Meet the 3 Shettys changing Kannada cinema

Rakshit, Raj and Rishab are championing the talent, culture and language of Dakshina Kannada, often sidelined as a film’s comic relief

In October, Kannada star Rakshit Shetty — known for backing and being a part of ‘thinking projects’ — tweeted about a film that had blown his mind and that his production house Paramvah would be collaborating with. On November 19, when Raj B Shetty’s Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana (GGVV) released, viewers could relate to that emotional announcement.

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The film marked the coming together of three talents from Dakshina Kannada, the coastal southern tip of Karnataka. It starred Raj (34) and Rishab Shetty (38), and was presented by Rakshit (38). “It stayed with me for more than three days, which is very rare for me,” says Rakshit, who watched it during the Covid-19 lockdown, in June 2020. “I knew this was special and that I had to become a part of it.” The film has now been picked up by Zee-5 — the third Kannada film that the OTT platform has chosen recently — and hopefully will see Kannada movies gain the kind of national popularity that Malayalam and Tamil films are experiencing at the moment.

A still from ‘Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana’ 

Spearheading a revival

Dakshina Kannada has slowly been reclaiming its space in mainstream Kannada cinema. Though actor-directors Kashinath and Upendra had paved the way a few decades ago, unfortunately, the region’s unique dialect and sing-song diction soon found itself being used just to elicit laughs rather than to serve as a cultural indicator. Quite like what happened to the deep South in Tamil Nadu and to the Hindi hinterland, before the revival (in Tamil, it was the ‘Madurai Triumvirate’ — as Anurag Kashyap calls Bala, Ameer and Sasikumar — with films such as Subramaniapuram, Sethu, and Paruthiveeran; in Hindi, filmmakers like Kashyap, Prakash Jha and Anand Rai went back to small-town India in movies like Gangs of Wasseypur, Gangaajal, and Tanu Weds Manu).

Rakshit Shetty 

What brought the spotlight back on to Dakshina Kannada was Rakshit’s 2014 debut directorial, Ulidavaru Kandanthe. The crime drama inspired others in the industry such as Rishab (Kirik Party, Sarkari Hiriya Prathamika Shaale… Kasaragodu) and Raj. Today, the trio is ensuring the region’s stories, language, food and distinct culture (think tiger dance or pili vesha) get noticed across Karnataka and beyond.

All things local

GGVV references the trinity of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. Not unexpected, as all three actor-directors grew up surrounded by Yakshagana, the theatrical dance drama, and other local art forms. Udupi boy Rakshit recalls watching pili vesha artistes getting painted outside his house. “When I write my films, these images float in,” he says.

A still from ‘Sarkari Hiriya Prathamika Shaale-Kasaragodu’ 

Rishab was in class six when he played the role of Lord Subramanya in a Yakshagana performance in his village of Keradi, in Kundapura, about 40 kilometres from Udupi. Raj, the youngest of the Shetty trio, grew up in Bhadravati, near Shimoga, before moving to Mangaluru. “I wonder if any other region in the country offers this kind of cultural smorgasbord, featuring so many performing arts: Yakshagana, bhootakola, dance and music, and festivity,” says the actor-director, who also fell in love with Mangaluru Kannada.

I understand what he means. His film Ondhu Motteya Kathe — about a young bald man in search of love (later remade in Hindi as Ujda Chaman and in Malayalam as Thamaasha) — was the first Kannada film I watched after moving to Mangaluru in 2017. It was surreal seeing the familiar localities, the walls green with moss, depicted in the film. And the language, it was sheer poetry.

Rishab Shetty 

The language factor

In fact, it was language — specifically Mangaluru and Kasargod Kannada — that Raj and Rishab bonded over in 2017. Impressed by Raj’s OMK, the latter asked him to write a few dialogues for Sarkari…, a 2018 film about a lone Kannada medium school struggling to survive in the border district of Kasargod. The ‘deal’ was signed in Bengaluru, over rice and leftover fish curry (without the fish). “I think our boys [Raj and his team] were just happy to get ooru-style curry and boiled rice in the city,” smiles Rishab, adding that Raj “wrote the dialogues for 10 scenes in 10 minutes, and tweaked them in another five”.

Rishab and Rakshit’s friendship, meanwhile, goes back to their struggling years, specifically 2011-2012. Rakshit, an engineering graduate, was trying to make a mark in cinema, and Rishab, who had a diploma in direction from the Government Film and TV Institute in Bengaluru, was doing everything from real estate to selling water cans in Bengaluru when the two met on the sets of Aravind Kaushik’s Tughlak — Rakshit’s debut as hero, with Rishab as antagonist. “We would sit in front of Tribhuvan theatre every day to see the audiences’ reaction [as they exited]. We were told some films pick up on the fourth day. A week later, it moved to another theatre, and we waited there too, without luck,” recalls Rakshit.

A still from ‘Katha Sangama’ 

In 2014, they would collaborate on Ulidavaru Kandante, now a cult classic, and in 2016, the two came together for Kirik Party. Rakshit is now working on Richard Anthony, which takes Ulidavaru’s story forward (while also delving a little into the past). Meanwhile, I learn, Raj was initially wary of interacting with Rakshit — he stayed away from stars. “But when I finally met him during the Covid-19 lockdown and we discussed cinema, I saw a kindred soul. I wrote an idea he had for an OTT project, and he loved what he saw of GGVV and offered to present it,” he says.

Raj Shetty | Photo Credit: Abhijith Kumar

A growing community

Each of them, in their own way, has helped create an ecosystem of like-minded creators. Rakshit invests heavily in writing and his team, Rakshit and the Seven Odds, is quite popular in the industry. One of the reasons he decided to make Ulidavaru Kandanthe in the Dakshina Kannada dialect was because he was tired of hearing bad versions of the dialect on screen. “That is not the language we speak,” he insists.

Rishab has been producing films and backing new talent from across the state. He does this so “no one has to monkey pedal for 10 years before they get to ride a cycle!” — he got to make a movie (Ricky, 2016) after 10 years of struggle.

A still from ‘Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana’ 

For Raj, his ecosystem is his friends and his cinematographer-editor Praveen Shriyan with whom he’s worked since his first short film. “When like-minded people are involved in a project, it becomes more valuable… I feel I am giving in to the selfish motive of witnessing pure art being created,” he says.

Writing is deep catharsis’

Rakshit, Rishab and Raj — who write, act, direct and produce films — learn from each role of theirs. “When I direct someone like Anant Nag [Sarkari Shaale], I subconsciously pick up something I can use as an actor. Likewise, when I act with someone like Raj, I am in awe of what he manages to do as a director,” says Rishab.

When not at work

  • Outside of cinema, the three are as different as can be. Rakshit loves Indian mythology and is deeply spiritual. Raj indulges in cooking, cricket and volleyball, and spending time with his dogs. “I do not discuss movies when I am not making them,” he says, as we share recommendations about the newest sundae parlour in town. And Rishab is a mix of the many characters he’s played. “I don’t think too much about what to do outside of cinema. I am Hari, I am Diwakar [from the 2019 Kannada film Bell Bottom], I keep doing things on a whim. I keep everyone on their toes,” he laughs.

For Raj, the stories come from his lived experiences. So, writing is deep catharsis. He calls himself a writer first, then a director and actor. “Producing my films gives me the freedom to write without worrying about selling. My friends take on the hard side of production. I only lend my name. So when someone like Rakshit offers to present the film, I am delighted, because that frees me up to just be creative,” he smiles.

Rakshit considers himself a writer first. “I am constantly observing and absorbing stuff. And so, writing happens very naturally. As a producer, I have an eagle’s eye perspective — I don’t micromanage. As an actor, I just have to come to the set and be the character,” he says.

Do the three men hope to collaborate more often? Yes, but only if the script demands it. They want to work with filmmakers from other parts of Karnataka so that they can give others a leg up and help narrate their stories in a commercial format.

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