Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana: Retelling myth in a gangster film

When you read these old stories, it becomes apparent why filmmakers are tempted to reinterpret myths through the grey, amoral landscape of the gangster film.
Raj Shetty and Rishab Shetty along with others in Garuda Gamana Vrishaba Vahana
Raj Shetty and Rishab Shetty along with others in Garuda Gamana Vrishaba Vahana
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The title is a mouthful — Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana — but when it is about two gods battling it out, the tongue twister seems appropriate. The Kannada film has been making waves in film circles across the country, exciting viewers with its fresh and contemporary take on the Hindu trilogy of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, located within the gangster genre. What if these gods lost their superpowers and descended among us as ordinary humans? Will we still look upon their actions with awe and respect or will we shrivel away from them?

Set in smalltown Mangaluru, the film narrates the story of two boys — Hari and Shiva — who meet under unusual circumstances. Hari's single mother is cleaning fish. Her sharp nose picks up another pungent odour. It's coming from the well in the compound. When the locals investigate, they find a dead child wrapped in a straw mat. His body is mutilated and just as they are about to take him away, he stirs. The child is named Shiva, after the Destroyer who is known to roam burial grounds.

Shiva is silent, seemingly dead within. Everyone treats him like he's a freak, so when Hari touches him gently, he wins Shiva's loyalty forever. Thus begins a saga of crime and violence. Rishab Shetty plays the adult Hari while Raj B Shetty plays the adult Shiva. If you watched Ondu Motteya Kathe, it's impossible to forget Raj's timid, insecure face with its permanent hangdog expression. It's the same actor who transforms into psychopath Shiva in Garuda, his wiry frame twisting in a manic tandav as he performs the pili vesha. There are no traces whatsoever of the vulnerable Kannada professor we watched in Ondu Motteya. Instead, we see a man possessed and consumed by his own demons.

The relationship between Hari and Shiva reminded me of Bala's 2003 film Pithamagan. Interestingly, 'Pithamagan' refers to Lord Brahma, and the film is about Chitthan, who is born in a graveyard, and the deep friendship he forms with Sakthi, going to any extent to protect him. In Garuda, Hari at first appreciates the power that Shiva lends him. In his first avatar, Hari is Shiva's protector, the only one who stands by him even as the rest of the town exploits him. In his second avatar, he allows Shiva to destroy the man who's pointing a gun at him. He gains control over the town through Shiva's violent outbursts, but Hari keeps changing, switching from one avatar to another.

It's easy to be so absorbed by Raj's performance that you don't register anything else in the film. But Rishab, with his adoring glances at first and then his stoic face, is just as impressive. The cycle of violence in the film has a poetic quality to it; as if it is inevitable and what's happening is but natural in the larger scheme of things. A young man issues an underhand threat to Hari; the next scene is of Shiva asking a frail old man to teach him to drive a lorry; after that, is a scene when Hari asks the young man's mourning acquaintance if the former was wearing his shoes. You see, psycho Shiva has the habit of wearing his victims' footwear (his other hobby is playing cricket with the boys). In another scene, a pair of white shoes appear beneath a curtain, stark and chilling as the meaning is made clear. The background score is almost soothing, at dissonance with the visual and yet, making sense when it is tied to the overall theme.

Where does Brahma come in? The least celebrated of the holy trinity, Brahma in Garuda is Brahmayya (Gopal Deshpande), a hapless policeman who is forced to confront the gang violence. The strategy he employs isn't new, we've seen it in quite a few films earlier. The trick also seems simplistic and one can be forgiven for wondering how nobody in the well-connected gang discovered what was going on. But despite this predictability, you still want to know how it will play out; what striking image will tell that story.

Garuda ends in the only way it possibly can. Creator, Protector and Destroyer playing their respective roles out. In Thalapathi, Mani Ratnam used the gangster film template to retell the Mahabharata. In Kaala, Pa Ranjith inverted the Ramayana by positioning the villain of the epic as a gangster-hero. When you read these old stories, it becomes apparent why filmmakers are tempted to reinterpret myths through the grey, amoral landscape of the gangster film. The challenge lies in capturing the universal story and planting the seed in local soil. And Garuda does just that, as it takes root within the rich culture of Mangaluru, with its mix of languages and dialects. This story of struggle and a battle for power and balance isn't new; but then, that's what the film says too.

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