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The Immense Success Of 'Kantara' Is Side-lining Its Sexist Depictions

While 'Kantara' needs to be credited for attempting to portray the nuanced power dynamics between the land-owning sections or the 'zamindars', the indigenous population and the State; it should also be called out for blatant sexism and patriarchy.

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Described as 'sensational' and rated as high as 4.9 by the audience, Rishabh Shetty's 'Kantara' is proving to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the Kannada movie industry. The main plot of the movie revolves around the land and forest rights of the indigenous population. Set in multiple timelines, in the southern states of India, the movie draws on the cultural practices, belief systems and way of life of the indigenous people.

The movie endeavours to catch the attention of the audience through the narration of folklore at the very beginning. The folklore speaks of 'Daiva', the animist spirit god, residing in the 'Kantara' or the 'Forest', looking after the forest dwellers i.e. the indigenous population. The king/zamindar of the region encounters Daiva while seeking peace. He becomes certain that only the Daiva can provide him peace and bliss. The Daiva accepts his request to leave the Kantara and his people for the king's peace of mind, but in exchange asks the king to grant a portion of land to his people. The movie is set across generations depicting the wrath of the Daiva on the king's descendants who tried to dishonour the deal by attempting to take away the land from Daiva's people. The presentation of this folklore is commendable. The performance of 'Bhoota Kola', a ritual involving worship of the Daiva, performed in the coastal districts of Tulu Nadu, parts of Karnataka and Northern Kerala is remarkable in the movie. It has also tried to introduce the element of the boar spirit deity, usually worn as headgear by dancers performing Bhoota Kola. The constant appearance of boar with golden ornaments, in the dreams and visions of the protagonist Shiva is an artistic inclusion of the elements of the folklore and Bhoota Kola.

Headgear of 'Bhoota Kola' performers, depicting a boar deity; Image Source:

As the story progresses, the audience is treated to action scenes performed by the 'hero', who belongs to the indigenous population and is close to the current zamindar. Shiva, the protagonist/ 'hero', is depicted as a simple man indulging in the small pleasures of life like constant drinking, hunting and enjoying time with friends. He is characterized as someone who cannot stand injustice and his extremely aggressive nature is normalized as he uses them to fight injustices. He is played by the zamindar who cunningly grabs land from the indigenous people. The movie rightly depicts the atrocities faced by the indigenous people. It also brings out the difference in perspectives surrounding the ownership of forests by the indigenous people and the State, while at the same time focusing on the land-grabbing tendency of the zamindars. At one juncture, one of the characters in the movie clearly states that the government was a recent phenomenon and their ancestors who have been living in the Kantara, precede the government. It was an interesting depiction of how the indigenous people perceive their rights being passed from one generation to the other and do not identify with modern institutions. Modern conceptions of state and boundaries remain alien to them. They depend on the forests for their survival and live in unison with nature. I believe that the movie was successful in capturing this facet of the indigenous way of life.

The blatant sexism and elements of patriarchy cannot go unnoticed in the movie. From normalizing 'pinching' the waist of the 'heroine', for her attention to intimidating her, Kantara has all the patriarchal depictions that need to be shunned. The heroine is mostly a bystander, overshadowed by the presence of the hero, who is domineering and uses force on her on multiple occasions. In one scene he pinches and holds her by her hair to show his love, a skewed idea of romance that has been portrayed for decades by multiple movie industries. In another scene, he hits his heroine and gets away by being rebuked and thrashed by his mother. He still remains a 'hero' and violence against women is thus normalized. The heroine hardly has dialogues and is depicted as a loyal partner to the hero, always by his side, even at the cost of her self-respect. She is shown falling in love with a hero who does not respect her privacy, questions her decisions, is aggressive in his behaviour towards her and constantly dominates her. Apart from the heroine, there is another female character whose presence in the movie seems to be purely motivated by the idea of serving comedy to the audience through her "ugliness". At one juncture her teeth are compared to that of a buffalo in a manner so as to create a comic scene by focusing on how ugly her teeth were. In another scene, her husband is seen as terrified and sick. On being asked if he had a nightmare, the wife states that he had seen her last night in the dark, after which he got extremely scared and since then has been unable to speak. After this answer, everyone in the vicinity burst out in laughter. Another element of patriarchy is visible when in the movie we learn that the heroine knows how to drive a bike but is never seen driving one. She is always seen sitting behind the hero on the bike. The only scene where we see her drive, is when the hero is put behind the bars. This is a subtle portrayal of how the 'hero' / 'saviour' / 'man' is always supposed to lead, to be at the forefront and the 'heroine'/ 'woman' is supposed to follow him, remain always a step behind him and never take his place at the forefront.

A still from Kantara; Image Source:

The movie ended with a twist and the climax was appreciable, where the constant villain in the movie, an officer of the forest department, aids the indigenous people in their fight against the zamindar. The ending depicted the State being on the side of the indigenous people, contrary to most narrations of atrocities on indigenous and marginalized populations.

Kantara has gained immense success and continues to woe the audience, despite the elements of blatant sexism and patriarchy.


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