Paka Nithin Lukose Toronto International Film Festival
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Writer-Director: Nithin Lukose 
Cast: Athul John, Basil Paulose, Vinitha Koshy 
Language: Malayalam

The English title of Paka is River Of Blood and it’s evident from the very first scene. An old man dives into a river to retrieve the body of a young man and nobody knows how he died. One of the many, many jokes in this movie is that all the expert divers are old men — this old man has an enormous, silvery moustache. You’d think younger men would be better divers but this is a film about a certain kind of tradition that older people seem to remember and pass along better to younger people. Maybe, these older men who are better divers are also part of a tradition in a sense. 

A crowd has gathered to see this old man retrieve the body and the very first face we see in the film is that of a young boy from the crowd, Paachi. This scene and Paachi’s face will become a very significant moment later in the movie — an echo in a movie filled with echoes. The river of blood that the title talks about is a kind of dumping ground, a watery graveyard for bodies. Behind this idea is a very conventional plot — but only on the surface. 

This is a classic Romeo-Juliet story where two people Johnny (Basil Paulose) and Anna (Vinitha Koshy) from two warring families fall in love. In a conventional film, one side would do something and then the other side would retaliate, and so on. But what the director does here is very interesting. He takes the love story for granted and pushes it to the background. There are no conventional romantic scenes, and even the scenes between Johnny and Anna seem to be troubled. He wakes her up in the middle of the night when he’s having a recurring bad dream, and she’s not able to let go of the fact that one of his family members killed one from hers. 

The shit really hits the fan when an uncle of Johnny comes back to the village after he’s released from prison. There’s something cyclical about his return. He comes by a long road at the side of which there’s a tea shop owner. The same tea shop owner later becomes the first person to spot another man coming through that long road.

The film has been filled with tragedy till then and it now becomes even more tragic. For example, the uncle from jail is genuinely atoning for what he’s done. He even goes to the extent of apologizing to those affected by his actions. But then, he may have changed but those who want revenge for what he did haven’t. 

The film is filled with lovely, gentle touches that let us into the characters without telling too much. For example, Johnny doesn’t seem to be much of a joiner in events — he’s his own little person. When others are bathing in the village pond, he refuses to get inside when they invite him. When his uncle offers him booze, he says that he’s quite happy and doesn’t want to. He’s not doing things that people invite him to do. Maybe, this sets him apart as one of those people in whose veins the blood of vengeance isn’t flowing because he’s actually a nice guy.

Another point I really liked was when Anna gets a gun. It’s not overexplained, because you just take a look at the situation and people’s faces, and you kind of mentally know what’s happening. They may be using a gun now and a knife earlier — but eventually everything is circular in this film. 

It’s very easy to get into the headspace of the characters, and even the props seem to have their own little headspaces to invite us into. For example, an old woman wants to keep the window closed at all times, as if she doesn’t want any outside air to enter and clear the metaphorical cobwebs in her head. It’s only after she dies, the window opens. Similarly, the walls of the houses are filled with pictures of those who have been murdered from the family. And every time you see a wall, there’s an extra photograph. The number of people who’ve been murdered just keeps increasing. That wall is a testament to the increasing violence between the two families. 

There are the occasional funny little touches like the scene with a sex worker but this is a very serious movie. The best thing about it is that it takes a very mainstream movie story and tells it in a fairly non-mainstream way. For example, Johnny, a younger person, is the pacifist while his grandmother is actively endorsing revenge at every stage. Similarly, there’s a grandfather-like figure in Anna’s family who wants revenge all the time. Just as the older men made the best divers, the older people seem to have the most intent for revenge inside themselves. 

What could have been a melodrama is treated in a minimalistic way. Even the music is minimalistic and we only hear the occasional shot of drums or a burst of acoustic guitar — and that’s enough. 

There’s another echo in the film where in an early scene a man kills a pig for food — the same man ends up with a bunch of pigs later in a very different context. This is a movie where there are even ghosts that seem happy to have escaped the cycle of revenge — they can finally be at peace. An echo is not an uncommon thing in our cinema. Especially in masala cinema, where something happens earlier on and we get a bigger version of it later. But in Paka, because of the cyclical nature of revenge, the echoes become much more powerful. Take the scenes where Anna is seen with a nun — early on in the film at first and then later. It reinforces the fact that everything is happening over and over again, rather than the very first time. 

The only problem I had with the movie is the last two scenes. They’re not bad exactly, but there’s a whiff of a message that comes through. I wish they had been handled with the same kind of gentleness and nuance that we had in the early scenes. They actually make perfect sense: in one scene you think you’re seeing the end of the cycle of revenge and in the very next you see that it hasn’t ended. It makes sense but I wish they had not seemed as symbolic as they do.

But overall, this is a great debut. The work of cinematographer Srikanth Kabothu needs to be mentioned. Usually when you want to show violence you move the camera a lot, as a way of mirroring the violence on screen. But here, everything is kept as still as the river of blood, everything seems to happen underneath. Almost all of the actors are superb; you see them and you know what they’re thinking and what they stand for. We don’t need a big back story to know what’s in their head. 

Finally, the writing is so free of fat that it gives us something that we’ve seen a hundred times before but makes it so primal and pure. This is not is not a flashy film, but like the river, still waters run deep.

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