Director: Raj B. Shetty
Writer: Raj B. Shetty
Cast: Gopalkrishna Deshpande, Raj B. Shetty, Rishab Shetty
Cinematographer: Praveen Shriyan
Editor: Praveen Shriyan
The first visual in the Kannada film Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana is a shot of a hand stuck out of a car window. Someone is trying to wash blood off his hands in the pouring rain. Blood is a recurring motif in the film – men kill each other with impunity. In one scene, the camera lingers on a paperweight covered in blood. It has been used to bash a man's head in. In another, blood seeps toward a paan lying on the ground – the man who ordered it was killed before he could put it in his mouth. This is the hellish world of gangsters in Mangaluru, a world almost entirely devoid of women. Here, criminals play a deadly game of hide and seek with each other and with the cops.
The material isn't new but writer-director and lead actor Raj B. Shetty reworks gangster movie tropes into a gripping, suspenseful saga of crime and punishment with mythical underpinnings. The title alludes to the vehicles of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. The two main characters are named Hari, another name for Vishnu, and Shiva. Hari and Shiva aren't brothers but their bond seems even deeper. Hari's mother adopted Shiva, who grows up to be Hari's fearsome shadow. You remember Hathoda Tyagi from Paatal Lok – Shiva is essentially his brother-from-another-mother. A man so brutalised and tortured that he has become wholly desensitised to violence. A man with a guttural, primal rage that enables him to kill without hesitation or conscience. The first time we see Shiva let loose, it's truly terrifying. He is a destroyer in every sense of the word.
And yet, we come to care for him. Raj plays Shiva with a singular mix of deadened eyes and childlike innocence. His affection and loyalty to Hari is unconditional. When he's not spreading mayhem, he's playing cricket with his gang. Shiva is a murderer but there is a purity to his actions. Hari, played by a superb Rishab Shetty, is less admirable. He is hypocritical and an opportunist who finally only serves himself. The third in the triangle is the character of Brahmayya, played by Gopalkrishna Deshpande. Brahmayya is a cop who gets transferred to Mangaluru and is tasked with the seemingly impossible job of toppling Shiva and Hari.
But Brahmayya, the Brahma figure who completes the holy trinity, is no super cop. This isn't Singham in Shivgarh. There is a devastating scene in which we see Brahmayya break down because he has no idea how to stop Shiva and Hari. Their power is so absolute that they can even kill cops without fear of retribution. The frame is crowded with characters but Raj has etched even the minor ones with care. Take Brahmayya's wife – we see her once and later only hear her conversations with him. And yet, the tiredness in her voice gives us a sense of her life and her longing to have Brahmayya home again.
Raj is meticulous in his staging and details. In one scene, you will spot a toothbrush and toothpaste on Brahmayya's desk, suggesting that he spends nights at the police station. A conversation about how heavy a cricket bat is has a bearing on the climax. The tightly plotted story is rooted in local culture – there is a stunning sequence involving the Tiger Dance that takes place during Dussehra. DOP Praveen Shriyan exploits the sharp greens and gloomy skies, giving us a keen sense of the place. The film is also a masterclass in how to use slow motion. Raj and Praveen employ it often but not in that routine way to underline heroism and swag. Here it becomes a tool for suspense and horror.
Early in the film, there is a sequence in which Hari, as a child, is playing outside while his mother slices fish. It's a scene of ordinary domesticity but the action keeps alternating between high speed and normal, establishing a sense of mystery, dread and something momentous that is about to happen. Slow motion is also used very effectively to establish a running thread about shoes. Sneakers become the stuff of nightmares. And keep an eye out for a superbly done montage of Shiva and his footwear. The other highlight is Midhun Mukundan's evocative background score.
In 2017, Raj wrote, directed and acted in Ondu Motteya Kathe, an insightful and bittersweet film about a young man dealing with premature balding. That film was leagues ahead of Bollywood's attempts to portray the trauma of hair loss – namely Bala and Ujda Chaman. But with Garuda Gamana, Raj takes a massive leap as a storyteller. There are long, wordless stretches in the film that work like visual poetry – especially the Tiger Dance sequence – which establish Raj's precise control over his craft. The only jarring note is a labored connection that the film tries to make between Shiva and a dog. But it's a minor quibble.
Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana is a riveting portrait of male bonding and an eloquent, violent plea against violence. It's playing at a theatre near you. Find it and keep your mask on.