'Paka' movie review: Superlative performances anchor this chilling revenge drama

Nithin Lukose’s directorial debut, which premiered at TIFF 2021, might appeal to fans of KG George’s Irakal or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather
A still from 'Paka (River of Blood)'.
A still from 'Paka (River of Blood)'.

Sound designer-turned-filmmaker Nithin Lukose’s directorial debut Paka (River of Blood) clocks in at around 100 minutes but packs enough stories to last two or three films. I don’t mean in an overcrowding way, but how one story seems to suggest several others. Though the setting is Kerala’s Wayanad, non-Malayali and international viewers who grew up on a steady diet of gritty crime dramas from Indian/International cinema should find the film’s subject and characters easily accessible. Armed with a potent local flavour, Paka might appeal to fans of KG George’s Irakal or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. More on this later.

Paka, which had its premiere at this year’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, tells the story of a host of characters encountering the repercussions of violent deeds trickling down generations. The eponymous river has buried countless bodies over the ages. One can only imagine how toxic it has become. Why anyone would want to swim in it is beyond me.

I was reminded of that Joe Pesci line in the opening of Martin Scorsese’s Casino, about how the Las Vegas desert practically became a burial ground for those eliminated by the mafia. The river also got me thinking of the filthy pond in Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel around which the main characters reside. And as in the latter film, we see a menacing thug getting out of prison. However, unlike the yakuza boss that treats Toshiro Mifune with indifference in that film, Kocheppu, the thug in Paka, is soon revealed to be a softie and the elder brother of the central character, Johnny (Basil Paulose).

Kocheppu is one of the most well-rounded characters in the film, played to perfection by Jose Kizhakkan. (This man should be in more movies.) One scene has Kocheppu crying inside the cinema; in another, we see him treating a Kannada-speaking prostitute with respect and expressing his wish to marry her. Though it’s been 15 years, he is not in a hurry to ‘do the business’. One of the film’s most poignant moments catches him regretting his past actions to Johnny. It recalled the Bhiku Mhatre-Satya interactions from Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya.

But the relief we experience upon seeing the tender side of Kocheppu doesn’t last very long. The film assumes a nervous energy the moment he sets foot in his hometown. There is a constant sense of impending doom, which comes from the knowledge that Kocheppu was in prison for murdering someone from the family positioned as rivals to his own. 

The setting is Wayanad, yes, but this story could’ve been told in Sicily too. As I said, accessibility is not an issue. Aside from the cinematic influences mentioned earlier, Paka is cut from the same cloth as the rustic Indian crime classics such as Gangs of Wasseypur, Kireedam, Thazhvaram or the Shakespeare-tinged works of Vishal Bhardwaj. Speaking of the bard, Paka is the latest iteration of the Romeo and Juliet story in Malayalam after Rajeev Ravi’s Annayum Rasoolum. Johnny is in love with Anna (Vinitha Koshy), a woman from the other family. They have been keeping their affair discreet for obvious reasons, and they fear the feud between their families will shatter their bond. 

Johnny is to Paka what Michael Corleone is to The Godfather. He has had enough of the family feuds and resultant bloodshed and wants to see an end to the endless cycle of mayhem. Untainted so far by violence, Johnny has recurring nightmares of a loved one’s death—it’s a different person each time. He doesn’t wish to be like Kocheppu. But what if Kocheppu or his younger brother, Paachi (Athul John), are harmed? Would he finally unsheath the antique dagger from the box underneath his grandmother’s bed? But she sees him as a coward and has opted to pin all her hopes on Paachi instead.

The grandmother, whose face remains hidden throughout the story, turns out to be one of its most chilling characters. I didn’t expect that disturbing revelation in the third act. If any other character in the film doesn’t send chills up your spine, she surely will. The horror, the horror...

While on revelations, we get a dynamite performance in the form of Nithin George’s Joey, the film’s arch-nemesis. The actor, who played the level-headed and conflicted police officer who digs into Tovino Thomas’ past in Luca, gets to exercise the full extent of his unexplored potential here. He is, simply put, a force of nature. Picture the arrogance and vengeful spirit of Shekharan from Devasuram combined with the ice-cold ferocity of Appani Ravi from Angamaly Diaries. Oh, and like the latter, Joey has no qualms about slaughtering a pig—the second instance of Joey’s brutality in the film. Put these two visuals together, and one begins to fear for Johnny and Paachi’s safety.

Maybe we are not supposed to root for anyone in a story of this nature, but one can’t help but constantly gravitate towards the virtuous-looking Johnny. Put yourself in his shoes, and you might start rooting for him the same way you rooted for Michael Corleone, even if we disagree with his actions. When he finally takes the inevitable plunge, the emotional stakes go through the roof. At one point, Anna conceals a gun underneath her sweater, and it only adds to the mounting tension. The film’s ambiguous ending only offers a momentary respite before hinting at the possibility of the story continuing long after the end credits roll.

Aside from the above, Paka has a lot more happening in the background, courtesy of some amusing secondary characters. A few, such as the divers who have made corpse-retrieval a profession, make a significant impact. A few others are present as interesting visual motifs (ghosts, anyone?). 
Much of the violence in Paka occurs off-screen. Through the use of sounds, the film follows the philosophy of leaving some things to the imagination. Some sounds are intertwined with the background score to produce a war cry-like effect; others for comical reasons, such as when the television announces the arrival of the “Undertaker” and a “different Undertaker” in two different scenarios. 

The film’s total runtime is just right—not too long or too short. The unhurried lensing of Srikanth Kabothu and well-timed cuts by Arunima Sankar aim for maximum impact. Sometimes the camera observes things from afar, as though everything happening around it is too much for it to bear.  
We have been missing a well-done revenge drama in Malayalam of late, and Paka should be able to satiate the hunger of those who crave a furious, cold-blooded yarn.  

Film: Paka (River of Blood)
Director: Nithin Lukose
Cast: Basil Paulose, Nithin George, Jose Kizhakkan, Vinitha Koshy, Athul John

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