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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 49 November 26, 2022

Reading the Hidden Transcripts in the Movie Kantara | Raj Kumar Thakur

Saturday 26 November 2022


by Raj Kumar Thakur *

Depiction of forest dwellers in Indian movies is often based on stereotypes whereby they are cast as ‘primitive’ living outside history. The movie Kantara’s [1] take on forest dwellers is fresh in the sense that it has captured the nuances of everyday life of the tribal world who draw their lifeline from the forest. From cocks and pigs to firewood and leaves, from feast and liquor to friendship and passion, the movie has captured the everydayness of the forest dwellers in a way no writer and director has ever attempted in Indian cinema.

Despite being a cinematic feast, the movie cannot be seen as an innocent act of filmmaking. The plot tries to tell a story of a king finding peace in a local deity of forest dwellers, who in turn choose to donate land and give them access to the forest. Later, the successors of the benevolent king make attempts to usurp the forest, which finally culminates in the form of divine justice, whereby the deity protects the people from the machinations of the landlord. In doing so, it whitewashes the coercive tactics of the modern state and the painful relationships between the forest dwellers and the modern state.

Historically, the people living in forests have had a very conflicting and troubled relationship with kings and their desire for resources and territories. The pre-colonial world was marked by numerous conflicts and the attempts of the monarchs to bring the forest dwellers within the gambit of state. The colonial state went a step ahead to map the terrain to discover and access the resources. The marking of the forest as a reserved area was driven by the objective of accessing resources and earning revenue by imposing taxes. The colonial world is full of accounts of how the forest dwellers resisted, and how they were criminalised and driven out of most areas and used as labour forces in industries.

This movie fails to capture these intricacies and throws no light on the intervention of the colonial state. Although the plot of the movie begins in 1847, the director offers no space for the colonial state and its relationship with the forest dwellers. Instead, people are shown as happy-go-lucky, living under the umbrella of a benevolent monarch.

The fact that the movie begins with the idea that it is the monarch who donates land to the forest dwellers is based on a false premise. If it was the king who was the owner of the land, where did the forest dwellers live before the arrival of the monarch? Were they not dependent on the forest before the monarch arrived? The movie tries to tell us that it is the king who is the owner of the forest. Such portrayal shows people living at the mercy and benevolence of the king. It is a historical error to show monarchs as owners, and forest dwellers as loyal and dependent on the king. The resisting claim of the Adivasi movement will fall flat if one goes by such accounts. When the monarch is placed at the helm, it not only denies agency to the forested tribes but also steals their claim of the forest being their home. The above depiction is further amplified when the movie shifts gear and moves into the contemporary.

Further moving into the plot of the movie, in the contemporary, the forest dwellers are shown as being surrounded by both sides. The forest dwellers are the hunt being lured. On the one, you have the forest officers (who represent the state), on the other, you have the successor of the monarch who is a landlord and a paternal figure, who thinks and cares, and participates as the guest of honour in the rituals and decides what is good and bad for the people.

Now we have two kinds of portrayals. First, we have modern state on march with its intentions of mapping the land, drawing boundaries and marking the land as reserved areas. The forest official is shown as a man bound to duty, who is here to fulfil the ‘noble’ intentions of the modern state of mapping the forest. In the movie’s first half, the officer treats the forest dwellers as ‘encroachers’. He is angry because, people use timber, and kill animals, which, he feels is the property of the government and it is his duty to protect them. People are shown at loggerheads with the duty-bound forest official. The officer resorts to all ways of achieving his objective of mapping. In the process, he lodges numerous false cases against the resisting youths and puts them behind bars.

In the later half of the movie, the protagonist of the movie realizes that it is the landlord who wishes to dislodge the forest dwellers from the forest and lays claim to the forest land. Thereafter, the forest officials are shown as allies of the forest dwellers. The modern represented by the forest officials is shown as caring for the good of the people. Its intentions are shown as noble, paternal caring for the childlike forest dwellers and the state is shown as open to endless negotiations. At one point, the officer asserts that after the survey is complete and the boundaries are drawn the people can negotiate with the state and forward their due claims. The protagonist too loses the anger that he had developed against the state and ends up appealing to the forest officer to take care of the people incase he dies.

In this portrayal, one sees the transformation in the image of the modern state. The state is anxious in the first half, its objective is unclear to the people and therefore they are confused and resist the moves of the state. When a girl from the community joins hands with the forested officials and becomes one of them, the people despise her. But in the second half, the state and the forest dwellers fight hand in hand against the landlord, who is armed, cunning and knows how to manipulate with the machineries of the state. The movie in the process of showing the landlord (monarch) as the villain ends up celebrating the state. It wipes out the troubled relationship which forest dwellers share with the state. The happy marriage between the forest dwellers and the state culminates when the protagonist marries one of the forest guards who hails from the forested community. The camera shifts to the womb of the woman who is carrying a child. The child is shown as a happy alliance between the state and forest dwellers. The movie ends by showing that the state is paternal and benevolent, which is here to respect your culture and ‘protect’ you from the machinations of the monarchs.

The contemporary reality is far away from what is portrayed. The social and political movements in the forested areas are generally shaped by the call of protecting jal, jungle and jameen, (water, forest and land). Although the major plot of the movie is around the decade 1990’s the movie fails to capture the apprehension of the forest dwellers who in reality are threatened by capitalist endeavours of exploitation of resources. This aspect is nowhere visible in the movie. The troubled relationship between the state and forest dwellers is merely shown as a misunderstanding, or a misjudgment without digging into the political economy. The idea that it is the state that should be seen as benevolent and the monarchs and landlord should be seen as villains drives home the point that forest dwellers are childlike incapable of thinking for their good, that they should depend and rely on the wills and whims of the state. Thus not only are the forest dwellers denied agency, but they are also shown at mercy of the state. Despite having a keen eye on the everyday world of the forest dwellers, the movie generates a stereotype about the people being incapable to decide for themselves and gullible. Under the given circumstances, divinity on the one hand and state on the other are shown as arbiter of their destinies. Moreover, their initial acts of resistance against the state are shown as acts of immaturity where the people fail to understand who the real enemy is. The future for the forest dwellers is shown in the form of the state as paternal, as the surging of a new bond where the state would guide the forest dwellers and help them become one. A visual of divine justice is created, and after the objective is achieved, it is sent deep into the jungle. The message given is clear, for justice to prevail, people have to live under the umbrella of state. By embracing the state, the movie tries to wipe out the history of resistance as a mere misunderstanding. The state is now the ‘protector’, its intentions ‘noble’, its intervention ‘just’ and it is the decision maker for the present and future of the forest dwellers. Monarch as the villain and state as ‘just’, hides one of the basic realities of how capital and capitalism interplays with the modern state and shapes the triangular relationship between the state, capital and people. The movie dethrones the forest dwellers from forests, subtracts the land from their identity and leaves them at the mercy of state to be blessed by its act of kindness and benevolence. It gives a false enemy and hides capitalism. To understand contemporary without exploring the intervention of capitalists would be a grave error. Where is capitalism, one would ask? Is it hidden behind the ‘noble’ intentions of ‘protection’? Or is it hidden behind the very intentions of movie makers? I leave it open to the readers to think and interpret.

* (Author: Raj Kumar Thakur is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Assam University who teaches Labour History)

[1Kantara is a 2022 Indian Kannada-language film

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