In an extended conversation, the actor-director speaks about 'Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana', co-starring Rishab Shetty, the movie’s reception and how he went about creating the characters of Shiva and Hari.

Raj B Shetty in 'GGVV'Raj B Shetty in 'GGVV'
Flix Interview Saturday, November 27, 2021 - 18:34

In many ways, Raj B Shetty is like Shiva, the character he plays in his blockbuster creation Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana (GGVV). There’s a certain calm about him, and he possesses the ability to fit into any space and make it his. This interview was conducted in Mangaluru, where the film is set, and everyone seems to be talking about Shiva and Hari, but Raj still manages to escape attention and walks in wearing a lungi, T-shirt and mask. Two hours later, after conversation peppered with full-throated laughter, there are hushed voices in the car park — is this THE guy? And, quite like GGVV’s Shiva, who can be both atom and the universe, occupying a window sill and still leaving space, and dancing in an expanse like he owns the entire city, and unmindful of the attention, Raj leaves.    

In an interview with TNM, the writer-filmmaker-actor spoke about his film sensibilities, love for Mangaluru, the little criticism that has come the film’s way, and filmmaker Anurag Kashyap’s phone call to the team. “Some of them were in tears. It was very kind of him to do what he did,” says Raj, who thinks the public response to the film is a “privilege”. 

Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana co-stars Rishab Shetty as Hari and Gopalakrishna Deshpande as Brahmayya, and is presented by Rakshit Shetty’s Paramvah Pictures.

Excerpts from the interview (rich in spoilers), that was conducted in a mix of Kannada and English, and a smattering of lyrical Tulu.

Your viewers are still lost in Mangaladevi, and the saga of Shiva and Hari. How have you coped, having lived with the film for so long?

Cinema is not a process of completion, where I say that this is how it ends. I’m reminded of what Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka said: “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings". With cinema, I plant a seed, and it is not just the story that grows, humans do too.

The bond and growth of Hari and Shiva and their separation helped my growth too. I loved them but treated them as separate human beings. They were there in the periphery, free birds. Till I was writing, I was thinking of them. In my head, if I finish writing, that is cinema. Even now, I believe people are talking, not about me, but about two people who are there. 

Does footwear have life? But, people have made that narrative their own. They feel they’ve discovered it, that it is part of their life. Something similar has happened with the RX 100. These are technically lifeless objects, but when they take on life, the writer lives.

A scene from 'Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana'

Shiva murders a woman when he’s a child and continues to murder into adulthood. How did you manage to gift him audience sympathy?

I never lent both characters any sense of morality. The woman he murders as a child might have been his mother, or some other woman. I’m not better than any character in the film. I may not have the courage to commit the crime they do, but if I can sit with them and understand them as they are, then maybe, it is a chance to understand myself more clearly. Cinema is a process of personal exploration, so my writing was not trying to make them likeable, rather to make them human.

How do you see Shiva?

As a man who destroys what has to be destroyed and then can go and play cricket. He is not a good guy, yes, but all the crime he commits is from his heart, not his head. Like Lord Shiva, he can happily sit in the cemetery, he does not seek validation or love. If you see, he’s always in the background unless needed by Hari. Why do we love him? Because he destroys, but only when he thinks Hari is at risk.

In society, we constantly seek acceptance, so how liberating it is to see someone so free, without any expectation? For me, Shiva in GGVV is a symbol of freedom. Even when it comes to money, after he drops the money when Hari holds his hand as a child, he never touches it again. What utter freedom to live like that, almost like a perfect symbol of spirituality. He owns nothing. He does not know he’s cruel, or powerful. He operates from a space of love or rage or to protect.

Shiva’s bond with the children is special...

Everyone who plays with him knows what he is and what he is capable of. But, they fight with him over wides and runs. They know he won’t do a thing to them. Even his love for the kids comes out as scolding. What a beautiful character that is! Shiva is the object of the young kids’ affection, in a way Hari is not. So, even if he gives death to so many, Shiva is still innocent. Sometimes, I think Shiva wrote himself as a character, and I am fortunate to be part of it.

Everyone is speaking about the writing and the world of Mangaladevi you’re created cinematically in just 32 days. What was the writing process of Garuda Gamana like? 

The inspiration was a yakshagana of Devi Mahatme that I saw, and I fused it with my lived experiences in Mangaluru. The idea was to give you the feel of staying next to a child's house, see him bring a friend home, see them turn into gangsters over the course of time, witness what happens to them, and go back home with grief over how their lives pan out. 

That said, some things wrote themselves. Like the climax. I was not able to stop after Brahmayya does what he’s supposed to. It seemed incomplete. I did not have any visuals of what was going to come ahead, and then I suddenly did. I was not able to stop myself from writing that. Then, I felt it was complete.

For the grand lives they lead, the exit of both Shiva and Hari is sans drama. 

Yes, but Shiva had to go that way. He did not know where he came from, he did not know he’s going to go. In his head, he’s preparing to hit four runs from six balls using a heavy bat he’s bought. Which is why he keeps asking the two aides why they are crying. As for Hari, what is death? Is it physical death or the death of an image? The minute the little boys challenge him, the image of Hari is dead. The look on his face is the same the first time he held a gun and the last time he held a knife. His strength used to be Shiva. Physical death is a mere formality. The same with Ravi Anna. When a man who lorded over the city asks for water in a broken tone in the ambulance, you know he’s dead. 

There has been criticism about how there are no women in Garuda Gamana.

The film is set in Mangaluru, under goddess Mangaladevi’s gaze [the tandav-like pili vesha is right outside her temple]. She’s the divine feminine. Can there be a bigger feminine presence? In the film, Hari follows Lakshmi [money] and that is the lady in his life. The way he sees power is love — be it with Shiva or Ravi Anna. 

Pili vesha scene from GGVV

The homo-erotic angle is being discussed too, in the relationship between Hari and Shiva. 

When I told Midhun Mukundan that I’m going to use the love song he composed in a different way, he was like, ‘What are you going to do?’ I told him, I was going to use it for Shiva and Hari. I don’t understand this need for love to be about physicality. Deep adoration, like what these two share, is also love. And so, a love song. 

Love is what a dog displays when it wags its tail at you, love is what you see in a child’s eyes when he sees, says a Dhoni or a Kohli. And love is also what binds Hari and Shiva.

The footwear is the most discussed thing now. How did you think of footwear as a fetish?

It just came. It was so beautiful because Shiva is so mysterious. There was a feeling beyond words seeing that, and I began loving him some more. Normally, when you kill a person, you cannot stay there, because you feel guilty, but this man wears the evidence of the crime on his person and roams around. What a free man he is, his actions don’t haunt him. When the footwear idea came in, I felt it tied in with Shiva’s character. I was like ‘Wow, okay fine, this is it.’

The audience is delighting in the joy of discovering connections — the cricket bat, the RX100, the well. Did it delight you too as a writer?

It provided the greatest joy, and also taught me something. I wanted Shiva’s entry to be mysterious — an ordinary Mangalorean afternoon, but not quite too. Hari’s mother can sense something while slicing fish and her hands slow down. Before Shiva arrives, there’s a stage ready to introduce someone who is very ordinary in an extraordinary manner. I am the audience of something I have not written yet. Writing is the process of me becoming a conductor of certain thoughts, and when that flows naturally, I derive joy. I don’t think I write and find joy, I find joy, therefore I write. 

Why does Shiva choose a bat so heavy it can also kill? He’s providing the children with a weapon to destroy someone, even when he’s not there.

The film’s violence is without much gore, it’s swift. How did you work on that?

Ondhu Motteya Kathe  had no cigarette or alcohol warning message, no bad words, no blood, because the script did not demand them. When I started seeing Hari and Shiva, whatever was natural to their world, I brought it in. I did not think of the violence. I did not try to avoid it, correct it or glorify it. I was seeing them as characters.

When Shiva commits the first crime in front of the camera, it is almost a catharsis. People wait for the second, because it is coming. There’s no reaction when he commits his second crime. He dances only after that. I was only thinking about what makes him dance, what drove him to the state he was in. My cinematographer Praveen Shriyan [who is also the editor] tells me that I write in slow motion when people try to cut. And when action happens, it is swift. When a mass element starts, I end it in a few seconds.  

There’s so much build-up for the cricket match, but it fizzles, because that is life. I did not give them something mass when they expected it, because ‘Brother, this is not another commercial movie’.

For me, the psychology behind people turning violent is more fascinating. I explore that never-ending question through various characters that I write. Where you expect nothing to happen, Shiva explodes, because even he does not know when that will happen. It gave me joy to write that.

I kill him 15 minutes before the climax, don’t show his face or a funeral procession. It’s just the empty streets that mourn him. Is that not the greatest respect for someone who lorded over the moss-lined lanes and bylanes?

You come from a place in Karnataka [Dakshina Kannada] that is not very high on movie watching. How did you feed your love for films and develop your film language?  

I write inspired by Kannada literature, by Kuvempu. Through  his writing, I entered the place and time he wrote about. From his words, you could even guess if the character was chewing paan before speaking. His soul is universal, but the setting is local, and I was inspired by that. I write cinema about my lived experiences, not after watching other cinema.

That said, I grew up in Bhadravati till Class 3 and loved movies. It is the kind of town where people think a man is a good husband if he takes his family out for movies. I would sell the rickety iron chair at home, or the copper in an electricity wire and buy tickets. Sometimes, after the second watch, I would go in a third time, and ‘listen’ to the movie from outside. 

When I came to Mangaluru, I fell in love with the place. I know the cultural difference, I know what makes this place special. There is a rhythm, a tonality, to any language, and that changes with the place. Language is the sum total of your experiences, and I am in love with it. Here, I know the nuances, Mangalore Kannada is lilting, because people think in Tulu and then speak in Kannada. I could have set this film anywhere — in cinema (writer-director) or politics, but I felt only Mangaladevi would do justice to the story. 

If you look at it, the police driver character has the kind of body language he has, because he’s a local who speaks the language, the sub-inspector does not. 

Speaking of the driver, some have wondered about his sudden change of heart…

If you look at the staging of the scene, the driver is first on the left side of the inspector, and something happens, and he is getting hit. The inspector is now powerful you think, but he breaks down. Then, the driver moves to his right, with water, and even sits down next to him. The dynamics have changed. We spoil many things by reasoning too much. Look at it this way. The driver was responsible for the previous SI getting attacked, he also told Hari to give the present SI a warning, but when he sees what they’ve done, he probably was shocked too. He’s also human, and that probably triggered a change. How can he avoid comforting a person?

GGVV has been gorgeously shot. Let’s speak of your love for lensing…

The entire city is a character and so it was necessary to capture that. Hence, the wide lenses. I wanted viewers to feel they were witnessing something in front of them, hence a camera that was very still, unless there was a motivation for it to move. If you need to stick to wide shots and a steady camera, your pen should have strength. The characters and performance should be strong. It’s like how the background score is sometimes needed to cover lapses on screen. We decided to give movement only when something was not happening in front of the camera. We allowed it to open, and allowed people to experience the joy of discovery. 

For example, the lorry scene and then the mortuary. You know what’s going to happen. Why go in for a close-up and corrupt that experience? I want the camera to tell them, ‘Look closely brother, you know what’s going to happen.’

For Brahmayya, for instance, it’s a tight lens and long shot. In the initial shots, he’s always far away from the camera, like he’s far away from home. You can’t reach and comfort him.

For me, lensing is most important, and as a team we were clear this is what we wanted to do.

When did you know you had it in you to make cinema?

Sometime in 2014 or so, I was asked to write a script for a docu-fiction. When watching it being made, I knew it was not working. It taught me that I knew how to judge. 

I took a year-and-a-half off,  watched films and read books on cinema, and made two short films. They seem preachy and bad now (laughs). Our team does films for joy. Shamil, our executive producer, does not work on any other film, same like Praveen. Our cinema grammar is the same, derived from the same source, so there’s no conflict.

Some people have felt the scenes with the dog stand incomplete. What’s your take on that?

When I was writing the script in Sultan Bathery [in Mangaluru, by the Gurupura river], a pup befriended me. Slowly, it started biting anyone who came near me. Should I keep the pup because it loves me, or should I let it go, because it is troubling others? Depending on this decision, I might look good or bad. 

Shiva is like that dog too. Hari has reached where he has because of him, but it is time to let go and move on. Look at it from Hari’s point of view. You can leave a dog out, but what about a human? Do things change because the being is different? I wanted to explore that question.

Did you grow as a performer with this film?

Why I chose to become a director is because I think it is the completion of a process. But, with this film, acting completed the process. I’ve never been that free in my life. I did not have to worry about my clothes, my beard, my nails… I became that character for two months. I was getting triggered over things I would normally not react to. Once, I screamed, that anger lasted only three seconds, but the joy I felt at the end of it was lovely. There was no anger left. It was liberating.

There’s only one shot of Shiva screaming. It was not planned. It was the first shot of the day, and we were to shoot the pili vesha too. I could not move, every cell in me was ready to explode. I knew that if I placed one foot on the ground, I would fall. I struggled with four steps, in the fifth, it exploded as a scream. I did not know where the camera was, or who was around. My eyes were closed and then I was able to dance. It was a one-take shot, which was not planned. Now, looking back, even if we had planned it thus, we might not have been able to manage that perfect shot. Sometimes, art creates itself. And, for that, I consider this role, the biggest ‘bhagya’ (blessing) of my life.

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