When folks like Sanjay Dutt and Ranbir Kapoor say that the main reason why most Bollywood films have flopped this year is because they aren’t ‘rooted’ in Indian culture, they’re speaking in code. They aren’t talking about Bollywood films at all, but the idea of masculinity that those films project. And while it might sound like they’re championing stories set in villages, they’re actually talking about the gruff guys who rule over them.
What these people really want — and they make no bones about this — is Kantara, a film in which dudes with beards race buffalo, harass women, and fight in the mud.
After months of positive word-of-mouth, Kantara arrived (in an admittedly altered form) on Amazon Prime Video this week. And having consumed no marketing material beyond the striking images of writer-director-star Rishab Shetty’s painted face, I sat down to watch it, moderately intrigued to find out what all the fuss was about. But imagine my disappointment when I realised, virtually 10 minutes in, that Kantara isn’t a magic-realist fable set in rural India at all, but basically a toxic KGF clone with a plot denser than the forest in which its hero lives.
Played by Shetty, the year’s second-most annoying movie Shiva is introduced in a fight sequence. He wears a perpetually angry look on his face, and scoffs at the mere idea of taking ‘permission’. Shiva, you see, has a multigenerational mistrust in the authorities. He plays by his own rules, and is regarded as something of a troublemaker in his village. Over the course of the film, he picks a fight with a local forest officer for simply doing his job, and repeatedly molests a woman until she falls in love with him. He’s the kind of person you’d want to stay away from, but for some reason, he’s been chosen to be the protagonist of this movie.
You could argue that Shiva is an authentic representation of what an alpha male living in a ’90s-era Karnataka village would be like. And you’d be right. But that isn’t the problem, is it? Shiva is free to be as terrible as he wants. But the question of an ideological impasse arises only when the movie starts to forgive his terrible behaviour, and then rewards him for it. In doing so, Kantara sets Indian filmmaking back by years.
By declaring that Bollywood movies have forgotten what made them special in the first place, people like Ranbir Kapoor are rejecting not only the significant progress that mainstream Hindi cinema has made in the last decade — aided in no small part by the sensitive portrayal of masculinity in Kapoor’s own films — but they’re also undermining the contributions of colleagues who’ve spent their careers trying to distance themselves from the industry’s problematic past.
It’s a past that Bollywood filmmakers are desperate to return to, though, having convinced themselves that this is the only thing separating their films from success. They’ve come to this conclusion after witnessing multiple South Indian films make crores in Hindi-speaking territories, often at the expense of major Bollywood releases starring pretty people whose one Instagram post would score ‘likes’ from more people than would show up to their films.
It’s one thing for massively-mounted movies such as Pushpa: The Rise, RRR, KGF: Chapter 2, and Ponniyin Selvan: I to make money — they were always supposed to — but when a film like Kantara hits, without even being reverse-engineered for ‘pan-Indian’ success, you have to sit up and take notice. You have to ask yourself what audiences are attracted to, and more importantly, why they’re returning for seconds. Produced on a relatively small budget of Rs 16 crore, the Kannada language film has made more than Rs 400 crore so far. For context, that’s around thrice the total box office of director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi, which reportedly cost 10 times as much.
By slapping it with a badge of honour, and failing to criticise its many faults, we’ve set the ball rolling down a path to creative doom. Just look at the kind of behaviour that it is endorsing, and then spot the trends. This new wave of Angry Young Man cinema owes a great debt to the 70s, but while Vijay’s mother in Deewar was his moral compass in many ways, Shiva’s mother in Kantara and Liger’s mother in that nonsensical film are mostly nags. They exist purely to ‘serve’ their sons, sometimes literally. This is a stereotype that the average Indian male might identify with. For instance, in one scene in Kantara, Shiva snaps at his mother for not making his favourite dish.
In another scene, when his lover Leela brings him food while he’s chained to a tree or something, he violently pushes her away. Leela is an interesting case study, by the way. The first time he ever sees her, Shiva pinches her bare stomach without her consent. Later, he peeps at her when she’s showering. The following morning, when Leela and her father come looking for him after he has touched her inappropriately, seemingly angry at his actions, it seems for a while that the film is about to hold him accountable for his behaviour.
But no, it turns out that they’d come by for a different reason altogether, and Shiva, who was momentarily concerned, is let off the hook. Perhaps encouraged by the lack of consequences, he coerces Leela to squeeze herself between him and her dad on his motorbike in the very next moment, smirking as he does it. It’s disgusting really, because the movie knows what you were thinking — it wouldn’t have played the misunderstanding for laughs otherwise — and chooses to mock you for it.
Films like Kantara, and KGF, and Liger, are actively rejecting the millennial idea of masculinity, but they are also showing a massive middle finger to virtually every well-rounded female character created in the last decade. Having Leela in the movie isn’t an issue, but here’s a character that hardly speaks, has zero agency, and exists purely to revolve around Shiva’s orbit. At one point, he straight-up threatens to beat her. She is tertiary supporting character at best, but by projecting her as the ‘female lead’, the movie is cruelly desecrating the very meaning of those words. It is the equivalent of a woman being given a hefty promotion in a corporate set-up, and then being tasked only with ordering coffee.
People watched Kantara and resonated with its portrayal of ancient rituals, its anti-caste allegory, and its epic, operatic narrative. But I saw cruelty. Unlike most bad films, Kantara isn’t clueless. It chooses to take the conservative route. It is a dinosaur-minded disgrace, another ‘Hombale Film’ severely lacking in both humility and humanity.
Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.