Actor-director Rishab Shetty’s Kantara is the latest Southern production to send viewers into raptures or numbness, as the case may be. The Kannada-language movie was released on September 30 and has been re-released in cinemas in a Hindi dubbed version (as was the Telugu film Sita Ramam).

A dizzying mesh of animistic beliefs, folk performance traditions, generational memory and concerns about land rights, Kantara (Mystical Forest) is best expressed not by its uninhibited rustic characters or colourful visuals but by a sonic element. If we were to put it into words, we would call it “wooooooaaaav”. This signature cry of the demigod Bhoota bookends the movie’s gripping opening portions and its visceral extended climax.

Shetty directs his own screenplay with unbridled panache, treating even routine scenes as milestones on an epic journey. The 150-minute film unfolds across three time zones. The first phase serves as an origin myth of how humans came to depend on forests.

A king enters into a pact with Bhoota, handing over his land to forest dwellers in exchange for Bhoota’s munificence. In later years, Bhoota is represented by a designated performer who dresses up as the demigod at festivities. A turn of events causes Bhoota to disappear into the forest in a blur of tinkling anklets.

The Bhoota performer’s heir Shiva (Rishab Shetty) has no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead, Shiva is content to win the local kambala (bullock riding) competition, swig locally brewed grog, smoke up, and hunt boar and fish.

The idyll is interrupted not by the king’s latest descendant, the seemingly benevolent landlord Devendra (Achyut Kumar). The new, and aggressive, forest department officer Muralidhar (Kishore) declares the villagers to be encroachers and attempts to seize the land in the name of the Indian state.

Devendra plays peacemaker as Shiva and his posse gird their loins to take on Muralidhar. Shiva’s sweetheart Leela (Sapthami Gowda), who works for Muralidhar, is squeezed between her community and her professional duties.

Rishab Shetty and Sapthami Gowda in Kantara (2022). Courtesy Hombale Films.

Leela is ultimately a stepney in the main ride: the realisation of who is actually behind the land grab. Even Muralidhar is a red herring for a feast that takes its own sweet time to be laid out.

While waiting for Shiva to embrace his inner Maoist, Shetty rolls out bawdy comedy, disposable melodramatic scenes of Shiva jousting with his crabby mother (Manasi Sudhir), and various shades of swagger. Some of these scenes are amusing in themselves, particularly the relationship between Shiva and his loyal cronies.

Kantara’s themes have been explored in a more sober register by arthouse films and documentaries about the pre-modern belief systems that bind indigenous communities to their land. The Bhoota Kola performative tradition enlivens an often routine vengeance drama stacked with macho posturing and slow-motion action scenes.

Shiva is an iteration of the unreconstructed males valourised by popular cinema. Shiva’s courtship of Leela won’t fit the accepted definition of consent. (Does a female waist exist only to be rudely pinched?) At least Kantara is less coy than Pushpa: The Rise (2021), which kicked up a mighty fuss over a harmless kiss.

Literally broad-chested and consistently brawny, Shiva might have been a caricature if it weren’t Rishab Shetty’s deep investment in his character’s emotional arc. Shetty’s interest in the Yakshagana performing tradition pays rich dividends when Kantara finally brings together its disparate threads. Always on fire, Shetty’s Shiva is truly explosive in the film’s blazing stand-off.

The Bhoota’s hold over the villagers’ imagination of themselves kicks off the movie, and the Bhoota rescues Kantara from its wandering ways. Arvind S Kashyap’s lensing and colour scheme are most vivid when the spirit’s human manifestation dances into view, emitting the “wooooooaaaav” roar that lingers long after Kantara has ended.

Countless films have been rescued by the device of the deus ex machina. In Kantara too, the machine of the gods trundles into view at just the right moment. While the film’s politics about land rights is sketchy and weak, Shetty’s evocation of a sacred landscape where the rational seamlessly co-exists with the supernatural leads to a memorable battle between human perfidy and the forces of divinity.

Kantara (2022).