Directed by: Rishab Shetty || Produced by: Vijay Kiragandur
Screenplay by: Rishab Shetty || Starring: Rishab Shetty, Kishore Kumar G, Achyuth Kumar, Pramod Shetty, Sapthami Gowda
Music by: B. Ajaneesh Loknath || Cinematography: Arvind S. Kashyap || Edited by: K. M. Prakash, Pratheek Shetty || Country: India || Language: Kannada
Running Time: 150 minutes
One of the more interesting narrative staples of Indian filmmaking is its industries‘ portrayal of land disputes, most often between wealthier private landlords and their poorer tenant communities. Much of my affection for this storytelling premise is related to its cultural parallels beyond South Asia, such as the Homestead Acts of the 19th century United States frontier, which were dramatized in various classic films like Shane (1953) and Heaven’s Gate (1980), and whose political implications remain influential to this day. I’ll take films like Vetrimaaran’s Asuran (2019), starring Dhanush, and their script inconsistencies any day over highly culturally specific South Asian melodrama about arranged marriages or Non-Resident Indians living in New York, California, Toronto, London, etc., in any case.
In the vein of films like Asuran (review coming soon?), star-writer-director Rishab Shetty‘s Kantara (“Mystical Forest” in English), now the second highest-grossing Kannada-language film of all time behind only K. G. F. (2018, 2022), orchestrates its entire rural village-setting around land disputes between the poorer, working-class communities and the local landowning elite of Keradi, a coastal community in southern Karnataka with significant Tulu ethnic minority influences. Shetty, who grew up in the area, spends much of his story — too much, as a matter of fact (see below) — describing the mundane, everyday slice-of-life details of local village culture, religious practices, and regional ethnic mythology, eschewing tiresome South Indian Cinema cliches like throwaway musical numbers, over-the-top slow-motion action sequences, and cheap, distracting special FX. An early sequence and several of the film’s posters are dedicated to an extended Kambala (water buffalo-racing) set-piece that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, including its hero’s (Shetty) development, for example, but is memorable as a standalone scene. Most of the first two acts (~90+ minutes) unfold like this, where a few scenes here and there establish character relationships and backstories that pay off during the movie’s finale (e.g. a multi-era, time-jumping prologue, Shetty’s beef with the local game warden [Kishore Kumar G], examples of the local Būta Kōlā dance ritual, etc.), but most of that runtime covers over a dozen minor, forgettable supporting castmembers and their daily village activities, most of which involve killing time.
“Killing time” is perhaps the best descriptor of the bulk of Kantara’s 2.5 hour length. Despite my appreciation for the ethnoreligious details painted by Shetty’s endearing diegetic backdrop and the obvious affection the actor-writer-director has for his cultural upbringing, the majority of these first two acts could’ve and should’ve been cut. Something I learned in my undergraduate film classes from professional filmmakers as well as watching many, many longwinded, self-important dramas is to “kill your darlings,” which is another way of saying an artist should ruthlessly critique their own artistic projects, no matter their personal connection to this detail or that, to produce the best art possible; it’s a generalized piece of advice particularly useful in storytelling to remove extraneous or unnecessary plot details that don’t contribute to the greater effectiveness of the overall narrative, and I argue is an important example of objective — not subjective — self-criticism in film studies.
I suspect Shetty, who’s transitioned from an unknown working actor in the early to mid-2010s to a producer and/or director of multiple low-budget Kannada-language hits, has never heard of that expression. While I appreciate his refusal to include pointless song-and-dance numbers that add nothing to the plot and his minimal usage of digital FX (there are a handful of shots of a computer generated [CG] boar, which is fine), his warmhearted portrayal of a realistic village with relatable land-dispute conflicts is overwhelmed by an hour’s worth, at minimum, of narrative filler. I enjoyed the on-location photography and natural lighting of Shetty’s direction as much as I loathed the first 90 minutes of the film, which went on and on and on and on with no apparent direction until Act Three.
The only reason I reviewed Kantara at all was because of how well Shetty sticks the landing in the final hour, which pays off much of the seemingly random diegetic details established over the first two acts, including the aforementioned ethnic Būta Kōlā dance rituals, Shetty’s rivalry with Kishore over local wildlife hunting regulations, and even Shetty’s halfway decent romance with female lead Sapthami Gowda. Even the action sequences improve from Acts One and Two — you won’t find any slow-motion nonsense, but still multiple pointless fistfights early on — culminating in a rowdy, entertaining brawl between the working-class villagers, their new wildlife management bureaucratic allies, and the upper-class landowners.
My “recommendation-meter” for Rishab Shetty’s first blockbuster still skews toward a firm “no” for most audiences simply due to its bloated size. Much like Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar (2008), I’m open to a fan-edit if someone’s willing to cut this thing down to around 90-100 minutes (not as extreme an issue as the 3.5 hour Akbar, but still… ), but otherwise, no thank you. Shetty followed the “write what you know” idiom held amongst screenwriters, filmmakers, and artists in general, but refused to “kill his darlings;” the result is a film that, on paper, makes great use of a classic plot-device in rural settings — land disputes between tenants and landowners, private enterprise vs public lands conservation — but undercuts most all that due to the principal filmmaker’s overindulgence.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: For moments of its first half and most of its second, Kantara has the potential to be the next Shane, a timeless visualization of underprivileged communities rallying together against the privileged elite; Shetty’s protagonist is refreshing in his blunt, disheveled personality, the cultural setting around him is interesting, and the story ends on a strong note.
— However… despite no filler music videos, longwinded CG set-pieces, or other annoying cliches common to South Indian Cinema, Kantara takes its eye off its central narrative far too many times before its memorable conclusion. The film in its current form is 150 minutes and should’ve been at most 100.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED
? I didn’t realize that first Būta Kōlā dancer was portrayed by Shetty and also Shetty’s protagonist’s father until over halfway through the movie.