“Inspired by stories heard from my grandmother” – says the opening note of director Nithin Lukose’s Paka – River of Blood. Unsurprisingly enough, the most violent character in this incessantly gory – although not exactly bloody – the film is the grandmother whom we never lock eyes with. Lying in her bed throughout, the immobile woman is present in the film in the form of her voice and mild foot movements. Yet she spells more terror than the blood-thirsty men from two warring families in the gloomy terrains of Kerala’s Wayanad district.
The grandmother, as we learn, is an indirect orchestrator of the violence that ensues in Paka. As the film chronicles the generational feud resulting from deep-seated patriarchy and unforgiving stances, the younger members of the families are brought up with the venom of hatred poured in drop by drop by the elders. If the malevolent, bedridden granny is the anchor of siblings Johnny (Basil Paulose, exceptional) and Paachi’s (Athul John, a great find) household, there is an elderly man who breeds the very same grudge in the conflicting family. Employing a classic commercial cinema trope, Johnny is in love with Anna (Vinitha Koshy, competent) and they intend to get married.
Love is not the underlining force in Paka. It is incidental and we are never told how Johnny and Anna fell for each amid intense hatred. For a fact, I knew how the universe isn’t that of a cold war based on somewhat resolvable issues (such as the one in Siddique-Lal’s comedy classic Godfather). In Lukose’s film, the biggest ambiance provider is a metaphorical river that has seen as much blood as it has water. It is an unnerving moment when the grandmother (Mariakutty, an extraordinary voice actor and storyteller) narrated the tale of the river’s unending thirst. Teenager Paachi listens as she wickedly confesses to things that would have aggravated the cross-generational row that took lives like a sickle snipped off siam weed.
Staying true to the cross-section of Kerala’s society it is based upon, Paka comes with solid references to religion. If the performance in the local church’s band is said to be crucial, we often see imageries of the legend of Saint George and the dragon. The film, at one point, also mentions the biblical story of Cain and Abel – aptly linking to it the series of murders it chronicles. The technical side of the film is marvelous as it aids the film’s innate observant nature. If the dense shots of the river add oodles of hysteria into the narrative, the sound design is stellar as it captures the pandemonium taking place in a quiet and somewhat eerie village.
Performed wonderfully by a series of lesser-known and non-professional actors, Lukose’s film radiates a lived-in rigor. It is exceedingly violent, indeed, but there is also a clever absence of magnified, physical bloodshed. The spookiest element in this quiet revenge saga is the blood-consuming, unforgiving river which rightfully earns a place in the film’s title as it haunts us to the hilt. It’s even more fascinating to observe how the river has its share of keepers too – like an expert diver who perhaps made living by towing dead bodies out of it.
As Paka – River of Blood closes, it indicates how it’s a saga that might never see an end. It’s a generational curse that can never be healed with love. The characters and their bloodline seek blood and as does the metaphorical river. Filmmaker Nithin Lukose, while narrating a story about a familiar ilk, delivers a masterful crime classic that is a glowing benchmark for the genre in Malayalam cinema.
Paka – River of Blood has its UK Premiere at the 2022 London Indian Film Festival. The film will be available to stream in India on Sony LIV from June 7, 2022.
Author at Filmy Sasi