cost is brought down! My own response is that purely economic explanations such as these are trivial and a socio-political reason should be much more interesting to the reader. Popular cinema has a mass following and audience concerns would dictate the tendencies of films through the ‘natural selection’ of successful formulae. Conversely, the direction taken by successful cinema provides clues to public concerns.
Kantara and regional Kannada cinema
This article was initially motivated by the success of Rishab Shetty’s Kannada film Kantara which has become a huge hit across India. KGF2 (2022) was the last Kannada blockbuster to succeed across India but there is a difference between that film and Kantara in terms of their cultural origins. Kannada cinema, until a few years ago, was a predominantly ‘Old Mysore’ cultural product. It was from former Princely Mysore (once under indirect British rule) and largely addressed the public from that territory. There could not be, in Kannada cinema, a fruitful romance between someone from that region and someone else from another part of Karnataka, say Dakshina Kannada (once under the Madras Presidency) or from Bidar (once in Nizam’s Hyderabad). Former Princely Mysore had the acknowledged characteristics of a ‘nation within a nation’ and 1956 (the linguistic reorganization of the states) meant more to Kannada cinema than 1947, which is a turning point for Hindi cinema. In politics there has been a hegemony of Old Mysore at the state level with leaders from the other regions, with some exceptions, more likely to find places at the center. Devegowda, Yediyurappa, SM Krishna, Bangarappa, Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar are from Old Mysore while Oscar Fernandes, Janardhan Poojari, Margaret Alva and Mallikarjun Kharge, are from other parts of Karnataka. Kannada film icons, hitherto, have generally been from the territory that was once Princely Mysore.
Kantara is the cultural product of Dakshina Kannada from where filmmakers have only recently entered Kannada regional cinema. On comparing Kantara with KGF 2 we find a striking characteristic which is that Kantara is determinedly local while KGF 2 strives for all-India appeal. KGF2 is ‘regional’ in being Kannada cinema but with national ambitions and can be reworked in Hindi but Kantara, which includes bits of the Tulu language, would lose virtually all its cultural significance if remade in that language. I would consider Kantara a landmark for Indian cinema, which cannot perhaps be said about the remaining South-Indian regional language films that became pan-Indian hits - like KGF (2018), Pushpa: The Rise (2021), KGF2 (2022), RRR (2022) and Ponniyin Selvan I (2022). But before examining it I need to speculate about why these South-Indian films became pan-Indian hits which means asking what they have to offer that Bollywood does not, i.e.: whether their socio-political content is different.
Narratives of the nation
South-Indian regional films have often been remade in Hindi but they still have a covertly oppositional relationship with Bollywood. To elaborate, Hindi films address a pan-Indian public while regional films address language identities. Sometimes the two identities come into conflict based on the issues and it shows in the films. Dubbing a regional film into Hindi could also change a film’s purport as in Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992). In that film about a Tamil scientist being kidnapped in Kashmir, the wife grabs a Hindi-speaking soldier and screams at him in Tamil; the film is clearly playing the regional language card, which disappears when the film is dubbed into Hindi. Regional films generally speak in two voices, one emphasizing the separateness of the regional and the other valorizing national goals and values. Hindi cinema is relatively uncomplicated since it can be regarded as a vehicle only for national concerns.
If one studies the distribution of male stardom at any time in Hindi cinema after 1947 one sees that three or four stars have dominated at each moment, and each one has carried forward a concern identifiable as a ‘narrative of the nation.’ India being a patriarchal society, films dominated by the heroine (Andaz, 1949) are specifically about gender issues and the condition of women - as ‘women’ rather than mothers or sweethearts. This is unlike Hollywood where a woman can be placed randomly in a ‘masculine’ situation (like the military or police). The ‘muscular’ women in the 1930s and 1940s Hindi cinema meant something specific in this context. The vigilante in Hunterwali (1935), for instance, essentially signaled the weak man, and appeared alongside the first Devdas (1935). It went along with a crisis of masculinity in the colonial era duly noted by social scientists like Ashis Nandy.
The leading male heroes in the early 1950s were Dilip Kumar who through his ‘method’ performances (Babul, 1950) articulated the uncertainties of the young nation; Raj Kapoor, on whom rode egalitarian impulses (Awaara, 1951) and Dev Anand who problematized the issue of the ‘modern’ (Baazi, 1951) were two others. There are multiple narratives at any one moment since the nation is a complex ‘organism’ with many issues confronting it that merit narrativizing. Hindi cinema needed to address a vast populace across the nation where different concerns could prevail while regional cinema, which addressed language identities, was more grounded in the smaller linguistic territory. Regional cinema could hence afford a single dominant male hero (NTR, Rajkumar, Uttam Kumar, MGR) who appeared in several narratives concurrently and played an enormous variety of roles.
The national narratives in Hindi cinema are driven by expectations about the socio-political future of the country; but with the Hindu right-wing tightening its hold over India the possibility of multiple narratives has diminished. Patriotic messages have tended to stifle every other kind of narrative. The term ‘patriotic’ is used to describe The Ghazi Attack (2017) and Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019) but they are not from the same mold as Manoj Kumar’s Upkar (1967). The earlier film invoked the family life of the soldier and suggested that war was only one activity that the nation was engaged in, and other things would also be happening.
Bollywood and regional South-Indian cinema
These new films are single-minded in suggesting that military/patriotic duty prevails over everything else. By this definition The Kashmir Files is not quite a simple humanistic film about the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Kashmiri Pandits but about patriotic Hindus brutally targeted by pro-Pakistani Kashmiri Muslims. Also, patriotic narratives (which would include films like Padmaavat) can do without major stars since the emotions are simpler and I would attribute the decline of the male star also to that factor. Salman Khan (arguably) represented semi-urban India’s resistance to the increasingly Anglophone culture of the metropolises, but even that has perhaps become irrelevant with patriotism spreading as a monoculture. Bollywood stars may have become too greedy, devouring much of every film’s budget, but they also became thus at the wrong time when there were fewer national issues to narrativize.
When we examine the big-budget South-Indian films triumphing at the expense of Bollywood we find altogether different messages; resistance to central authority is one that recurs - with the unkempt facial hair often marking the protagonist/rebel! On studying the other dramatis personae in these films we also find that those representing authority in KGF 2 and Pushpa are well-groomed. In RRR the anti-British rebel played by NTR Jr has an unruly beard and his associate played by Ram Charan is well-groomed when serving the British, but with a rough beard when he changes sides. This unkemptness, which goes beyond the macho significations of moustache and beard, suggests refusal to conform.
The protagonists of KGF2 and Pushpa: The Rise are criminals and there is an explicit celebration of their criminality in both films, as though it represents ‘rebellion’ or ‘resistance’. In both Pushpa and KGF 2 an association is made between their immoral bosses and corrupt officialdom and the protagonist is a self-made man with a following of defenseless people. Rocky in KGF2 even stands up to the (lady) Prime Minister, a ‘dictator’. In each of these films the conflict is between the regional hero and central authority. In Pushpa, the Telugu protagonist meets a brutal police official (IPS) named Bhanwar Singh Shekhawat and humiliates him. RRR is ostensibly patriotic but it has the parodic attitude towards patriotism that Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) had towards the masala film. The protagonists surpassing the British in a dance contest can hardly be read another way! It is the parodic element that appreciative western critics have responded to and parody is a covert mockery of what it is ostensibly imitating.
The corrupt/brutal servant of the law is not a new motif in Indian cinema and went hand-in-hand with a sense of the weakening state, but the state was usually distinct from the nation. In the sports films of the last decade like Paan Singh Tomar (2010), the protagonist loves the nation but hates officialdom. It was as if the patriotic Indian needed to connect directly with the nation without the mediation of the state. The new South-Indian films target the state as represented by the police with renewed vigor, but without a compensating eulogy of nationhood in the abstract as in the Hindi films.
All these are regional language films but Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan I is more explicit in constructing a regional object for eulogy. The Cholas were in conflict with the Pandyans and it would not be appropriate to praise one at the expense of the other since both are Tamil. So, what Mani Ratnam does is to uphold, instead, the glory of the place and its times. The film may be taken to be a response to the North-Indian bias in Bollywood’s historical films in which the Hindu-Muslin conflict dominates. The only character in PS1 who might be termed a central ‘villain’ is Madurantaka Chola, who seeks to be placed deviously on the Chola throne instead of the man who would later become Raja Raja Chola. Madurantaka is the only warrior not shown sporting a beard and the significance of facial hair is perhaps to drive home the masculinity of the warriors - as people not engaging in subterfuge. The only cleanshaven male in the film is, significantly, a spy pretending to be a devout Vaishnavite.
To emphasize their valour the kings are all personally great fighters and not content to simply lead others. In the Mahabharata, heroes (Karna, Arjuna) are different from kings (Yudhisthira, Duryodhana) but here the two are telescoped to facilitate a comprehensive eulogy of Tamil history. Battle scenes ignore the notions of strategy and leadership and armies simply charge at each other, with the kings at the fore. The exalted Tamil language used in the film arguably also contributes to this.
Kantara as local cinema
Some of the representations in Kantara find parallels in the films just described and most striking is its protagonist Shiva being engaged in illegal hunting and smuggling timber like Pushpa from the Telugu film. The story begins in 1847, a King making a pact with a local deity Panjurli (through an oracle) to give away a part of his land to the local people in exchange for peace and happiness. The pact is honored until a descendant of the King (in 1970) demands the lands back during the annual festival; the threat of Panjurli’s rage at the flagrant dishonoring of the century-old pact with the deity does not deter him. He threatens to take the issue to court but is found mysteriously dead in on the court’s steps as predicted by the deity.
In the present day, Shiva (Rishab Shetty) is an unruly but heroic figure in the milieu where the most powerful person is the King’s descendant Devendra Suttooru. He has officials in his pocket until the courageous Muralidhara (Kishore) arrives there as the Deputy Range Forest Officer. There is an immediate confrontation between Shiva and the DRFO, who tries to prevent the locals from gathering wood and hunting boar. The presence of the honest official as adversary to the protagonist complicates the story and Bhanwar Singh Shekhawat, IPS, in Pushpa is not from the same mold. If the official has unsavory qualities, it is convenient to treat his writ as different from that of the state but here, the DRFO is the state, and it is the state (and not an official) to whom Shiva is hostile. The fact that Shiva and his people are supported by the deity implies that his actions are unimpeachable.
The film has been hailed by Hindutva sympathizers, but placing a deity in opposition to the state raises some difficult questions. Panjurli is not from mainstream Hinduism and it implies a conflict between the cult’s desire for autonomy and the mainstream’s attempts at subsumption. One of Panjurli’s manifestations is in the shape of a boar which is interpreted as Varaha, an avatar of Vishnu. But there is the likelihood that the boar being deemed an ‘avatar’ was itself part of such Brahminical appropriation and there could still be cults that worship the boar without a reference to Vishnu. Phrased differently, regardless of Panjurli being accepted as ‘Hindu’, the deity has an autonomous existence and significance that, to its devotees, need not be telescoped with the mainstream religion.
This aspect of Kantara is perhaps too radical for Indian cinema today and Rishab Shetty therefore engineers it so that the state and Shiva have a reproachment at the expense of the landowner Devendra Suttooru, and a diversionary action sequence achieves that. At the conclusion Shiva becomes the oracle of the deity although he has been ostensibly killed and his beloved–a forest department employee – is pregnant with his child. The DRFO is shown to submit to Panjurli at the festival. If DRFO Muralidhara represents the state, his submission to Panjurli is quite the opposite of the nation-state being made the sacred object in Hindi films. The way in which the motifs are brought together is complicated and Rishab Shetty may not be fully aware of what he has done. But the film allows for ‘mainstream Hindu’ and Panjurli (as a local deity) not having identical constituencies. Kantara also suggests that the legitimate interests of the nation’s constituents may not be in sync with the nation-state.
Kantara is singular for not being ‘regional cinema’ as the other South-Indian films described here are but a new cinema with most of its moorings in local culture. Of the questions it raises with regard to our milieu and its cinematic representation, the chief ones are:
- Whether attempts at giving a single philosophical purpose to a faith as diverse in its basis as Hinduism can do justice to its richness. Hinduism’s origins cannot be traced to a single-point like Islam or Christianity and efforts in that direction would probably misrepresent it.
- Whether religious motifs cannot be brought back fruitfully into artistic representations to help them embrace greater complexity. The dry rationalist approach of official realism has perhaps outlived its utility. Kantara is one of those artistic exercises that actually gives religion a good name - because of its relationship with local rather than pan-national culture.