Mata, directed by Venshi Ravindra, is coming out at a time when a few religious Matas (monasteries) in Karnataka are in the news for all the wrong reasons. The Karnataka government is embroiled in a major controversy after the seer of a prominent monastery accused the government of taking 30% of the commission from religious institutions and monasteries for releasing funds.
Despite Matas occupying the social narrative of present-day life in Karnataka for the past few decades, filmmakers are wary of touching this sensitive subject fearing backlash. However, Guruprasad, a noted filmmaker took a critical look at the Matas in 2006 and titled his film Mata with an ensemble cast that included Jaggesh, Vaijanath Biradar, Mandya Ramesh, and others. This sixteen-year-old film is about the attempts by a few youths to become pontiff of Sri Mata, whose existing seer renounces his seat to enjoy worldly pleasures. Guruprasad’s Mata is a critical and clinical critique of the prevailing monastery system. Besides getting favourable reviews from both audiences and critics alike, the film fared well at the box office too.
There is no semblance between that film and this Mata, which hit the screens today. Audiences, who watch this film with Guruprasad’s work in mind are sure to get disappointed.
Ravindra’s Mata is based on real incidents as recorded by lead actor Santhosh Davanagere, who after criss-crossing Karnataka on his two-wheeler, covers over 5000 villages and visits 5216 Matas, collecting information on their heritage and history. He learns about the Matas’ internal conflicts for power and property, the selfishness of a few seers and their misdeeds, and how politicians had managed to use them to meet their own ends. He documented his observation in Mata Margadarshana and the film is based on this voluminous work.
Ravindra’s Mata can be included under the category of ‘Mata tourism’, but it doesn’t glorify their legacy. It does underline the importance of Matas in the progression of society. Unfortunately, while projecting the social work undertaken by some of the great Matas of Karnataka, the filmmaker has made a preachy film that fails to look at the system through a clinical lens.
Had the director stumbled a bit, the film would have turned out to be a documentary on Matas. The story seems like just an excuse for this filmmaker to tell whatever he ‘studied’ about the Matas of Karnataka, and the film progresses only through the narration by the protagonist. The only relief is some sketchy scenes created with the support of comedy actors Sadhu Kokila and Raju Talikote.
The story is akin to a tele-serial. The film opens with the government announcing the release of funds for religious Matas. A powerful and greedy politician gets involved. Santosh’s father, who is the trustee of the existent Mata, leaves home in search of the pontiff who has been in isolated penance for 20 years. Before leaving, he cautions his son Santosh against speaking about the Mata. Understanding the misdeeds of her husband, Santosh’s wife decides to desert him and leaves to live with her parents. A guilt-ridden Santosh then embarks on his epic journey, and after 597 days of travelling across the region and meeting pontiffs of various Matas, he understands the legacy that his association with the politician ruined. How Santosh manages to reclaim the glory of the Mata forms the rest of the story.
The filmmaker tests the patience of the audience with statements that need more substantiation. The silver lining is that we get a free tour of some religious Matas in Karnataka. Further, Mata would have succeeded in achieving its intentions a bit had the director added to the subject by touching upon the incident of Muruga Mata seer, who allegedly sexually abused girls, the Bande Mata seer suicide case, or the other cases that were reported from Udupi Matas.
The music and the visuals lack impact as well. Despite having notable actors like Guruprasad, Mandya Ramesh, Vaijanath Biradar, and Tabla Nani, the film squanders its potential by not including them in the main narrative. They appear only in a preachy song that ends the film with a message. Even Santhosh Davanagere, who plays the leading role, fails to impress.
Mata is currently running in theatres