In the nostalgic embrace of a retro atmosphere, Riptide (2024), a Malayalam feature film by debutant Afrad Vk, unfolds its lyrical narrative across three emotive chapters. Within the confined walls of an institutional hostel room, the passionate love story of Suku (Swalah Rahman) and Charlie (Faris Hind) takes root, weaving a tale interwoven with the threads of love, literature, and music. Their existence is a symphony of oblivion, echoing the melodies of their shared passions as they navigate the final phase of their college life. However, harmony is disrupted when a life-threatening illness befalls Suku, compelling an abrupt departure from the familiar margins of his comfortable surroundings. The journey into the unknown realms of medical treatment casts a shadow over their idyllic life, leading Suku to a precipice between life and death. In the throes of a near-death experience, Suku is haunted by a vivid vision of Charlie, contorted in agony, his screams piercing the ethereal veil that separates the living from the unknown. As fate spares Suku’s life, he returns to the hostel room with the weight of his harrowing vision still etched into his consciousness. What awaits him is a chilling tableau of trauma like a never-ending novel, its pages stained with the traces of his anguish. Bloodstains on the walls tell a silent tale of unspoken horrors. Within the haunting ambiance of their once-joyful sanctuary, the world transforms into a labyrinth of mysteries, where love and pain negate in a delicate balance. The story unfolds not merely as a chronicle of the two protagonists shared past but as a gripping exploration of the acute impact of adversity on the intricacies of human connection. The two friends find themselves entwined in a reality that oversteps the boundaries of time, the impregnability of love, and the inexplicable twists of fate.
Our viewing experience of the around eighty-five-minute-long film is punctuated by dreamy musical interludes that, unlike its two young and wild protagonists, also transport us into a time and place far removed from the iniquities of the world. Such idealistic instances serve as the film’s guiding light, reflecting the unfolding events in each chapter with a blend of lucid enigmatic and concrete abstractness, basking in its own austere allure. The raw beauty of the film emanates from the power drawn from the vast vistas juxtaposed with the protected interiors of the vehicle carrying Suku and Charlie from place to place. Acutely aware of the inexorable ticking of time and the physical dimensions captured in carefully composed frames, the film examines the line separating solitude that cleanses and loneliness that disconcerts. The screenplay written by Afrad tiptoes the conventional boundaries of a forbidden relationship, delving into the winding and serene layers of suffering and resilience a tale of clandestine love. The story becomes a mirror, reflecting the inflexible mindset of a society in transition, shackled by the taboo surrounding same-sex attraction. It delicately portrays the trials encountered by its protagonists, illuminating their bold defiance of societal norms with unwavering courage. As the film gracefully approaches its conclusion, it etches a lasting imprint on our hearts and minds through its heart-wrenching scenes of violence with vivid descriptions. The final shot not only leaves an emotional scar on our minds but also imparts a thorny understanding of the human experience. We are left with a visceral connection to the characters and a deep contemplation of the societal norms that continue to dictate the course of their lives.
As the film begins, we find Suku sitting on a beach with the roaring sea before them, reciting a contemplative poem by Neruda to Charlie, their hearts intoxicated by the rhythm of the waves. In the hazy embrace of intoxication, they surrender to slumber, their bodies cradled by the sands of time. This moment, captured in the ethereal glow of the night, serves as a warm gesture, symbolizing the subtle interplay between dream and reality, and the quiet acceptance of their unconventional love within the confines of society. In the tranquil embrace of the night, they find solace in each other’s company, their spirits intertwined. In contrast, Dawson’s narrative unfolds in a pre-colonial past, highlighting a stark departure from the urban landscape inhabited by Suku and Charlie. Alone in the forest, Dawson epitomizes extreme solitude, highlighting his intimate bond with nature and his quest for belonging. His wandering, initially motivated by a mission, transforms into a love affair with the forest itself. His firm resolve to draw the river alludes to a deeper yearning for connection and understanding, reflecting his innate desire to capture the essence of nature’s beauty and power. Thus, an intertwining thread of connection, whether between individuals of the same sex or the ethereal cuddle of the forest’s surroundings, weaves both narratives into a harmoniously. Through nuanced characterization and symbolic resonance, these themes are explored deeply.
By setting the film in the 1980s, the filmmaker immerses viewers in a time when tolerance toward same-sex couples was significantly lower, and societal attitudes often leaned towards discrimination and prejudice. Through this deliberate choice of era, a helpless individual tragically becomes a whipping boy for the consequences of this intolerance, forced to bear the brunt of societal stigma and bigotry. The performance delivered by Swalah Rahman and Faris Hind as a couple infuses their portrayal with a genuine spark of authenticity. With every nuanced gesture, expression, and interaction, they breathe life into their characters, effortlessly capturing the complexities of their relationship. Their chemistry on screen is palpable, drawing viewers into the intricacies of their connection and allowing them to empathize with their plight. Their journey serves as a grim reminder of the challenges faced by many during that era and delivers a powerful commentary on the importance of fighting for equality and acceptance for all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation.
Through the use of subdued hues and a muted color palette, Afrad, along with his cinematographer Abhijith Suresh, explores universal themes of love, longing, and belonging. Afrad, who has also edited the film, establishes an unhurried and rhapsodic pace that allows for contemplation of the intricacies of human relationships and the enduring power of nature’s embrace. The production design by Hamna Shireen and Sahla PT brings the setting to life, skillfully utilizing available resources to establish an authentic atmosphere. Meanwhile, Siraj Ul Hasan‘s sound design further immerses viewers in the film’s world, heightening its overall impact.
As Queer cinema continues to push boundaries and challenge societal norms worldwide, films like Riptide play a crucial role in fostering a more inclusive and empathetic society. It exemplifies thriving within constraints, particularly evident in its low-budget filmmaking featuring limited characters and locations. Although not a grand spectacle, it presents a promising vision and resourcefulness in storytelling that encourages audiences to embrace diversity and celebrate the richness of human experience.
Riptide was selected in the Bright Future section of the International Film Festival of Rotterdam 2024.