Cast: Puneeth Rajkumar, Amoghavarsha
There’s always this bittersweet feeling when you watch a film starring actors who passed on before the film’s release. For one, seeing them on the wide screen is a reminder of how fragile and fickle life can get. Second, the dialogues play on in your mind long after the end credits, and take on different meanings, because you know what happened post shooting and pre-release.
Something very similar happens with Gandhada Gudi, directed by Amoghavarsha. The film is a journey that Amogh and the late Puneeth Rajkumar undertook, just a year before the star’s untimely demise. Their journey began on October 29, 2020, and traverses chosen spots in Karnataka, some of which hold special significance for Puneeth and some of which are a revelation.
The 98-minute film, superbly shot and edited by Prateek Shetty, comes with a foreword by Ashwini Puneeth Rajkumar that moved most at the premiere show to tears. The film is Puneeth’s swan song, the last bit of himself he had to give his fans who were as dear to him as life. And, that’s exactly how one should view Gandhada Gudi.
Amoghavarsha’s previous documentary Wild Karnataka (2019) earned a lot of praise for how it showcased the State and its wildlife, but also a wee bit of criticism that asked the questions: Where are the people? What about the people? Gandhada Gudi seems like an answer to those questions. In the six places — Nagarhole, Gajanur, BRT Tiger Reserve, Netrani Islands, Malenadu and the Deccan (Vijayanagara, Ballari) — Puneeth visits with Amoghavarsha, nature is in the starring role, but backing her are humans — the forest watcher, the anti-poaching officers, the shepherd family, the expert snake rescuer… All of them bat for her, ensure she stays safe. And the duo meets all of them.
Those who’ve interacted with Puneeth know what a warm person he is, someone who wore fame very lightly. This film is a treat for them. It is also a fabulous introduction of Puneeth to a larger audience in places where people don’t know him, and will yet be charmed by his easy presence.
Puneeth bares his insecurities, his fears and recalls his days as a child actor. The film Bhakta Prahlada (1983), in which he was a child star, left him with two fears — of elephants and snakes. “I can still feel the breath of the snake they wound around my neck. And I used to be terrified, but thanks to you and having watched two-three snakes now [in Malenadu], I’m about 30 per cent more confident,” he says, and even witnesses the rescue and release of a 15-ft majestic king cobra. He’s also fascinated by the majesty and ephemeral nature of Jog Falls.
In the same film, there’s a scene where a young Prahlada is being approached by elephants. “It took so long to shoot, the minute the elephants came near, I would run away. I was terrified,” he recalls. But then, Puneeth’s face turns child-like when he sights an elephant herd by the waterhole. He’s charmed by the langurs and their facial expressions and by how utterly fascinating a life the bears lead without televisions and cell phones to entertain them.
The Gajanur segment, where Puneeth takes Amoghavarsha to the home where his father and matinee idol Rajkumar was born and the nearly 250-year-old banyan tree he loved, slept under and sometimes meditated at, offers an intimate other-side of the life of a star. This is also the place from where Rajkumar was kidnapped by Veerappan and released after more than a 100 days in captivity.
Amid nature, Puneeth is philosophical, almost wistful in his thinking. He ponders about life, about the timelessness of the forest, about the eternal nature of water. And none of it seems forced or put on, thanks to the fact that Puneeth is both eager questioner and active listener. And, what Amoghavarsha does in this film is almost help the star tick off every item on his nature bucket list, including camping by the Kali river, and relishing ready-to-eat food boiled in hot water. It is mighty poignant that the film releases a day before Puneeth’s first death anniversary.
“I’ve always wanted to camp in a tent, but never had the opportunity or a friends’ circle interested in it. Know what I did? I erected a tent in my garden and spent a night there,” Puneeth laughs.
Everyone knows Puneeth is a people person, but the fact that he’s at ease in any surrounding is evident in the section in the forest, where he spends time with members of an anti-poaching camp and forest watchers and guards in the BRT Tiger Reserve. They go together for an early morning recce, play a round of Kotyadhipati [the show he hosted] by a stream, and go to chase an elephant that has entered a farm.
Near Murdeshwar, at Netrani island, shaped like a heart, instructor Mariyam takes Puneeth and Amogh on a dive. They see a multitude of colourful marine life, and also plastic bottles and fishing nets settled on the ocean floor. When he emerges from the water, Puneeth looks a different person — there’s a certain calm in his face and the quiet acknowledgement that he’s been gifted the chance to experience a journey like this.
In Malenadu, when they’re going about in the evergreen forest teeming with life and snakes, Puneeth asks, “We’ll reach safely no? I have three films to complete, and my wife and kids are waiting.” Death is inevitable and cannot be questioned, but his seems so unfair.
In the Deccan, Puneeth speaks about how Uttara (North) Karnataka is very close to his heart, and how much love he’s received from the people there. There, Amoghavarsha and Puneeth swim in the Kali, bathed golden by sunset, walk in the scrub jungle and climb rocks. They visit a family of nomadic shepherds and share a meal with them, and speak about living with the threat of predators around. “They [the predators] are like our siblings. They always travel with us. Yes, they take a sheep or two, but they have to eat too,” the couple, who live in sync with nature, tells Puneeth.
And then, they travel to Patagudi, a village with nine homes and 50 members. Here, Puneeth is most at ease — barring a few, no one knows or recognises him. He spends time with the children, recites the Kuvempu poem ‘Elladharu Iru’, and goes to the birthplace of the Kali with the villagers. There, Amoghavarsha says that he realised who is a hero. A universal human.
The film has music by Ajaneesh Loknath and audiography by MR Rajakrishnan. It’s possibly the last chance to see Puneeth up close and personal, and it’s bittersweet, but it is a gift of himself Puneeth has left behind.