Had Valiammachi (Maria Kutty) a chance to watch the movie, Paka (Vengeance - taglined as River of Blood), a Malayalam film directed by debut filmmaker Nithin Lukose, she would certainly read him the riot act for his failure to show her face on screen and escalate it to any level. Valiammachi's discontented grumblings carry the movie all along, perhaps aiding and abetting violence amongst the innocents too. It's the story of ceaseless acts of paybacks and payoffs to and fro families involved. The families that migrated from Central Kerala to Malabar in the 5th decade of the 20th century onwards had a hard row to hoe, but invariably everyone stood up to the rack. On the other side, hostilities started spinning off between families and prolonged their existence. Paka says it all in plain language!
Paka, being one of the two Indian movies that qualified for the 46th season of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), had its world premiere recently. It comes under the Discovery category that showcases the first or second movie of the filmmaker. Having done the sound design for more than 25 movies including Dibakar Banerjee's Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, Nithin Lukose entered the 'Festival of Festivals' of Canada with his directorial debut, Paka. And it started from his home with the stories heard from the grandmother (Valiammachi). Although she doesn't expose her face in the movie, her intermittent soliloquies reveal her inner thoughts and reflections. The local river's flooding in the monsoon season followed by the summer, according to her, is the quenching of its fiery thirst for blood. Despite her age related physical frailty she's not ready to withdraw her stakes in wreaking vengeance on the opponents. When Orappuzha, the local river, acts as a witness and partner in crime, the grandma is a living instigator to keep the feuds alive. That's how Paka became Valiammachi's movie to a great extent.
The movie starts with a ready-to-dive husky Jose, known for his heavy laden white Schnauzer moustache, asking for a dab of oil to apply in his ears and hair. That mainly prevents water entering into his ears. Jose is the expert local diver with credits of retrieving the maximum number of dead bodies from the river. As usual, people of the surrounding villages flock together, all eyes and ears, in order to cook up their own open-ended stories. The body of a young guy that Jose comes up with doesn't create much gossip because of its anonymity.
Kocheppu's (Jose Kizhakkan) introduction is beyond comparison as one of the leading characters in the movie. The transition of a consummated thespian to a brilliant movie character is so impressive in his case. At one point, he regrets what all he did in the past and resolves to lead a peaceful life thenceforth. Imagine what a pack of anxious hostiles who were remorselessly waiting like an alarm clock feel about this! Johny (Basil Poulose) too, who decides to calm down and dreams of a relaxed future life is greeted with shouts of derision as a continuation of the never-ending feud.
Taking revenge for a perceived wrong goes in different ways. The refined way is to seek the help of the existing law prevailing in a place, which will a long time for the due course. The primitive way in dealing with it is an 'eye for an eye', the idiomatic biblical phrase which would lead the world to go blind. But in many places where vendetta holds the fort, witnesses do not come up to testify, making it easy for carrying out the retaliations. Kocheppu's going to jail topples all the plans worked out by the enemies. There are people waiting to set fire on themselves to keep the families warm. Nothing stands in line like paying back in kind and the feud keeps burning! Word on the street is that there's someone - a ruthless mastermind would be brewing up a hunt for another man's life. Like Valiammachi's ebb and flow of thoughts, the River Orapp at times subsides and floods. This multigenerational tale of non-compromising revenges keeps an engrossing love story of Johnny (Basil Paulose) and Anna (Vinitha Koshy) as well. At one point, they also land at a strange stalemate created by their families. The movie draws to its end by showing the birth of a newborn and another young man's informal enthronement to the patriarch's chair. Will the feud go on further with its might and main?
Atul John who appears as Pachi, the brother of Johnny, has a role worthy of being praised along with the main actors, Basil, Vinitha, Jose, Nithin George, Abhilash and John Manickal stand apart from a long line of actors where the crowd plays a major role.
A skillful Srikanth Kabothu has wielded the camera to show us the ins and outs of the terrain where Paka goes on, and Arunima Shankar has fenced the editing decorously. Faizal Ahamed's music stands tailored to the nature of the movie. Aravind Sundar with the assistance of Pramod and Jobin have designed the sound inch-perfect, taking a big load off the director's shoulder. Akhil Ravi Padmini is the project designer. Sooraj has all the credits for making all the villagers actors at different levels.
What amazes me is the continued cooperation extended by Anurag Kashyap and Raj Rachakonda (Director - Mallesham) in producing the movie irrespective of the language it speaks. Those two stand above most Malayali producers who are hardly seen promoting other language films. They reassure through their words of solace that any good movie with its powerfully rooted voice would find its places to go!
Although Nithin Lukose couldn't make it to Toronto due to the pandemic protocols, the audience had an opportunity to converse with him when TIFF Zoomed him in immediately after the world premiere. Paka is a must watch and proof that any cinema that tells a different powerful story will go places.
Toronto International film Festival 2021 had its non-ceremonious closing on September 18, 2021.
Suresh Nellikode has written fiction for Malayalam periodicals like Mathrubhumi and Kalakaumudi. He's also been a contributor for The New Indian Express and Khaleej Times. He currently lives in Canada.