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.
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.