What Makes Kantara And Brahmastra The ‘Chosen Ones’

As much as we enjoy and write reams and reams about our amazement at the Kantara climax, 30 years on from now, will we remember these portions more fondly or the ones where Shiva is simply hanging out with his friends, mulls Rohit Sathish Nair.

SPOILERS AHEAD.

Has there been a sudden spike in the number of ‘Chosen One’ films releasing in theatres recently, across industries, across languages?

If so, is this due to its reliability as a template being consciously realised?

Or do you believe that as it is, there is little that separates such a movie from the usual ‘arc-of-the-hero’ films that are part of almost every film culture in the world?

To add to this, when marketplace considerations and the existing status quo do become a deciding factor in casting choices, is there any real surprise or suspense to the ‘choice of saviour’?

Does this mean that by design, only very few movies (like the Star Wars and Harry Potter films, had a genuine shot at being ‘Chosen One’ films with a real hint of mystery?

On a different (though not entirely unrelated note), what explains Kantara‘s resounding success?

Is it its rootedness, as they like to say these days about the Pan-Indian movies from South India?

Or is it, on the contrary, that audiences outside the film’s home state, connected to the familiarity of the plot and the proceedings? (Not to mention the usual low-hanging fruit that conventional, commercial movies often have.)

While I can’t comment on how original or rooted Kantara is, the movie does feel authentic because the way in which many of the elements of the movie (the folksy sights and sounds of the rituals, the way the characters speak, and even the very ‘gait’ of the movie) join together.

I’m guessing that it is this spring in its step that keeps the film striding, in spite of all its issues (a villain who you can spot right away, a boring, righteous scold of a quasi-villain, all the clichés in the material).

Perhaps reasons for Kantara‘s success can also be found in why another South Indian film, seemingly different, doesn’t come across as entertaining. Padavettu is set in a land not too far from that of Kantara‘s, and one with similar rituals and customs too (Padavettuhas Theyyam, Kantara has Bhoota Kola).

Padavettu revolves around land and land ownership too, and also has for a villain a capitalist who can’t wait to swallow up the whole village (Shammi Thilakan, who is often filmed with close-ups of the back of his head to the camera, as if to allude to the titanic bald head of his great father).

This movie’s hero isn’t exactly a ‘Chosen One’ film (but then its casting choices don’t leave much to the imagination) but it too has a hero who just wouldn’t rise up to the occasion until he finally does (Nivin Pauly’s burly physique is meant to suggest this inertia, but on its own, it tells you about far more interesting, colourful stories outside the scope of this movie).

This movie too reeks of formula (Shammi Thilakan, for one, has no option other than to dole out a muted version of his own Balaraman Konark) but unlike Kantara, it only seems to move from static shot to static shot, and this ‘slowness’ makes its unoriginality all the more noticeable.

It is certainly a pretty film, but some of its photo-op like shots, like the ones with the camera booming over a set of farmers in a paddy field, seem to betray its politics — it is ostensibly a film for the farmers, but undoubtedly one in which almost none of the farmers have any real agency (The villagers in Kantara aren’t much better off, but even the stock comic characters are livelier figures).

Kantara thus, is at its best, either at its most unassuming (when the hero and the other characters are simply chilling) or when the plot stops in its tracks to give way to the rituals themselves. Even though these portions with the rituals have been shot with utmost respect and devotion, there is something still very lively and intense about how they’ve been shot — there is nothing dead or stale about them.

This is all the more amusing considering the fact that the Gods themselves (here pagan deities, Panjurli the boar god and Guliga) are the heroes of the film (As it is, the film is designed as a two-and-a-half-hour deus-ex-machina contraption, so it’s slightly puzzling how those enamored by the climax didn’t expect it at all).

Divinity and God have always been part of masala movies, but I can’t think of too many movies where God himself became the protagonist and the hero was relegated to being something of a deuteragonist.

You could say that it is this clarity of design that was found missing in other ‘Chosen One’ film. One that released almost two months ago and made the news for reasons right and wrong.

Yes, the VFX was fine (though its governing idea, so to speak, was only skin-deep, but more about that later).

Yes, the dialogues were rancid (and you’d be right to say that Hussain Dalal and Dharma Productions are repeat offenders when it comes to this).

The flimsiness of the material was also apparent when the characters played by actors no less than Shah Rukh Khan and Nagarjuna, turned out to be lousy at hiding an object of utmost importance (Either that, or there’s some higher subtext about the ‘fallibility of superheroes’ but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).

Bad enough that the characters’ powers and strength are rather sketchily defined, but at the root of this too was the fact that, for a universe of characters directly deriving their power from the Gods and the elements, there is no clear delineation of the relationship that these powerful beings shared with the all-powerful, omnipotent Gods above.

Truth be told, this hurts the antagonists by robbing them of any definition that they have, all the more so considering how they could have been the more interesting characters.

As it is, Dev and Junoon (Mouni Roy) do stand out, but that is more due to the promise they hold as characters in the future installments.

The makers still continue to defend this film to death but in their heart of hearts, they know that they needn’t do too much to make the sequel a better film, which would mean a film franchise that is recovering, and in turn, good news box office-wise. Even as the failure that it is, Brahmastra serves an important function.

In the spirit of that old quote about a thousand people walking into a movie and coming out with thousand different movies in their mind, the great thing about a failed-yet-fertile movie like Brahmastra is that the thousands who walked in to watch it did think up thousands of better movies by the time the movie was over, and at least one of those movies could be pressed into existence in the future.

As much as film critics like to talk about the ‘fall of Bollywood’ and ‘why Hindi films aren’t getting better’ in sentimental, faux-wistful, shrill and witless tones, the key to a better film just might lie hidden in the answer to a flippant question like ‘In the Brahmastra sequel, will Dev simply be someone with a God Complex, or someone interested in demons, their powers and their predilections?’

The above films, along with most ‘Chosen One’ films, hinge on the hero being ‘chosen’ for their abilities, some boons they were blessed with, or mostly, simply their lineage (Hello to the both of you, Star Wars and Harry Potter!) but in another relatively recent ‘Chosen One’ film, one that accrued acclaim worldwide, the protagonist was selected, precisely because she was a failure in all of her pursuits in life.

Everything, Everywhere, All At Once, in contrast with Kantara and Brahmastra, is a rather godless ‘Chosen One’ film, curiously so, considering it is the story of a first generation Chinese American woman with a conservative father.

Now while multiverses and creative universes are the trend today, it is interesting how Gods (and by God, I mean one with a slightly higher reverence-to-irreverence ratio than your average comic-book-based super being, and ones with an existing devotee base), faith and religion have had no real bearing on causes and effects in different realms of space and time (save for a few works of art, I guess).

Everything Everywhere hinges on a rather irreligious version of the Existentialism vs Nihilism debate. What the film falls short on is in properly dramatising this debate, and more importantly, spreading it fully across all the scenes in the movie, each of which seem to belong to a different genre.

The genre anarchy aspect of the film, which critics lauded, seems more like a cheerful version of a Coens-ian experiment, rather than the characters experiencing different scenarios and emotions organically.

That said, the movie is still good fun, with quite a few fluid, standout action sequences (Though there is doubt about whether this is relative excellence on the film’s part — after all, American comic-book movies have action sequences so inchoate, that anything else looks and feels better in comparison).

The movie that I was most reminded of while watching Kantara though was one that released 30 years ago.

Yoddha‘s importance in Indian film history comes mostly for academic reasons — thanks to it being AR Rahman’s second project, his first of only two (as of now) in Malayalam cinema, and his first with a collaborator other than Mani Ratnam.

After all these years, it stills stands out as a slightly unique album in Malayalam film music.

Sure, the song situations themselves are hardly new, and this is also hardly the first album to largely sustain a mischievous mood (You only need to turn to Siddique-Lal movies to find something similar from contemporaries, leave alone something older).

That said, there still is something fresh about this album’s brand of naughtiness and playfulness. We hear it in Kunukune (one of the few songs where Sujatha Mohan sings in a tone different from her usually sprightly, little-girl voice) and we even hear it in Mampoove, which doesn’t feature in the film.

But let’s talk about the biggie.

Believers attribute the appeal of prayer songs to devotion and divinity, while atheists cite music and phonetics for reasons.

That said, what explains the appeal of a prayer song that, on a casual hearing, merely sounds like a string of discordant, dissonant onomatopoeic words but is also fun to chant out?

Even though a good number of Malayalees might only know the first word and a few of the interjectional sounds of the song correctly, it still enjoys its status as a fondly remembered song.

Rahman did well to suggest a certain fullness of arrangement and even a certain grandeur (even though it isn’t a song with beat-to-beat orchestration), and lyricist Bichu Thirumala masterfully locates the song’s pulse in the tension between its dual identities: as a hymn as well as a war-of-words set to music (He wanted the lyrics to be flaky but not meaningless).

Even so, what he wrote as ‘porkali’margini‘ among the many synonyms of Kali that he chose, a lot of us heard and still rememb>r as ‘pokkiri makkiri‘, nonsensical words).

This tension turns into one between self-love, a benign sense of scorn for the opponent and devotion for the Goddess.

This then became a competition of diction between singers K J Yesudas and M G Sreekumar, and, of course, the cherry on top was the battle of clowning that Mohanlal and Jagathy Sreekumar indulged in — one of quite a few pieces-de-resistance in a comic duet that came pretty close on the heels of another memorable one the previous year in Kilukkam.

Rahman’s score endures (all the more so since it didn’t have to bear the weight of prestige) as an eclectic mix of temple instruments (like the edakka and the kombu), sounds of Buddhist and Nepalese culture, very synth-like sounds and even cuckoo clocks, so much that it is very much a staple of meme videos and satirical news programmes.

The film, said to be an unofficial remake of the 1986 Eddie Murphy film The Golden Child, largely exists as a mix of the aforementioned comic duel between Mohanlal and Jagathy, and the ‘Chosen One’ trope (a supposedly pantheistic one, where a Hindu is destined to be the savior of a Rimpoche).

Screenwriter Sasidharan Arattuvazhi (who’d go on write rather enjoyable trifles like Vardhakyapuranam, Pidakkozhi Koovunna Noottaandu, and the Malayalam remake of Gol Maal) seems relatively more inspired in the former sections, but even with all the convenient occurrences, and given the general preposterousness of it all, the latter parts are also pretty tightly plotted.

(I’m guessing by now I’ve overshot by far, the point where you asked, ‘Enough with the Malayali pride, how is all this connected to Kantara in the first place?’)

Like Brahmastra, Yoddha too has forces of Good and Evil pitted against each other (here, it’s a Buddhist monastery versus a group of black magicians and their thugs), but what the film has similar to Kantara are those earlier, rather comic portions, where a protagonist destined for great things is content behaving like the usual mainstream hero, wasting time lording over other insignificant characters.

Both these movies get their buzz from such sequences, and later in both movies, the protagonists are thrust into testing situations (including love).

That said, let’s take a look at what else endures in Yoddha (which as far as I know, made more waves once it started making the rounds in the television circuit): Mohanlal saying ‘Othiram, kadakam‘ before a fight, and Ashokan and Rimpoche calling each other Unnikkuttaa and Akkasotto aside, the dialogues that Malayalis remember the most come from the Arasshumoottil household.

For example, not just most of Jagathy’s punchlines but also the late Meena as his mother saying: ‘Let Ashokan stay tired while playing’ (apologies in advance since the translation isn’t up to the mark) and even the great Oduvil Unnikrishnan pronouncing the word ‘Mon‘ (meaning Son) in an exaggerated manner.

We remember Yoddha today mostly through those scenes that keep playing on a loop in comedy segments on TV and on YouTube, like the chess scene and the ones with Jagathy lost in Nepal.

Isn’t it amusing that in a movie with the ‘Chosen One’ trope, one that prizes ability and prowess above everything else, the characters that we remember the most are the talentless, graceless underachievers?

In other words, as much as we enjoy and write reams and reams about our amazement at the Kantara climax, 30 years on from now, will we remember these portions more fondly or the ones where Shiva is simply hanging out with his friends?

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