Why an FIR has been lodged against actor Chetan

Since its release on September 30, the kannada movie Kantara has received positive reviews and became the highest rated Indian film in the online movie database IMDB with a rating of 9.3 out of 10. Commercially, the film also impresses, earning almost Rs 200 crores.

Lately, however, it has been at the center of controversy. Several complaints were filed against actor and activist Chetan in Karnataka over his statements about a cultural practice depicted in the film, and on Saturday (October 22), Bengal Police registered a case against him under Section 505 (2) of the Indian Penal Code (statements making or promoting enmity, hatred or ill will between classes). Police registered a case after Shiva Kumar, Bajarang Dal Covenant of Bengaluru North, filed a complaint.

Here’s what you need to know about the controversy.

What is the movie? Kantara about?

Kannada actor and director Rishab Shetty is starring in the film which has been dubbed in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam.

The fictional story is inspired by the shared relationship between forests and people and is set over almost two centuries. In 1847, a king seeking peace of mind finds himself in a forest, where he miraculously finds it in the form of Panjurli, a divine spirit who protects the forest and its inhabitants. He then asks the forest dwellers to let Panjurli go home with him, and in turn grants them rights over the forest lands.

The film then moves to the 1990s, when a forest ranger wants to declare the forest a ‘reserve forest’, a bureaucratic term that the residents are usually unfamiliar with. Meanwhile, a descendant of the king has become the ‘landlord’ of the forest inhabitants and Shetty plays their unofficial young leader. Shetty is also a descendant of the family who traditionally perform ‘Bhoota Kola’, an animistic form of worship widely practiced on the coast of Karnataka. The current issue concerns Bhoota Kola.

What is Bhoota Kola?

Bhoota Kola is an annual ritual performance where local spirits or gods are worshipped. It is believed that a person performing the ritual has temporarily become a god himself. This artist is both feared and respected in the community and is believed to provide answers to people’s problems on behalf of the god. There are several ‘Bhootas’ worshiped in the Tulu-speaking belt of Dakshina Kannada, Uttara Kannada and Udupi districts. It is usually performed in small local communities and in rural areas.

What is the controversy about?

During an interview, Rishab Shetty said that the practice of Bhoota Kola was part of Hindu culture. “It is part of Hindu culture and rituals. I am a Hindu and I believe in my religion and customs that no one can question. What we have said is through the element present in the Hindu dharma.”

However, actor-turned-activist Chetan Kumar said that Bhoota Kola is not part of the Hindu tradition but of indigenous people who are Adivasis, and that it was “hijacked” by Aryans who came to India in the later years.

In a tweet, Chetan said: “Glad that our Kannada film ‘Kantara’ is making national waves. Director Rishab Shetty claims that Bhoota Kola is ‘Hindu culture’. False. Our Pambada/Nalike/Parawa’s Bahujan traditions predate Vedic-Brahmin Hinduism. We ask that Moolnivasi cultures be shown with truth on and off the screen.”

Chetan has long spoken on socio-cultural issues and is a familiar face in welfare movements for farmers, workers, Dalits and Adivasi. He has spoken for the rehabilitation of victims of endosulfan poisoning (2013), securing homes for tribes displaced from Kodagu, Karnataka (2016) and, more recently, for separate religious status for Lingayats. In February this year, Chetan was arrested for his alleged remarks against a Karnataka Supreme Court judge who heard the hijab in school affairs.

“The land of Karnataka has its own culture, tradition and history even before the Hindu religion started. Bhoota Kola and other practices are part of the Adivasi culture and have been around for thousands of years,” he added. Rishab Shetty commented, “No comment. I shouldn’t comment. When I made this film, the people who practiced this culture were with me and I’ve been very careful. I’m from the same part and know about it. But yet I don’t want to comment on it, because only people who perform it have the right to speak.”

What were the reactions to these statements?

Chetan has been criticized for his statement from many quarters, especially from right-wing Hindu activists.

Sri Rama Sene Chief Pramod Muthalik said that: Kantara represents Hindu culture and tradition. ‘Chetan does not know the culture and tradition of the country. He is an atheist and a communist. He is one of those “intellectuals” who criticize the culture of the country. He is trying to spoil the peace of society,” he added.

However, Chetan also received support from Dalit organizations. Dalit leader and former mayor of Mysuru City Corporation Purushothama said at a press conference that Dalit and backward communities were behind Chetan. Also, Kannada writer KS Bhagwan said in Mysuru on Saturday that worship is not part of the culture but that it was introduced by Aryans who came from Central Asia 3500 years ago and then the Vedic culture emerged as well. He said, “Chetan is right that native or original descendants did not practice Bhoota Kola, but only started after the Vedic practices entered India.”

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