There have been a lot of gangster films that we have watched. We have even veneered and celebrated a few as well like Nayakan, Thalapathi from the classics and KGF - Chapter1, Gangs of Wasseypur and Vikram Vedha from the recent ones, to name a few. Each of these films is a fantastic watch and provide a lot of food for thought to the average cine-goer and the cinephile alike. Having said that, with the number of films that have been released in this genre, it is also difficult for the filmmakers to attempt something unique. Take Jagame Thandhiram, for instance. The director takes this well-beaten genre and gives it a unique treatment. The first half is fantastic, with all the Karthik Subbaraj flourishes while the second half finds itself grappling with too much. But, flaws and all, the film is still a unique attempt in the genre.
Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana is yet another addition to this genre. Yet, this is way different and way more interesting than the plethora of the films that have come before this. For one, the writer-director Raj B Shetty decides to employ the mythological ego clash of Shiva vs Vishnu in this film. We have had a lot of period films in the early 50s and 60s where these clashes were made into films. But to put that as a subtext and weave a gripping gangster drama is what makes this film uniquely engrossing.
This film is a fantastic example of writing. Right from the trailer, we have seen that the tiger dance is one of the most prominent motifs in the film. But did you know that the tiger appears in a scene way before the actual tiger dance sequence happens in the film? The scene where we see Shiva finally becoming the destroyer is where this happens. There is a poster of a tiger behind Hari while he tries to negotiate with the debtor at the wine shop. There is also a tiger head table-decor on the debtor's table. There is also a lot of Shiva insignia throughout the film in terms of a trident that makes multiple appearances during Shiva's childhood and also when Hari goes to Kadiri to "absolve" his sins.
The director, Raj B Shetty revealed in an interview with Baradwaj Rangan that every aspect that stood out was already woven into the script. The slo-mo pan to Shiva's feet that we get at the opening sequence of the scene functions as a stylish insert and also as a set-up to the dark and sinister layer of Shiva's character. There is another writing flourish that you see as the duo grows older and deeper into the underworld of Mangalore. Hari appears clean-shaven when Shiva becomes the destroyer. By the time we see the Mangaladevi gang branch out into the Tiger dance business, we see Hari sporting a thick beard. Even his clothes become a lot shinier as he adds jewels (chains and rings) to his looks. That's when we see Hari also as someone with whom wealth (Lakshmi) stays in abundance.
The story of these two gangsters is not all gory and bloody. We also see a very subtle and beautiful love story between Shiva and Hari. When Hari sits behind Shiva on his motorcycle after successfully extorting a fleet of lorries from a loudmouth, we see a smile of pride, love, brotherhood and admiration. This affection continues for a good part of the film. We also see it from Shiva's point of view. Even though, Shiva doesn't smile as much as Hari does in the film, his loyalty, love and respect for Hari are unmatched. The Chandrachooda song sequence establishes this angle as well besides showing how dangerous Shiva can get. We also see the utter dismay, jealousy and anger on his face when he sees Hari's admiration shift towards Raviraj. Hari doesn't sit behind Shiva on his motorcycle and rather continues to walk behind Raviraj's car.
My favourite set-up sequence happens when Brahmaiya's voice narrates Shiva's story. He says that after getting discharged from the hospital, Shiva was seen wearing roaming the streets of Mangaladevi wearing some lady's footwear. Following this statement, we see Shiva sitting at the entrance of a small dhaba where the customers talk to each other about a lady who died in mysterious circumstances with her head bashed up beyond recognition. Later, Yemekere Dayanand (Hari's debtor) is killed the same way and we hear Brahmaiya's voice narrating that Shiva wears the footwear of his victims.
Staging and cinematography:
Any good film needs to be staged and shot well. This is a brilliantly staged gangster film in a long, long time. The way the characters are spaced across in a scene is so deliberate and yet so natural that it feels more of a documentary than a film. Take for instance the staging when Hari is fighting with someone trying to find out who broke their TV dish antennae. We see Hari fighting with the guy, Shekhar standing next to him while Shiva is somewhere in the background trying to cover the handles of the cricket bats! We see Shiva's aloofness (characteristic of the deity), his trust in his friend and innocence. We also see how important Shekhar's role is. But the payoff happens only in the second half when Shekhar tells Shiva that Hari is after his life. Shiva is struck dumb and fights with Shekhar for saying this. If only it were someone else to make that statement, Shiva would have killed him instantly.
The camera rarely moves in this film. There are a lot of static shots which give a sense of stillness to the happenings. For example, even when we see the violent killings the camera placement is in such a way that we witness the killing unlike a lot of films where the camera would move from the victim's point of view or the killer's perspective. The only movements that you find are the close-in trolly and the pan. While the close-in trolly shots are used to take the audience into the milieu, the pan is used to show the expanse/extent of the impact of action to the characters present on the screen. No camera movement is unnecessary or used just because it "looks good". When we see Kishore is dead at the beach, the camera slowly closes in on his dead body - taking the audience into the screen so that we too feel the various agonizing emotions that Shiva and Shekhar feel.
Music is a great plus to this gangster saga. Midhun Mukundan provides us with a fantastic set-up of what's coming right in the opening song of the film. The song, beautifully rendered by Anjali Sankaran and Rakshitha Rao along with the kaleidoscopic glimpses of the various scenes of the film in the disturbing red and blue backdrop functions as the perfect foreshadowing of what's to follow.
A good film is as much about silences as it is about great background scores. GGVV makes use of this in amazing style. Look out for the scene where we see Hari's henchmen dancing to traditional Tiger dance music. There are another hip-looking couple of guys sitting who want to change it to something upbeat. One of them goes up to the DJ to ask him to change it, but the DJ after being confronted by the henchmen turns back to the traditional song. After a while, when the party is over, we see the man who was stubborn about changing the music taking the henchman into his car. This whole sequence happens without a background score.
The writers use the Chandrachooda song (a Carnatic verse sung by Saint Purandaradasa) and Sojugaada Soju Mallige (a famous Kannada devotional) in a very unique way. The former appears when Shiva becomes the destroyer. The second song appears when we see Shiva doing the tiger dance after killing off another character. I got goosebumps at both of these instances.
The other song Endo Bareda is plain brilliance. Beyond the captivating melody that's almost lullaby-like and the mellifluous voice of Vasuki Vaibhav, this song tells a story visually. As the lyrics wave through the music we see Shiva's jealousy and disappointment simmer under his dark eyes while he sees Hari change and grow distant. He errs in judgment and becomes very aloof. So much so that he seems to be in a trance even when Hari instructs him to do something. In a film that's far from being light-hearted (I would go on to say it's not for the thin-skinned), this part of the film provides a lot of comical relief. But mind you, none of this is a replacement for a comedy track. These sequences hold a lot of significance as the film progresses.
The film is essentially a power play among three individuals, viz., Hari, Shiva and Brahmaiya. Each of these characters is modelled around these deities and there are a lot of direct and indirect easter eggs that add a layer to the film characters along with alluding to the deities.
Let's take the motif of the trident I mentioned earlier. When we see the origin story of Shiva, we see him holding a trident of sorts while he begs. Now, we all know that Shiva is someone who begs and lives the life of a hermit, right? Even the name, Neelakantha (Blue-throated one) is alluded to in the characterisation of the young Shiva. We see that he has an injury to his throat. There are a lot of legends that say that Shiva smokes. We see the Shiva in GGVV we smoking often - most of this is either before there's a murder or after that. There's also a Shivalinga allusion in the film. Did you observe that the paper-weight that he uses to kill Yemekere Dayanand is in the form of a Sphatika Linga (and the blood drops drool down the paper-weight just like how consecrated water trickles down the linga)? Finally, there is the spine-chilling Rudrathaandava (the Cosmic dance) that we see when Sojugaada Soju Mallige song harks in the background.
This isn't all. There is a lot of allusion to Vishnu (Hari) being the lord of prosperity. We see Hari constantly well dressed (the lord is fond of good clothing and jewels) and is surrounded by wealth (his golden chains and rings, his bungalow and his affluence to buy a new house).
The character of Brahmaiya alludes to Lord Brahma. In various legends, Lord Brahma is the one who resolves the conflict that constantly arises between Shiva and Hari. And man, does he resolve it in this film!
Beyond the detailing to make it a subtextual film about the trinity, this film is a very engaging and well fleshed-out drama. It's indeed ironic to see Shiva who is the most violent in the film with absolutely no guilt after each of his murders (other than the peeve of wearing his victim's footwear). Strangely, this reminded me of Vikram in Vikram Vedha. Hari, on the other hand, goes to a temple at Kadiri after every murder to have a holy bath (to "wash off" his sins)? The contrast between these two gets only starker as Shiva is childlike, innocent, aloof, careless and withdrawn (again like Shiva the God, who lives the life of a hermit) while Hari is arrogant, opportunist, involved and reckless. Brahmaiya has a very definite and fantastic emotional arc. From being a very diffident person who is constantly scared of being amidst two dons, he slowly turns into an opportunistic, heartless, cold-blooded, cunning fox ready to do anything to bring the duo down.
Enough has been said about how the film is about the trinity. But what runs as the emotional core in this film is the brilliant Thalapathi angle to it. There are a lot of similarities between the Mani Ratnam directed classic and this Kannada spectacle. Both of these films are gangster dramas with two friends at their centre. Both of these films have a police officer from the outside who takes it upon himself to get the city/locality rid of these two goons. Both of these films have the apparent "bad guy" receiving a lot of love from the people around - Mammootty's character in Thalapathy and Raj B. Shetty's character in GGVV. But there ends the similarity.
GGVV is also a love story. A tale of love that turns bitter over a period of time. I think the song Endo Bareda is placed in a way just to show the love that Shiva has for Hari and reflects Shiva's dejection when Hari starts to ignore him. It is also a beautiful story that depicts bromance in a very massy and yet intelligent way.
The film uses the colours of Red and Blue throughout to show the calmness and violence of the situations and the characters. There is a lot of painstaking detail involved even in the costumes of the characters. If you observe closely, Hari would be seen wearing a lot of cooler shades of blue in his childhood. But it is Shiva who is supposed to be the calm one. Whereas Shiva on the other hand has hues of blue only in childhood. He is seen either drenched in red (blood) or around the colour (the tiger dance, the murder before Sojugada song, the murder before the climax and so on). Even the lighting is predominantly in either red or blue.
Finally, I would just like to share a couple of favourite moments from the film that stands out for me.
The first one has to be the montage shots of Shiva in various stages of his life after making his first kill. We see the different Shivas holding the same paper-weight that was used to kill Yemekere Dayanand. The voice-over of Brahma says, "On that day, Shiva took revenge against everyone who wronged him." The background score, the artists' expression and the camera angle make this sequence a spine-chilling and yet a brilliant cinematic moment in the film.
The next favourite sequence is the juxtaposition of Kishor Kumar's final rites and Brahmaiya having a shower in the police station premises. I don't think there could be a better way of showing how Brahmaiya has killed his conscience by killing a hapless Kishor Kumar.
If KGF: Chapter 1 rewrote the rules of commercial sensibilities on the celluloid, Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana is a master class on narrating a commercial story with artistic and auteuristic sensibilities. Raj B. Shetty is a force to reckon with on screenwriting, direction and acting.