In his feature debut, Indian director Nithin Lukose draws on tales of migration and generational bloodshed passed down to him by his grandmother. “Paka (River of Blood),” in which a star-crossed couple is threatened by a deep-seated family feud, resembles “Romeo and Juliet” on the surface, but its romance plays second fiddle to the lingering effects of violence, which ripple through the fabric of nature and embed themselves within people’s very bones.
In the rural Kerala wetlands of Wayanad, Johnny (Basil Paulose) and Anna (Vinitha Koshy) are all set to get married in secret, but their plan is thrown into disarray when Johnny’s uncle, Kocheppu (Jose Kizhakkan), is released from prison after a decade away. The history between Johnny and Anna’s family runs deep, and it runs red. Kocheppu is a key part of that history, and his return means it can no longer stay dormant. The film uses numerous, narratively appropriate radio broadcasts to set the stage for its saga, from cricket, to soccer, to news of the Indian army, but Kocheppu’s return to Wayanad is scored by the film’s most unexpected thematic Rosetta stone: the sound of a WWE broadcast somewhere off screen, in which the ringside commentators react in shock to the resurrection of The Undertaker, an enormous, bearded supernatural being. Kocheppu, though he doesn’t dress nearly as theatrically, towers over most of the other characters, has a similarly unkempt beard, and a similarly dangerous aura.
Pro wrestling retains a mythological status amongst Indian fans, who generally accept even the most ridiculous characters at face value. Audio clips of The Undertaker appear in the film only a handful of times, but they signal a story that mirrors that of wrestling’s spookiest character, who keeps dying and re-spawning in newer, darker, more violent iterations. He wears a slightly different face each time, but his goal, no matter what avatar he takes, is to bury his enemies six feet deep. The warring clans in the film are no different; the pictures on their walls, of murdered (and murderous) family members lined up side by side, reflect a similar cycle, in which violence is reborn in different forms.
The naked pop culture reference may seem ridiculous, but it doesn’t prevent the film from taking itself seriously once it begins exploring its characters. The families’ simmering rivalry is a silent killer, as each clan waits its turn to seek vengeance and dump a body in the local river. The corpses are usually fished out by an expert diver, Jose (Jose Assariyot), an elderly man with an enormous white moustache, who, in his old age, has become resigned to his role as de facto coroner for these two houses. He is one of several silent observers in the film — keepers of the local history. Others include old men who have seen and grown accustomed to the bloodshed, and Johnny’s grandmother, an old woman with dementia who never fully appears on screen, but whose shaky voice tells the story of this long-standing war. Her only remaining memories are tethered to its ceaseless violence, and she isn’t afraid to stoke its flames; she has, in a way, transcended the physical, and become a spectre of the conflict itself.
The most omniscient observer is the river itself, a Theseus metaphor for the way death traces its way down each lineage: its individual drops are never the same, but its body tells a story of carnage. Even during serene moments, the stark visual contrast with which Lukose and cinematographer Srikanth Kabothu photograph the river make it feel volatile. Each tiny ripple on its misty surface feels like an eruption in waiting.
More than simply examining the butchery — which is usually obscured, instead of exploited — “Paka (River of Blood)” also examines what it might take for people to break free of this cycle of generational sin, and whether it’s possible at all. For instance, Kocheppu, though he’s spent years atoning behind bars, is still an object of Anna’s family’s unquenched anger. Kizhakkan’s performance as Kocheppu embodies this narrative dilemma; it starts out guarded and aggressive, though as he re-enters the world and catches up with his family, he reveals his more vulnerable side, resulting in a number of endearing moments, which turn the question of redemption into a desperate wish. Surely a man as sweet as him deserves a second chance, regardless of what he did?
Then again, the film doesn’t reveal those specifics until the audience is already on his side (the result is emotionally complicated, to say the least). In contrast to Kocheppu — whose arc is one of uneasy reformation — the more Johnny gets pulled into the orbit of the blood feud, the more his neat appearance and decent demeanor begin to feel frayed. Before long, he begins to look as unkempt as his uncle, and he may even be forced to walk in his footsteps.
Unfortunately, Anna’s family isn’t much more than an antagonistic force, and Anna herself is saddled with little by way of dramatic tension, despite this being half her story. However, Johnny, Kocheppu and their cousins and nephews often make up for this narrative gap with their fireside chats on the riverbank. They feel vivid and alive during these scenes, in which they’re lit by flickering flame as it refracts through the thick night air. Their visual framing, however, tells a cold and unsettling tale. They’re often enveloped by negative space in the form of the dense surrounding forest, or the water’s nighttime surface — off which the moonlight rarely reflects — as if darkness were constantly encroaching.
In “Paka (River of Blood),” generational violence is rarely presented on-screen, but its specter permeates even the most fun and upbeat conversations. It feels inevitable, and Lukose zeroes in on the spiritual toll it extracts — even from decent people determined to break free from its grasp.
“Paka (River of Blood)” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.