State and Society in ‘Kantara’


By Niveditha Prasad

A significant undercurrent in Indian cinema today is the burst of “regional” hits from non-Hindi movie industries. This includes RRR, the KGF franchise and Pushpa. While these movies revel in their rather universalised, if not generic, content that can be placed anywhere in India, Kantara strikes a different note. It is consciously and confidently set in the unending greenery of coastal Karnataka, with characters organically weaving in Tulu in their Kannada. The film does not placate audiences sitting in a PVR in the metropolis by appealing to their sense of rationalities. It instead demands, very successfully it may be added, that they understand its world animated by kambala races, local legends and unforgiving daivas.

The privileging of a specific way of looking at the world also allows understanding the community’s view of the state in that particularised setting. The state in Kantara is an ambiguous presence whose place in the narrative is grey. It makes its appearance not in 1800s when the world of Kantara begins or even in the 1970s in which the film is contextualised. It appears as the post-colonial state in 1990, in an India at the cusp of neoliberalism. There are bikes, telephone poles, bottled soda drinks and freely flowing Scotch. Even a ritual song is infused with riffs of an electric guitar. But more importantly, the state is here personified by Muralidhar, a strapping Deputy Forest Range Officer, newly deputed in the hamlet of Keradi. In his very first scene, he beats up villagers for having hunted a wild boar. His goal is to clear the villagers’ “encroachments” and convert the lands belonging to the community and the local landlord, Devendra Sutturu, to a reserve forest. He takes to it zealously, as it were a duty.  He is a disenchanted Weberian bureaucrat; diligently working the legal-rational machinery towards what he believes is social transformation – protecting the forests and its beasts from the local community who have been in close association with it for centuries. He has no patience for the lore of how the community came to possess the land or why bursting crackers is important for their daiva during the kola celebrations. When challenged by the protagonist Shiva, he even says, we can put an end to all your festivities. It is a powerful and terrifying statement that presciently captures how a people’s traditions are at the mercy of the destructive capacities of the state and its agents through whom the state power is channelised. To make matters worse, he implicates Leela, a woman from the community who joins the Forest Range, in his lawful acts of desecration.

All this seemingly leads to a conflict between the land-grabbing developmental state and the community holding onto its traditions as the crux of the film. There is even a familiar repertoire of forest officers surveying land and drawing up maps that strongly resembles a similar sequence in Kasaravalli’s Dweepa. As in that movie, local knowledge about plants, pathways and shrines do not figure in the state’s maps populated by survey numbers and boundaries. In Dweepa, however, the state recedes into the background as the story shifts to individualised resistance against both the abstract pull of modernity’s promises and Nature. Even as Kantara deals with a more tangible and personified state in the form of Murali, it complicates the assumption that the state and the people are necessarily at odds. The landlord turns out to be the antagonist, cheating the villagers of their land that he believes rightfully belongs to him. He too is a disenchanted man, employing documents and other paperwork to reject the old legend that requires him to be beholden to the community. The DFRO now joins hands with the villagers, assuring them that the land will be theirs once they agree to convert the surrounding forest to a reserved forest. Muralidhar apparently turns over a leaf. He tells Shiva, our beliefs might be different, but we are of the same existence. Towards the end, he not only takes part in the bhoota kola celebrations as one among the faithful but even seems to be accepted by the daiva as one of his own.

It is crucial to understand the emancipatory role of the state here. It is not merely characterised as a government department consisting of corrupt officers looking to make a quick buck or ruthless ones out to end community practices. The state makes it its business to dictate how many wild animals can be killed for meat and which trees can be cut for the kola. It does so out of genuine conviction that its expertise is the ‘correct’ way to preserve the forests. It is also an institution that has enchanted the masses by purposefully crafting a narrative where it is an alternative and the chief vehicle for attaining popular desire to escape the old exploitative feudal ways. Here, the community may have well defeated a scheming landlord without the aid of the forest officers. But it is a testament to the longstanding enchantment with the state that it fits into a tale of resistance against the landlord, a stand-in for all things non-modern.

The film’s shifting themes make for a compelling watch but within this, it is also a story of the State’s interaction with most of the country. In Partha Chatterjee’s words, the villagers here constitute the political society. They do not belong to the middle-class, rights-bearing citizens of the civil society. Throughout the movie, despite the fight for their land and traditions, they barely, if ever, use the word hakku or rights. The film does not care for this, fully embracing the sacred and the ‘unlawful’ actions that it inspires in people. When provoked, the villagers simply defend themselves with weapons and crude guns. The only character speaking in the language of rights is the landlord claiming proprietorship that violently disrupts notions of common lands. Their alliance with the State instead is guided by what it can give them, in this case, their land back (with terms and conditions attached, of course). This roughly translates to Chatterjee’s theory that welfare is the glue between the post-colonial State and the political society. The State, like Muralidhar, is reluctant to engage in the language of most of its people. And yet, it is subtly coerced into doing so. In a mass democracy, it is to gain votes and here, it is simply to get the ‘job done’ by compromising with a hostile community. It hangs on to the idea of a people as population rather than citizens, here as ultimately lawful occupants of ‘government land.’ The State does not remain unchanged, however. It now participates and employs the vocabulary of the people, even for its own ends, howsoever reluctantly.

But all this talk of theory should not allow us to think that the interaction between the state and those outside the civil society is neat. The messiness that state intervention in people’s lives is exemplified in Leela’s predicament. On her first day as an officer, she is forced to act against her own community’s alleged encroachments. The villagers accuse her of backstabbing them. But she has a job to do. A salary of a thousand rupees hangs as the unspoken barricade that has cropped up between her and the village. She has one foot in the community and the other in the state machinery that is seemingly disrupting their lives. Unlike the very reassured Guruva whose faith in his daiva makes him immune to temptations of capital and content with a just-going-by existence, Leela does not have a strong enough anchor for her beliefs. The story here ceases to become a particularised narration in an obscure Karnataka village. The dilemma of abandoning one’s own even as the state seduces them with the promise of material progress and all that modernity entails is a familiar one. It is present, for example, in SL Bhyrappa’s Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane (and Karnad’s movie of the same name) where a government-built concrete road runs through and over the grave of a village hero. Do we grit our teeth through everyday sacrilege or do we, as the movie’s climax suggests, become one with myth, immortalised and transcendent?

The situation of the story in 1990 is intriguing – the State at this point is relatively new in that setting as palpable in its marked absence in the flashbacks. Would the state-society dialogue be different in a post-liberalisation India where the welfare State seems to have receded? The relationship between the two entities would in all likelihood, now involve a private party. Moreover, the community’s unquestioning faith and adherence to their traditions itself may be diluted, no doubt facilitated by an enlightened, secularised state. Would Shiva’s son re-enact his father’s ‘mass entry’ by racing bulls in a kambala contest or will he refuse to participate in it citing animal cruelty? Kantara is an unashamed celebration of the divine over all things mortal but its endurance in the shadow of a stronger state is perhaps a tale for another day.

Niveditha K Prasad is an undergraduate student of law at the National Law School, Bengaluru. She enjoys engaging in all things related to poetry, literature, and films.


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