Director: Raj B Shetty
Cast: Raj B Shetty, Rishab Shetty, Gopalkrishna Deshpande, Deepak Rai Panaje
Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana is directed by Raj B. Shetty who earlier made the wonderful Ondu Motteya Kathe. In that film, he proved that he was a wonderful writer and actor as well. He took a rom-com situation and made it an anti-rom-com with a strain of sadness. In this film, he takes a time tested cops vs criminal story and finds new dimensions and newer ways to express it. In other words, he proves that he is a genuine filmmaker as well as a very good director.
I’ll give you a few scenes that I really like but first let’s look at the story and the cast. Rishab Shetty plays a character named Hari, Raj B. Shetty, the director, plays a character named Shiva. These mythological names are no accident. A third character, a cop, is named Bramhaiah, and he’s played by Gopal Deshpande. In short, here’s a gangster movie with the names of the trimurti as the vertices of a hate triangle, so to speak.
Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana is set in Mangaluru and even the costumes make this very clear. Hari is adorned with a lot of jewels like the representations of Vishnu, and he is surrounded by wealth or goddess of wealth, Lakshmi. Shiva, on the other hand, doesn’t care about money at all and he dresses and lives like a hermit. The god’s tiger skin is literalized through a tiger dance during the Dussehra festival.
Now that we have laid out the story, premise, cast and characters, let me explain a few of the scenes that I really liked. The first one occurs in a police station. Shiva and Hari are now grownups. They are criminals who have walked into a police station to intimidate the cops. When they leave after that, we switch to slow motion. This is right of masala movie tradition where you show the heroes walking away in style and in this case, the anti-heroes walking away in style. Slow motion seems not such a big deal, right? But there’s a reason for the slow motion, because as Hari and Shiva go outside the police station the camera follows them, in other words we are following them, we see Shiva stop. He raises his lungi and the camera drops down and takes a look at his footwear, which will play a big part in the movie. The slow motion is leading to this and is not just a stylish walking away thing.
There are a lot of such shots in this movie and I’ll give you another fantastic scene where this technique is used beautifully. At first, there is a wide shot where we see a very young Hari playing and at a distance his mother is slicing fish. Then we shift to the mother doing a very ordinary routine job or slicing fish to prepare food. Suddenly there’s a shift between slow motion and normal and you realize there’s something to this pattern because she’s being distracted by some thought. Maybe she’s being drawn by some kind of power. Sure enough, she cleans her hands and walks towards, almost as if something is guiding her, to a well nearby. I won’t say more but that this well, or this hole in the ground, serves as both a womb and a depiction of hell. It marks someone’s birth in this movie while telling us what his character is going to be like. That is what I meant when I said this is no ordinary cops vs criminals drama. There are layers of mythology but there is also this constant feel of the director trying to elevate the scenes without making them cheap or sensational.
One way Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana is a truly ground-breaking film is the way Raj B. Shetty writes the characters. It is simply amazing because he does not rely on traditional character development. One man is the kind that kills people and then the next day he performs rituals at a temple to purify himself. In other words, he is a bit of a hypocrite as we slowly discover. Another man is a killer too but after his killings he casually plays cricket with the boys. In a way he’s very pure at heart. Even though he is committed to a life of violence and sin, he is not asking the gods to absolve him of his own sins.
Even the game of cricket that I just mentioned becomes a kind of character. It introduces us to a character named Kishore Kumar and it also helps to kill someone at a later point. Usually you talk about character development when you see a character on screen. Here there are characters that you don’t see, which are primarily women. There are hardly any women in this film yet they have their own role in developing character. The only women we actually see or sense are Hari’s mother, who adopts Shiva and Bramhaiah’s wife. Shiva fears women due to a childhood incident and Hari hardly has time for women. Usually, you think that a guy with a lot of money and a criminal life would be surrounded by women but he doesn’t have any around him because his real lover is Shiva. That’s the relationship dynamic here. Shiva loves Hari almost like a brother or like a very deep friend. That becomes the love angle of the film. The first time we sense this love is when someone points a gun at Hari. Shiva literally becomes, like the god he’s named after, the destroyer. That is when we sense how much affection he has for this man. I keep coming back to character writing, but that is what is so amazing about this movie. Usually in films friends will hug or there will be a song about friendship or any other way to indicate to the audience that “I really care for you as a friend” but not here.
The first half can be called as “episodes from the life of Hari and Shiva” and slowly new characters are developed and incidents occur that take the story forward. Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana is the kind of film where people express their emotions not through words, but through action which is why I like to call it a classy masala movie. My two favorite mass moments involve Shiva. One is where he breaks into a dance that is absolutely amazing. The second one is when we see his feet behind a curtain and we immediately know what has happened. The actors are almost all excellent. Rishab Shetty is fantastic at conveying a subtle graph where he starts off somewhere and ends up somewhere else. He has the difficult job of playing the foil to Shiva who is the more immediately likeable character and he does it beautifully. Another terrific performance comes from Deepak Rai Panaje who plays a loyal friend and Raj B. Shetty is absolutely marvelous. Look at his series of expressions when he senses that Hari is drifting away from him. He doesn’t do something as cheap as give a hurt or sentimental look, his face is as strong and taut as ever, yet we feel that.
The film is so wonderfully staged and performed that I didn’t really mind a few odd things like a series of scenes involving a dog that didn’t really work for me because the comparison seemed a little too obvious. More importantly, I wish the Bramhaiah character had been fleshed out a little bit more. In the sense that his transformation from a scared cop to a super cop doesn’t carry the weight like those of the Hari and Shiva scenes. He does get a fantastic stretch where he breaks down in front of his driver in a setting that looks like an abandoned quarry. The location seems to almost echo his state of mind.
Have I said that the staging is fantastic? I’m going to say this again and give you another example. When Shiva is smoking weed or bhang, like the god that he’s named after, there’s a bunch of killers outside his house and there is total stillness. This is not yet an action scene. There is a long stretch where there is total stillness and it is broken only by beautiful sounds of a shehnai type of instrument.
Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana is a deliberately paced film. I don’t mean slow, I mean deliberately paced. The emotions build slowly, almost invisibly. The second half is where all hell breaks loose and even here, the violence builds slowly, almost invisibly. In one fantastic scene you know that Bramhaiah is beating up a suspect with a lathi but we don’t see this scene of torture at all. We register this scene through the eyes of his driver as the camera is focusing on Bramhaiah’s driver and he is shocked that the person he is driving around is capable of this kind of violence.
Finally, I was a little bit surprised that Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana worked so well and that it has such fantastic form. I really liked Ondu Motteya Kathe because it is a lighter film, you don’t sense the direction. Here, with the most serious subject, he totally gets into directorial mode like a pro. It is not that he didn’t direct the earlier film but sometimes in lighter films, you find it harder to sense too much of staging but heavier films can carry that. The hype around this film has been tremendous and it is totally justified.