Updated: Jan 22
The writer-actor-filmmaker demystifies the process behind the art
If there’s one 2022 movie that has done the unthinkable, it has to be Kantara.
It’s no mean feat to be a regional-only film and go so viral that the entire country wanted it dubbed in multiple languages.
Kantara now boasts a worldwide box-office collection of more than INR 400 crore in 5+ languages. It has become the second-highest-grossing Kannada movie of all time (the first being K.G.F: Chapter 2, also from the same year).
It just didn’t stop there. Netflix acquired the folk thriller’s Hindi version for an undisclosed but definitely whopping amount, giving it a wider showcasing opportunity. Kantara (Hindi) released on the OTT platform on 9 December 2022. You can watch it here. The film is available in its original language, Kannada, plus Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam, on Amazon Prime Video; click here to stream.
For a movie made on a relatively minuscule budget of INR 16 crore, these are unbelievable stats. Surely, it’s the film’s content (especially its out-of-this-world climax) that has resonated with the masses. My theory, on the other hand, is that Rishab Shetty—the movie’s writer, director, and lead actor—has always been equated with quality cinema everywhere. We were just waiting for him to bring out his next theatrical. What happened with Kantara, while incredible, was also inevitable.
So, if you’re a screenwriter/storyteller, you simply cannot miss out on Shetty’s secret recipe for an uber-successful blockbuster. The filmmaker has dished out these ingredients in an interview with Film Companion’s Anupama Chopra. I’ve laid them out for you in an easy-to-read format. Do let me know in the comments how they have helped you in any way.
Tell rooted stories
Just like how SS Rajamouli’s time-tested advice, “Art should lead the commerce,” should be framed on your wall, so should Shetty’s now-famous quip, “More regional is more universal.”
Region-specific stories are surprisingly more relatable. “Aise kuch rituals doosre roop mein Bharat ke har kone mein hain,” he says. “Sab log ka belief ek hi hai.” (“Rituals similar to those shown in Kantara exist in other parts of India. We all have the same beliefs.”)
Shetty offers another practical reason for telling rooted stories. “Audiences are getting updated faster than storytellers as they consume content on various OTT platforms. Storytellers, on the other hand, work on the same story for years.” By opting for rooted stories that are unavailable on any platform, storytellers, therefore, are guaranteed to bring something fresh to viewers. And people tend to like anything that’s new.
Do your research
Shetty says he properly understood the dos and don’ts of executing the Daiva scream in Kantara to avoid controversies of any kind.
“Yeh sab (maine) real Kola mein dekha tha. Woh jo Daiva, woh jo spirit aane ke baad jo energy hota hai, woh (maine) dekha tha ... (Phir) jo yeh karte hain, unse help leke, yeh sab (kiya).” (“I’ve heard those screams and felt the spiritual energy in real-life Kola performances. Those observations helped, along with inputs by Kola performers.”) That’s how Shetty’s actions came out perfectly in the film.
Applying Shetty’s method, narrate your story to people to see how they respond to it. Watch their expressions.
“Kidhar-kidhar bore ho raha hai, yeh sab samajh mein aayega.” (“You’ll see if they’re getting bored at any point.”)
The old-school way of dictating a story to another writer and making them read it back also helps you get a better idea about it.
Visualise your story
“Floor (pe) jaane ke liye poori picture mujhe visualise (honi) chahiye. Woh visuals hi mujhe push (karte hain) ki story aise jaana (chahiye ya waise) ... Woh free flow mein chhod deta hoon main. Usko main force nahin karta hoon.” (“Before my film goes on the floors, I need to have it visualised. These visuals guide me on whether a story needs to move in a certain direction or another. I let serendipity dictate the process. I don’t force it.”)
Shetty adds that he sometimes doesn’t need the actual screenplay on set, except for dialogue.
To sum it up, thinking in visuals is important for your screenwriting, whether you use storyboards or simply imagine them in your head. They’re truly indispensable if you want to make a movie like Kantara that breaks all box-office-collection records.
“I don’t take ‘It’s not possible’ as an answer. I push my people to make the film happen,” says the writer, director, and actor.
Observe what’s going on around you
“I don’t read much. I don’t study much. Main ek below-average student tha. Main duniya ko dekhta hoon, society ko dekhta hoon—idhar kya ho raha hai, kaise ho raha hai.” (“I was below-average in studies. I observe the real world and society—what’s happening, how it’s happening.”)
This approach, Shetty says, helps keep your story realistic.
He adds that all stories already exist in nature in some form. “What is new in nature? We’re simply recreating whatever exists. My story isn’t anything new either. The (unique culture depicted) sets it apart and gives it depth and solidity.”
Be receptive to feedback
“Bad film hota hai ego se. Agar hum log ego (ko) baahar rakhke ek film ke liye kaam (karte hain), to ek achha product (banta hai).” (“A bad film is the result of one’s ego. If we keep our egos aside while working on a film, we get a good end product.”)
Be open to criticism, and don’t get offended when your friends and well-wishers give it to you. Read these tips to interpret feedback well.
Don’t lecture your viewers
“Audiences pay to watch your movies for entertainment,” Shetty says. “Don’t bore them with a message. They’ll get pissed.”
Given Kantara’s out-of-the-world box-office collection, it all makes sense.
Tap into your inner muse
Remember Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous TED talk on your “elusive creative genius”? (If you don’t, watch it here, along with 6 other inspiring TED and TEDx talks.) That’s similar to what Shetty channels, too, while writing his films.
He mentions a mysterious push—a positive force and external energy—that made him write and complete Kantara. “That energy has transferred onto the screen,” he says.
It’s important to give your thinking mind a break and write down a story as your muse dictates it. “I don’t think much. I go with the flow,” concurs Shetty.
Get it out anyhow
“When I think of a story, I don’t hold back. I make it happen,” Shetty says. “I lack patience that way.”
Here’s the full interview: