Kāntārā the Kannadā movie is right now making waves in India. After hearing glowing reviews about it, I decided to watch it on the big screen (hadn’t gone to a theatre in more than a decade!). This piece is not a movie review but just my own attempts at understanding the theme of this movie, in its wider as well as deeper connotations about native Bharatiya culture and belief systems, while equally looking at the very interesting specifics of the practices depicted.
As most movie buffs have opined, this movie needs to be watched multiple times, but the first time should be on a big screen where the full immersive experience comes through in all its glory. Brilliantly made, extremely tight story line (that you don’t realize until the very end) and deft development of characters who morph and transform exquisitely as the movie progresses.
Risabh Shetty, the writer, director & actor (chief protagonist Shiva) in his interviews has indicated that the movie is based on his own village/region’s cultural practices and stories that he has heard, growing up. Which is the Dakshina Kannada & Udupi regions of Karnataka (& Kasargod region of Kerala). Tuluvas (speakers of Tulu language) are the people who live in this region and Bhuta-Kola is their annual practice of this specific ritual of connecting with guardian deities and spirits (Bhutas). Perhaps herein lies the appeal of this movie. Something that pulls at the raw threads that link Bharatiyas to their land and its nature-worshipping Sanatani Hindu heart. Guardian deities (grama devi/devata, kula devi/devata) and Bhutas (spirits) as a phenomena, is widespread across Bharat, in some form or the other. So people, who have grown up in India can feel the connection with the movie. As some prominent people have commented, Bollywood, the primarily Urdu film industry of India, that claims itself as the cultural voice of the country has never made such a movie nor can it ever make such a movie (unless it changes for the better), that shows the rooted nature of Bharatiya sanskriti in such a visceral way yet respectful and confident tone (this is who we are and we are proud of it, kind of way!)
Will start with a comment from Risabh that J Sai Deepak (the prominent lawyer and Sanatani voice) translated from Tamil in one of his podcasts. Risabh was being interviewed by a journalist who was questioning the Bhuta-Kola rituals, casteism, etc. To one of his questions Risabh says matter-of-factly “…yes traditional Hindu belief system may have developed good and bad aspects as it evolved over 1000’s of years (as do all belief systems) but why do we need to selectively show its negative aspects only to destroy it from within and without when it has so many positives as well, that we can also highlight and move forward with. We personally have, over generations, shed many questionable practices and moved forward with those that made sense”. At least Sanatan Hindu dharma allows that flexibility, debate and understanding…unlike other belief systems where you could get instantly killed or at the very least defamed into oblivion, for simply questioning their monotheistic, nature-antagonistic beliefs?
The Supreme Consciousness (nitya, saswat Para-Brahm or God, to use a simplistic term) vibrates as a living presence through every atom of nature and human consciousness (which is part of that supreme consciousness) and connects with nature via streams of energy and entities that we classify into different levels and forms. Bhutas/Daivas, as distinct from pretas (who are disembodied entities that may exist after a physical human body ceases to exist), as also Ganas (of Shiva/Pashupati lore) are believed to be non-human, semi-divine entities who serve as mediums between humans and the Higher Energy immanent in nature. In the Hindu pantheon, they are usually described as servitors of more powerful forms of consciousness (Mahadev and Vishnu Bhagwan and their various forms) and help maintain the general order of things in nature, and the relationships between sentient beings (like humans) and nature in all its aspects. Being non-human, such entities necessarily manifest through a medium/oracle (as depicted correctly in the movie) and serve to resolve common village disputes (among humans and between humans and nature – jungle, animals, ponds, mountains) while they are possessed. During this trance like state, the oracle does not speak his own mind but it is the Daiva/Bhuta who speaks through him. Beautifully expressed in a short chat in the movie
Landlord : Guruvā, I will give you 40 acres of land, become my voice when you are in your Bhuta costume, not the Daiva’s voice. Understood?
Guruvā : But Sir when I’m in the middle of Bhuta-Kola, I am not me & I am not speaking. It is the Daiva who speaks
Extra-sensory perceptions, non-human entities are very much real, whether we accept or not. They interact without prejudice, enforcing, at their own level, cosmic order. They are not humans so do not have yearning to be acknowledged, even of their very existence. In most cases they work in their own ways, through nature and natural phenomena (both creative and destructive) but sometimes when believers’ faith is strong, they do manifest. Bhuta-Kola and such instances are these kind of manifestations. Believers are their mediums, worshippers and appreciators. But given human nature and its propensity to get corrupted, he starts questioning those beliefs, questioning what he sees. As it happens with the Landlord who after several generations after his ancestor gave away his land to the common folk in exchange for peace, starts coveting those lands again. And when belief and faith goes, rituals lose their meaning for him. They just are a show for him and the revered Devatas/Daivas venerated in the stone image, turn into just that…a stone. In sharp contrast, the simplicity of village folk and their faith enables the Daiva to continue as a living presence, affecting their lives, trying to protect them along with the nature that it also has responsibility to protect. And it doesn’t hesitate to use violence as a means to bring justice and order to the lives of the village folk.
I have also witnessed such mediums/oracles, mostly in rural settings. Yes, it is ripe to be abused and misused and many reports come in from time to time about exploitation. But the system, the concept, does exist. No doubt about it. Knowing the difference between the two is tricky. One way for an outsider to ascertain whether the Daiva is actually manifesting or not is to see if the medium or whoever is close to him, is routinely benefiting from the ritualistic sayings of his or not. The movie depicts a genuine medium and how it works.
Which brings us to another important point. A mediocre unintelligent mind will be quick to dismiss anything it doesn’t understand in religious practices, as superstition. An intelligent, discerning mind will try to go into why’s of a practice/phenomenon and its antecedents. As to why it existed in the first place. To understand a nature based, multi-faceted, rich pagan religious behemoth with incredible depths of philosophy and metaphysics built into it over tens of thousands of years, requires a surgical, pure and unbiased mind. Whether it is the Bhuta-Kola or the Varna system (that later metamorphosed into the highly discriminatory caste system on lines of medieval Europe – to be precise, Portuguese casta system) or traditional denial of menstruating women from Ayappa temple in Sabarimala (similarly there are several temples in India where men are not allowed, for very specific reasons) – Sabarimala, the 4th Dimension. Once an understanding is reached by unbiased research can we call something a superstition and will have the ability to weed out the negatives of a practice while keeping the positive essence of it.
Another aspect brought out in the movie (in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner) is the relative permanence and continuity of native cultures of Bharat. Where the simple village folk are unable to understand how some secular, government authority can limit and deny them access to their own lands that they have inhabited for aeons (adi kala). A puzzling dilemma that has no definite answers. The movie handles this question very deftly though. As the storyline progresses and reaches its climax, the Forest Department that is interested in preserving the forest and the animals in it, strikes a deal with the local folk who are living in and around it. That they can continue living in it as original inhabitants with land rights and practice their rituals that are anyways rooted in nature (as a Varaha rupam deva) but in synergy with the Forest department’s rules regarding conservation and preservation.
Coming back to the topic of native people and their cultures. In the first part of the movie (after the 19th century King gives up his lands to the native folk), when the Landlord hasn’t got corrupted yet and enthusiastically promotes and participates in the Bhuta-Kola (as Jajman) and Kambala (as referee) rituals, the story shows a stable and largely peaceful social structure (the peace that the King originally yearned for). There is a social hierarchy but not a highly discriminatory one or one that is constantly in state of extreme tension. But once those social strings are stretched and broken and greed takes over, the social fabric breaks. Resulting in the Daiva, taking matter into own hands and resorting to violence to resolve the matter. So the question can be asked…is there a more refined and subtle way to bring about social justice than the ones we currently see from so called social activists? who in their zeal for social justice are now talking the same language of extremism and discrimination as the system they set out to reform…except on the opposite end of the spectrum. Something for all of us to ponder. In the face of severe external threats to native Bharatiya culture should we really be swinging the hammer wildly inside our own house smashing everything down aimlessly? And giving those external destructive powers an alibi and juicy opportunity to destroy our entire Sanatani belief system?
Bhutas/Daivas do not take sides. They are there to maintain cosmic order at the grass roots level, in nature. Once their role is over, they disappear. To appear again in some other form and in some other role. It is to the credit of the movie maker, Risabh Shetty that he has managed to depict such an otherwise common practice in the form of a beautifully well-knit story rooted and soaked in native customs and traditions, without any pontificating virtue signalling. Like Bollywood does via their “social activist” avatars, that are more about demeaning and attacking native culture and religion than bringing out the best aspects of them.
Our Gods talk to us. They are part of our everyday lives. We see them in trees, in stones, in air, water, sky. We are Sanatani Hindus
Image Credit : Instagram handle emptystillinfinite (Mumbai, Maharashtra), professional movie poster artist