Cover: Rishab Shetty lets us in on why he chose cinema to bring socio-political issues to the forefront

In a candid conversation, the actor lets us in on his traditions, love for his hometown and more. 

Srushti Kulkarni Published :  23rd December 2022 12:00 AM   |   Published :   |  23rd December 2022 12:00 AM

Rishab Shetty

Earlier this year, audiences were introduced to the ritualistic tradition of bhuta kola. We’re talking of course of the second highest-grossing Kannada movie of all time — Kantara, A Legend. In no time, both Kantara and its creator, Rishab Shetty, were making waves across the nation. He is among the most sought-after actors and filmmakers in the country and has turned heads and brought Kannada cinema into focus, thanks to his narratives that spotlight regional tales and address several unspoken socio-political issues. 

Born in Keradi, Udupi, the artiste, would actively participate in yakshagana plays and other theatrical productions while pursuing his education in Bengaluru. While working several odd jobs, from a watercan seller to a driver, he acquired a diploma in film direction from the Government Film and TV Institute and thus began his journey. From starting as a clap boy and spot boy to becoming an assistant director and filmmaker, Rishab’s roller-coaster ride to success involved a mix of talent, effort and the help of a few good friends. During his initial days in the film industry, he made friends with Rakshit Shetty, who gave the actor a key role in his directorial film Ulidavaru Kandante

In 2016, Shetty made his directorial debut with Ricky (film) and also directed the acclaimed movie Kirik Party, both of which starred Rakshit as the lead. Kirik Party was Rishab’s first commercial success, thanks to its refreshing plotline that addresses subjects like dealing with the death of a dear one, the position of sex workers in society and more. He won the South Indian International Movie Awards for Best Director – Kannada for the film.  

A couple of years later, he wrote, directed and produced a socio-political comedy film titled Sarkari Hi. Pra. Shaale, which later won the ‘Best Children’s Film’ title at the 66th National Film Awards. Set in Kasaragod, the film is centred around a Kannada-medium government-run middle and high school, which the corrupt government officials are hell-bent on closing due to its geographical location and the area’s affinity for the Malayalam language. 

Adding another feather to his cap, in 2019, he made his acting debut as Detective Divakara in the comedy crime drama Bell Bottom. Then came, Kantara! Breaking all records, the film made under the banner of Hombale films collected over 450 crores at the box office. Written, and directed by Rishab and produced by Vijay Kirgandur, the action drama set in the fictional forest of Kantara, portrays a conflict between nature and humans. The film sheds light on  the centuries-old tradition of bhuta kola, which is practised in various parts of Karnataka even today. 

The fictional period drama follows Shiva, a kambala  (buffalo racing) champion and the son of a bhuta kola practitioner, who is plagued by visions of the deity. Shetty, who plays the lead role in the film, was widely appreciated for his performance, especially in the climax scene. Post its success in Karnataka, the film was released in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Tulu and Hindi.

In a candid conversation, the actor lets us in on his traditions, love for his hometown and more: 

Tell us about your journey so far and how you came to be a part of the cinema industry.
Ever since I was a child, I have always been a movie buff. I come from a theatre  background and started performing yakshagana when I was in the class six. Before I forayed into films, I earned money by selling mineral water and used that to watch movies. For a brief period, I even went to Mumbai to act. I had assumed that no one would give me an opportunity because I had no background, or connections and belonged to a middle-class family. 

According to you, what are some of the milestones of your career? 
I don’t particularly regard anything as a milestone when it comes to my career or life. I don’t set goals, I just take whatever comes my way and am happy with  it. I just want to make more movies and I am not the kind of a person who considers accomplishments as success. 

What trends do you notice in cinemas right now and what are some changes that you would like to see in the industry?
I see cinema as a pure form of storytelling. I watch films from the perspective of the audience, so there is no trend as such nor is there anything that I would like to change.

Kantara, although set a few years back in time, resonates with the audience of today. What pointers did you take into account to make your movie relevant to the modern day? 
I always say regional stories are universal stories! We all might be divided by language, region and religion but every region and religion in India has a similar belief, a similar tradition that we all can relate to. In Kantara, we have tried to showcase that regional aspect by centering the film around the tradition of bhuta kola. Moreover, this film is the story of my village, it is something I witnessed growing up. I just presented it on screen.

In your wildest dreams, did you ever imagine that you would one day grow up and make a global hit around your childhood home? 
I imagined the story of Kantara keeping Keradi in mind. It felt like an apt place to shoot since it has a very ’80s/’90s vibe. My hometown still reminds me of my childhood and doesn’t feel very different even though the film became a hit. I always had the vision to make a film here and am happy it happened. I wanted to film Sarkari Hi. Pra. Shaale here too but Kasaragod was the better choice when you look at the narrative.

Be it Kantara, Kirik Party or Sarkari Hi. Pra. Shaale, all your movies address topics like Kannada education, the life of sex workers and regional traditions. What makes you pick such issues? 
I am a person who doesn’t read much. I was a below-average student even in school and college. I study and learn from society and its people, and I try to bring their stories the forefront in the form of a film.  

How challenging is it to weave social concepts into your narratives and initiate a dialogue about things that need to change in our society?
When I am making a film, I don’t begin by keeping a set of concepts in mind. When a certain idea clicks in my mind, they push me to pursue it and I do. I usually don’t directly address a cause or a problem but blend it with the narrative because I feel that those issues are relevant to what I am trying to convey.  

Tell us about your social work and other initiatives.
The best way I communicate is through cinemas. Movies help me express mythoughts and certain socio-political subjects I want to showcase. The initiatives I take  to help others are not something I would like to share because it is an act that’s done from the heart and not something that’s done to be disclosed to the world. 

Apart from the narrative and the regional aspects of Kantara, the character arc of Shiva intrigued everyone. What was your inspiration?
The character Shiva is inspired by various people and their personalities from my village. Every wrong step that he takes works towards making him a completely  changed man by the end of the film. That’s the character arc we were aiming for. You can also notice a generational gap in the films, that portray how strongly different generations believe in Panjurli (the boar spirit diety). All these minute elements like simple observations add weightage to his character. 

Your introductory scene is a crowd-favourite. How did you train for the buffalo race scene? 
Kambala is my family tradition, but I had never attempted it before because I wasn’t brave enough back then. It had remained on my bucket list for a long time and when Kantara happened, I had to put my fears behind me and do it. It was scary when I attempted it for the first time but after a fall or two, I got the hang of it. I trained for about a month before shooting the sequence. 

On a lighter note... most of your films glorify friendship. In Kantara, it was riding bikes together and hunting. Off-screen, how do spend time with your friends?
There is hardly any difference from how I am portrayed on screen. Around 25 years ago, my friends 
and I used to venture out with the rest of the people from my village whenever they chose to go hunting because we were very curious about what they do on these expeditions. The characters I present on screen are nothing but a representation of my real-life friends. The bond I share with my friends is casual and humorous as seen in my films. 

In the film, you are portrayed as a hard-core non-vegetarian. What kind of a lifestyle do you lead in reality?
I come from the coastal part of Karnataka, so naturally, I love fish. Only when there is a puja at home, 
I stay away from non-veg. But I decided to go on a vegetarian diet for a month when I was training to 
perform bhuta kola for the film, because of my religious beliefs. 

Would you say you have found your signature style of filmmaking?
If you look at all the films I have done to date, they all belong to different genres and categories. I don’t want to restrict myself to a particular genre or style of making films. I want to explore all kinds of genres and stories. 

Do you believe in lady luck? 
Of course, I do. My mother and sister have always been by my side. After I married Pragati, my life took a different turn. She came on board when I had nothing in my life and now everything has changed. And the meaning of lady luck changed completely post the birth of my daughter. I credit everything I am today to these women. 

Who has left a lasting impression on you?
There are a lot. From Ambarish sir to Yash and more. All of them have inspired me in different ways.