Interview Malayalam

Paka was born of the stories my grandmother told me: Director Nithin Lukose

Premiered in the Discovery section at the Toronto International Film Festival, Nithin Lukose's directorial debut has been praised across industry lines.

Shriram Iyengar

When a filmmaker like Adoor Gopalakrishnan tells Anurag Kashyap to back the debut feature of a young filmmaker, it is high praise indeed. Yet, Nithin Lukose's personal Paka: River Of Blood has only just begun its journey. The film has been premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (9–18 September 2021) where it is part of the Discovery section. It has already won plaudits as the best WIP project at the Work-in-Progress lab at the NFDC Bazaar 2021.

In a telephone conversation with, Nithin Lukose said, "This is a story from the place I hail from. I had been writing for almost 10 years, but it was not happening." So the FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) graduate ventured into sound design. Working on films like Thithi (2015), Mallesham (2019), Julie Taymor's The Glorias (2020) and Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar (2021) earned him credit and fame.

Armed with the experience, he has returned as a director. "Every FTII-ian wants to be a filmmaker some time," Nithin said. "That's why we come there."

With Paka: River Of Blood, Nithin finally set out to complete his journey. Paka means enmity in Malayalam. Set in Wayanad, a district in the Western Ghats in Kerala, the film tells the story of two feuding families and a young couple that tries to overcome this hatred with their love.

"It was born of the stories my grandmother told me," the young filmmaker revealed. "In her stories, it was about the struggle when they came to Wayanad, and the survival. In this struggle for survival, people often develop violent tendencies."

For now, the film is moving into a creative phase of festival tours and premieres. Following are excerpts from an interview with Nithin Lukose:

How did you set about writing the story for Paka: River Of Blood?

This is a story from my place, where I hail from. I had been writing for almost 10 years, but it was not happening. Then I got into sound design and made a career. 

So, you started out to be a filmmaker right out of FTII?

Every FTII-ian wants to be a filmmaker. That's why we come there. That's the purpose (laughs).

In 2019, I was attending a church festival in my place. It had been a long time since I had done so. I could feel the scale of the festival. I told one of my friends that I want to shoot a film which ends with the climax of this festival. Right the next festival, we were shooting the film.

May I ask which place?

This is in Wayanad, there is a church called Kallody. That's where the story was born.

A snippet from the trailer for Paka: River Of Blood

Paka is a story about the vendetta between two families, passed down through generations. When you think of Wayanad, revenge is the last thing on your mind. How did the connect happen?

It was born of the stories my gradnmother told me. She used to tell a lot of stories. In her stories, it was about the struggle when they came to Wayanad, and the survival. In this struggle for survival, people often develop violent tendencies.

It is a story of real people, from Wayanad, their struggle, real locations. There is a dangerous river in my place, which is a blend of everything. It is a blend of reality and fiction.

It is encouraging that the film has received such support from across industries. Raj Rachakonda backed you as producer. Adoor Gopalakrishnan had a viewing and reccomended it to Anurag Kashyap, who came on board. Even Gitanjali Rao reccomended a script supervisor...

Yes, she suggested a script mentor for me, Asad Hussain. Asad really helped me to develop the screenplay.

I was someone who was going to make my first film. With my subject, I wanted to make it 100%. The research is more personal, and is the story of my own ancestors. Asad would tell me how to improve it using screenplay techniques. Now, when I am writing, I am not going to have an objective viewpoint of it. So, it helped.

There are mentors who can see it in an objective way. They trusted what I was doing and believed I would make a good film.

How long was the process of research and filming?

I started in February 2019, research and writing. I shot the next January. We completed the shoot just before the pandemic and the lockdown happened. We were lucky enough to complete the work.

The film has a fascinating cast led by Basil Poulose, Vinitha Koshy, Jose Kizhakkan, Nithin George, but you also worked with several residents of the region. What led to that decision, and how challenging was it?

I was working on Thithi in 2014. That was a complete experiment, going to a village, casting real people. I was throughout the process working on synch sound, watching them go through that. I thought this is something we should do if we are making a story about a place. This is a story about that place, and locally sourced, so are characters.

I requested people whom I know from my childhood. I told them I am writing something and want you to act in the film. They had no idea how to act in front of the camera. But they agreed to it. I thought if we give them acting classes and workshops, they will be the best. I know how they behave, it comes naturally. An actor might pick it up, but it won't be as good as they do.

You also chose not to do the sound design for your own film.

Yes, I did not do the sound design for Paka. There were so many things to do. I know how much effort and concentration it requires. It is two or three months of hard work, minimum.

I think when someone is directing, they should not do anything else. A director has a lot of things on their plate. So, I gave this task to my team, who have been with me for a while now.

When you turn filmmaker, after having worked with several directors from Raam Reddy to Dibakar Banerjee, do you carry over some practices from them?

Definitely, there is an influence. I have worked with Raam Reddy (Thithi), Dibakar Banerjee (Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar), Julie Taymor when they came from Hollywood, the pattern, behaviour, handling things on location, and approach to the subject. Even Resul Pookutty, when I worked with him. They all mentored me on how to approach actors, characters and cinematography.

Above all, Raj [Rachakonda, director, Mallesham (2018)] was there. He was ready to produce it. He gave me some money thinking if it doesn't work, he will lose it (laughs). He trusted me. He was ready to furnish me to make this film. It was an experiment after all. We never knew if it would work. Every independent film is an experiment, right?

More specifically, did your work in sound design influence the aesthetics of your first film?

Absolutely. But then, the aesthetics were there from FTII itself. At FTII, we learn everything together. We learn together. We have specializations, but when we work on projects, it is together. We work in every department. We might not always know every detail, but the awareness is built. That developed the aesthetics, basically.

The aesthetics are now noticed more, even by audiences, who are aware of sounds, silences, style in every film. What has changed to cause this?

I think cinema generally has changed. The sensibility of cinema, its approach has changed. Maybe the accessibility of international films... people can watch any content.

I think what Hollywood and European cinema do is technically they are very strong. They give attention to sound, camera. In our mass cinema, sound is basically just music.

Sound and music are often synonymous in mass entertainers here...

That's how it is, but it is changing. Even in Malayalam cinema, a lot of synch sound has come in. In the past four or five years, a lot of regional films have also used synch sound frequently. The changes have been positive in that way.

Interestingly, this has also led to a cross-pollination of collaborations between directors/producers from up North and filmmakers in other regions.

This has been happening in the past two or three years. That's because of OTT, for sure. Everyone can watch anything. Before that, a regional film would be limited to regional audiences. I have spoken to several of my batchmates who now have access to films and ask me about Malayalam cinema and changes.

Maybe that's why Anurag [Kashyap] also thought of backing a Malayalam film. I don't think he has been part of a Malayalam film before, except Moothon (2020). He watched this film and came on board because of this cross-pollination phenomenon.

Having worked with independent filmmakers like Raam Reddy and Dibakar Banerjee as well as with big studios like YRF (Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar), how does that influence your approach to subjects, aesthetics, or design?

It is a tricky question. Aesthetics do not change. You have to adapt to the aesthetics of the filmmaker or the film. We are adapting to the script. It is your choice to be a part of it or not.

I wanted to work with Dibakar to get a film orientation from him. He is someone who has given a lot of things to Indian cinema. With Thithi, we were all first-time filmmakers. We were all making our first film. That was a different workflow altogether. It just grows from one film to another. I have done commercial hit films and independent films as well. It is a matter of fitting into it.

So, what next for Paka? Is it on the festival tour?

Yes, after TIFF, we are looking forward to a few other festivals. An Asian premiere, a European premiere. We will have clarity about that in a couple of weeks. A few festivals have approached us and we are in talks with them.

Related topics

Toronto International Film Festival