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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana: A cool Kannada film possessed by the spirit of a Korean crime epic

Post Credits Scene: The ambitious Kannada crime epic Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana is steeped in Indian mythology, but has the violent spirit of a Korean gangster picture.

Written by Rohan Naahar | New Delhi |
Updated: January 23, 2022 11:32:51 am
Writer-director-star Raj B Shetty in a still from Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana, which now available to stream online. (Photo: ZEE5)

From its disorientating opening credits sequence set to a jazzy English number to its blood-drenched final moments in a muddy Mangaluru village, writer-director-star Raj B Shetty’s Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana defies logic. It shouldn’t (and often doesn’t) work. With a run-time of over two-and-a-half hours, it’s overlong and inconsistent, but boy is it more interesting than most movies that we see these days.

Calling it a noble failure would imply some sort of moral superiority. But this is a grimy film about unambiguously reprehensible men. And much like its ‘protagonist’, a man named Shiva who is ‘reborn’ after being left for dead as a child, it revels in nastiness. The unremarkable-looking right-hand man to a local goon named Hari, Shiva’s the guy you call when dirty work needs to be done–equally adept at slitting throats and bashing in skulls as he is with doing ‘vasooli’ and deploying intimidation tactics. The mere mention of his name sends shivers down his enemies’ spines–he’s Shiva the God of Death.

And Garuda Gamana is a mythologically dense examination of masculinity and brotherhood, destiny and ambition. But even though it is set in Mangaluru, in spirit, it has more in common with the South Korean crime sagas of the mid-2000s and will be of tremendous interest to the PirateBay generation that grew up on them.

Korean cinema isn’t limited to what it has now become. What we’re seeing—the global domination of K-pop and the popularity of romance serials—is the culmination of a cultural movement that can trace its roots to where it all began, the liberation of Korea at the end of World War II, when the Peninsula was divided into two nations—the North and the South.

While the North slipped into an isolationist mindset that has only metastasised over time, the South embraced a perceived democracy.

After a short-lived Golden Age dominated mostly by patriotic movies, followed by a period of inactivity and an extended stretch of strict censorship, a new generation of filmmakers emerged. Their work mirrored the sudden globalisation of their country. They made movies that were, on the surface, stylistically similar to the glossy films made in the West, but were actually a direct reaction to their unresolved relationship with their nation’s past. Forget making them, the mere act of watching movies became a form of expression.

The intersection between violence and its residual psychological impact is a theme that was widely addressed by filmmakers such as Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, particularly in the Vengeance Trilogy (2002-2005) and Memories of Murder (2003). These are touchstone titles, the sort whose anniversaries are celebrated. More shockingly, they made these movies at the start of their careers. In 2018, The New York Times called Park ‘the man who put Korean cinema on the map’. Just two years later, Director Bong made history with his stark social satire Parasite, which became the first South Korean film to get any sort of recognition at the Oscars.

But these are just the bookends to a New Wave of Korean cinema that began many years ago, in the early 2000s. Between the breakout success of Park’s Oldboy (2003) and Parasite’s sweeping victory at the Academy Awards, there were films like Nameless Gangster (2012), described by Time magazine as a mob movie that would make Martin Scorsese proud, and Train to Busan (2016), which earned its director Yeon Sang-ho a Netflix deal and its star Ma Dong-seok a spot in the Eternals cast.

Both Park and Bong, as well as Kim Ji-woon, the director of A Tale of Two Sisters (2003; what a year) and I Saw the Devil (2010), have made full-fledged attempts at crossing over to Hollywood. Incidentally, it was in the same year, 2013, that Park made the psychological thriller Stoker, and Director Bong helmed Snowpiercer, a jaw-dropping masterpiece about class conflict that the Weinstein Company hilariously marketed as an action film starring Chris Evans.

All this context is important, because even though we don’t realise it, our cinematic history closely mirrors that of South Korea. It can be broadly segregated into periods of patriotism, anger, and disillusionment, each fuelled in turn by the independence, the emergency, and the rise of the right wing. Art isn’t simply a mirror to society, it’s the jagged shard of glass that is capable of slashing it in half. And the more exacting the state machinery becomes, the more unparliamentary the movies made in defiance of it will be.

Like Sacred Games and Paatal Lok, Garuda Gamana belongs to relatively new stream of Indian genre moviemaking that investigates how, as a people, we’ve been shaped by stories of the past. These are the same tales that have now been co-opted by powerful men obsessed with mythologising themselves. One of the most striking images in the film is of a young Shiva, years before he’d become a ruthless destroyer, begging for alms on the streets of Mangaluru with a wobbly trident in his hand–a homemade weapon for a homeless child. Somewhat pointedly, the only people who give him any money are two Muslim gents, standing outside a mosque.

Resentment from the abuse that Shiva faced in his youth erupts in a flood of anger that he unleashes on whoever gets in his way. He kills mercilessly and frequently—the banality of his violent actions symbolised by the game of cricket he ritualistically plays afterwards. Shiva is cruel, vain, and beyond redemption, and yet, we can’t help but relate with him. He is both the bullied and the bully. Pray for him. Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana is streaming on ZEE5.

Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.

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