The phenomenon of the worship of ‘Bootha’ (The Benevolent Spirits) is imbibed deeply in the social fabric of coastal Karnataka in Southern India. The divine power of these spirits is believed to both protect and punish. These spirits have their own backstories and most times in their earthly avatars, they themselves have lived battered lives. After a saturation point, they would give up their lives by ‘disappearing’ magically, post which they become guardians of other living battered souls.
The life stories of these spirits are narrated in a folk song form locally called as ‘Paaddana’; the spirits themselves are generally represented by abstract totems. The ‘Kola’ ritual is an animistic form of worshiping these demi-gods wherein the spirits themselves are supposed to enter the bodies of designated mediums – invariably hailing from a stratified lower caste – and communicate with people giving them solutions to their worldly problems. Psychologists term this phenomenon as ‘Possession Syndrome’ – where a person has societal sanction to temporarily loose his/her identity and get tranced by an external body. Although Kantara, a recent Kananda film and whose title means mystical forests, has no such rational world view, it does have as its protagonist one such designated medium.
The central plot of the movie is set in the 1990s, but its narration dates back to about 130 years earlier when a local chieftain bargains with the aboriginals of a forest area to exchange their animistic totem in lieu of the ownership of the land that they inhabit. The plot then shifts to 1970s wherein the Mumbai-returned descendant of the chieftain wants the land back. He insults the father of the protagonist, who is a ‘Bootha’ medium in the ‘Kola’ ritual and hailing from the same aboriginal community. The insult which is taken as done to the powerful spirit itself prompts the father to angrily head into the forests and mystically ‘disappear’ but not after cursing the descendant to death.
Twenty years later, Shiva the son of the ‘Kola’ ritual performer and our protagonist refuses to inherit his father’s profession. He does not want to become a medium for the spirit, the ‘disappearance’ of his father heavily playing in his mind. Otherwise, he is a carefree not so young-looking youth whose obnoxious male masculinity would make the protagonist of Baahubali proud; his forceful aggressive behavior with his sweetheart, being a case in point. The woman is educated and has a job in the forest department but has to come back to her roots – shedding away the forest uniform to wear a sari – to wed him later in the movie.
But initially, Shiva does the odd biddings in the illegal timber business of his landlord, who himself is the offspring of the person whom the ‘spirit’ had cursed into death. But the plot forgets this century-old deal and the 20-year old curse to focus on the constant conflict that Shiva has with a seemingly upright forest officer. The latter is working towards realizing a government order of converting the area into a protected reserve forests by evicting the forest dwelling community, who are seen as encroachers.
The amount of screen time and build up given to this forest officer and the collision that he has with Shiva makes one think that the movie is about forest dwellers rights. In this conflict, Shiva and his fellow villagers hit back at the forest officials, who try to forcibly evict them, with violence. The usage of crude bombs and handmade guns by Shiva and his friends have the danger of being labeled as Naxalite activities if the movie was made by a serious movie maker. In Kantara, such activities are celebrated not for any deep-rooted ideological issues concerning countering violence with violence – but because it gives rise to drama and comedy.
As it turns out, the social concern of the movie seems to be a red herring, unwittingly a false one at that. After unabashedly threading this path and developing this theme for about two thirds of the movie, the officer, for no convincing ‘character motivational’ reasons, gets sympathetic towards Shiva and his community, and to their cause and way of life. Once this happens, the forest officer becomes a mere decorative item whose job is to give deep pondering looks at the ‘Bootha’ loving community and little else.
The probable sub text here is that through its representative the forest officer, the all-powerful state too gets submissive as it supports the aboriginals – a scenario we hardly see in real life. That this submission is more due to the powerful nature of ‘Bootha’ rather than anything else is what comes across later in the movie. Suffice to say for now that the burning social issues that were raised due to the forest officer’s large and long presence – that of forest dwellers forestry rights vis-à-vis the need to conserve nature, is completely forgotten in the movie’s later part. This raises a doubt. Was the movie ever serious about this issue or was it just a source for intense dramatic conflict that would hold captive the minds of the audience till they are led towards submission and complete faith?
As it turns out, the focus of the movie in its later part shifts back to where it started – the land that was donated to the community about a century ago by the chieftain and the unsuccessful attempts to get it back by his descendants. The person who was responsible for the last such unsuccessful attempt in the movie is Shiva. And who or what helps Shiva in his endeavor? It is of course the benevolent spirit itself.
All his life Shiva had avoided being a medium for the ‘Bootha’, a post that was available to him by heredity. But when his community is massacred by the evil feudal landlord and he, too, is all but dead – the spirit itself takes sumo-moto cognizance of matters and enters his body. The atrocity of the upper caste is too much to take even for the ‘spirits’. Magically as in a mythological movie, Shiva and by default the ‘Bootha’ destroys the evil and restores faith completely and how! While the old mythological movies are mostly about the reaffirmation of the Vedic gods, Kantara seems to be a celebration and the affirmation of the faith in the totemic divine spirit, the ‘Bootha’.
The ones who don’t believe in the power of the ‘Bootha’ like the Mumbai returned landlord or his cold blooded son are mercilessly killed. The righteous ones, who are apprehensive of the spirits, like the forest officer and by default the modern state, confirm full time, albeit after an internal struggle. The ones who are reluctant to respond to the community’s ‘call for action’ to become the medium of the spirit, like Shiva, are made to fall in line by none other than the ‘Bootha’ itself. By the end of the movie, despite his lifelong aversion, Shiva becomes the medium for the spirit and a good one at that. In the last sequence, Shiva, dressed as the medium in the ‘Kola’ ritual, runs into the forests after symbolically uniting the various communities. He meets his disappeared father also in his ‘Kola’ avatar. The two of them then ‘disappear’ together – implying that Shiva too becomes a ‘benevolent spirit’.
So, is the movie really serious about the issue of the oppression of the stratified community by their upper caste counterpoints? Or is this conflict just a source of intense drama post which the audience could be deftly guided into the power of the ‘benevolent spirit’ and the universal submission to it? It is always the ‘mise-en-scene’ that betrays the true intention of a movie. The twenty-odd minutes given to the killing of the evil by the ‘Bootha’ and the subsequent attempted sublimity of the ‘Kola’ act itself being a case in point. In another give away, the movie vehemently refuses to use the original ‘Paaddana’ songs while the ‘Kola’ ritual takes place. Instead, what is used as music are dramatic modernized songs that have Vedic connotations to them. This transgression in the sound track is reflective of the times that we live in.
The cult of ‘Bootha’ is predominantly a Dravidian phenomenon, a non-Brahmanical one at that. But this is changing rapidly. Shunning away their totemic qualities, temples built these days for the ‘Boothas’ are akin to any other temple built for modern day deities like Rama, Shiva or Krishna. Vedic rituals are now practiced in these temples to please the ‘Boothas’. Appropriation by the dominant way of life is the name of the game.
Organizing the ‘Kola’ ritual is huge event. Such an act is an offering in itself. It would mean that the entire village has to be fed, etc. Without the benevolence of the upper crust of the society – usually the upper caste – its occurrence is not possible. It therefore means that the active worshiping of the ‘Bootha’ by the lower caste is possible only with the support of the upper caste. To beget the ‘benevolence’ of the divine spirit, the ‘benevolence’ of the landlord is essential.
By the end of the movie, as all’s well that ends well, a ‘Kola’ ritual is held in the village of the community. In this ‘Kola’ we see the presence of another landlord – the rival of the antagonist who was killed by our hero/the ‘Bootha’. It could be implied here that it is this rival landlord who has now befriended the community and sponsored the ‘Kola’ just as the original landlord had done so earlier with the ulterior motive of land-grabbing. By the mere presence of this new landlord amidst this forest dwelling community during the ‘Kola’ ritual, the movie maker is matter-of-factly acknowledging the caste related status quo in the plot. A build up to this new association was provided to us earlier when it was shown that it was this very landlord, who had provided bail to a jailed Shiva. The tormentor landlord is killed, but long live the new landlord!
While the subservient might feel that they are adequately represented through the movie, the gaze of Kantara is that of the upper caste and its unambiguous affirmation of a stratified society. Hence, there is something in it for all tastes that makes it strategically a win-win situation. With the success of this movie, the world is now well aware of this hitherto lesser known hybrid form of cathartic worship of the divine and has probably annexed it as its own. After all, like the cannabis joints that Shiva intakes in the movie, this form of worship, too, is out-of-the-world and transcendental. Many decades back during the emergency era in the mid-1970s, the super success of the film Jai Santoshi Maa (1975) heralded a new goddess deity, who quickly became popular – Santoshi Maa. Need I say more on Shiva, the modern day ‘benevolent spirit’ in Kantara?