Malayalam director Arun Varma scores with Garudan starring Suresh Gopi and Biju Menon

Arun Varma did not want to make his directorial debut with a run-of-the-mill crime thriller or police investigative drama. So, he waited to fine-tune the seed of a story that had been narrated to him in 2015 by his friend, Jineesh M, a faculty member at the Bharata Mata School of Legal Studies, Aluva. Arun’s wait has paid him rich dividends as the film Garudan soars high in cinemas.

Speaking from Chennai, Arun says Garudan is a genre-bender in which he tried to avoid many cliches common in Malayalam films. “The movie is at once a psychological crime thriller, a police story, a courtroom drama and an emotional family story. We have removed many of the usual cliches,” he says.

Crime and punishment

Arun says the story began from a place of anger at the brutal rape of nurse Aruna Shanbaug in 1973 at her workplace in Mumbai. She lay comatose for nearly 42 years. He wondered if such acts of violence were triggered in a fraction of a second or if there was something more that made a human being inflict violence on another person.

“The culprit walked out of jail after serving his sentence while Aruna’s life was nipped in the bud. What is the quantum of punishment for such crimes? Can the punitive measures serve as a deterrent to stop potential perpetrators? Is there scope under the legal system to reform such predators? These were the issues that we have woven into the narrative of Garudan. The first scene in the movie shows Theresa Philp, a smart, articulate youngster. It is the hunt for the criminal who molests her that takes the movie forward.”

Film director Arun Varma with Suresh Gopi on the set of Garudan.
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Although what attracted Arun to the movie was its different narrative and plot, he felt that the long period between the ideating and scripting had made the script a little dated. “So, our producer Listen Stephen of Four Frames gave me a list of experienced scenarists to work with and I chose Midhun Manuel Thomas. He loved the story and felt he could complement it. Midhun felt there was a bigger cinema inside it and tweaked the narrative to craft Garudan,” adds Arun.

Crafting an entertainer

The script was crafted to break the narrative of a police investigation following a crime and “then showing someone out of the blue having committed the crime. What was initially a courtroom drama turned out to be a wholesome entertainer thanks to Mithun’s work.”

Arun’s confidence as a director is evident in the interesting narrative that pitches a cop Harish Madhavan (Suresh Gopi) against a cunning psychopath Nishanth Kumar (Biju Menon).

“If a criminal is cunning and smart, it is possible that he could outsmart the police, the public, and the legal system. Nishanth is multi-dimensional in that way. We used the profile of a real-life psycho-killer— a college professor who was caught in his sixties. The women in his house had no clue about his double life.”

The director says almost all the characters in the film had reference points to draw upon. That, he believes, helped the movie make an impact on viewers.

Suresh Gopi as Harish Madhavan in Garudan.

Suresh Gopi as Harish Madhavan in Garudan.
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Superb casting

Also, what works for the movie is the superb casting. Arun had initially approached Biju Menon to enact the honest cop, but once he heard the script, he asked the director if he could play the negative character. That came as a surprise to the team as the actor had been reinventing himself with a wide spectrum of roles over the last decade.

“Nishanth is not easy to portray. He seems like an ordinary family man and it is only when the beast in him awakens that he turns into a predator. I could not envision how he would portray the role. It was exciting to imagine how he would shape the character.”

However, the search for an actor to play the cop to stand up to Nishanth was not easy. Many stars felt that the antagonist was too powerful. “That is when I approached the super cop of Malayalam cinema, Suresh Gopi, who had no qualms about playing the character. He was able to understand the potential of Harish Madavan,” recalls Arun.

Agreeing that is was a huge responsibility to helm a film, he says that one has to deliver when the producer “gives you everything you want”.

Arun did not want to go overboard on any aspect and as it is not a formula-driven film, he says there were instances when “we were looking at blank walls and creating, in the hope that it works.”

Arun Varma, director of Garudan with Biju Menon.

Arun Varma, director of Garudan with Biju Menon.
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The brief for Biju Menon was to be a common man in an uncommon situation. Suresh Gopi has always played the super cop. Arun wanted him to be an ordinary cop with all his vulnerabilities.

“There is an emotional side to Suresh chettan that we have seen only in some of his movies such as Apothecary (2014), Innale (1990), and Kaliyattam (1997). He is brilliant in such roles. Unfortunately, because of his film persona, he is unable to do such characters. After a long time, we could tap that.”

He maintains that working with the experienced actors was humbling and their experience has given a lot of credibility to the film. “Be it Siddique ikka, Jagadish sir, Abhirami ma’m or Divya Pillai, they never made me feel like a newcomer. They made my job easy.”

Sequel in the offing?

As for a sequel in the offing, he says work on it will commence only if the content reaches his expectations. “I need to figure out if  I need to create Nishanth again or give him a break. Or bring a new Nishanth and Harish because the fun element is over when his arrest is revealed. Both Midhun and I are working on it.”

As the movie continues to fill theatres in Kerala, what is Arun’s opinion about the cribbing by directors and producers about ‘negative review bombing’?

“It is very unfortunate. You create a content based on cinema. You run down that content to make your content run. That is not how an industry should work. I am open to reviews, critical and good. I believe that a film that is enjoyed by the audience will do well irrespective of reviews. But one has to admit that making a film is not easy. No one can read a script and predict if a film will do well or not. Reviewers must remember that many people have spent time and energy on a film. At the end of the day, a work can be criticised for its flaws. That will help the team to improve. But do it with a little respect and consideration for the other person.”

Meanwhile, Arun hopes to announce his next project soon. Watch this space.

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