Reel Life: A river runs through it

Nithin Lukose goes back to his roots in Wayanad in his debut feature film, Paka (River of Blood), that will have its world premiere in Discovery section of Toronto International Film Festival

Reel Life: A river runs through it

Namrata Joshi

Nithin Lukose had decided on the setting for the climax of his debut feature film even before zeroing in on the subject. “I was visiting my village Kallody in Wayanad, Kerala, after a long time and felt that its church festival would be [an] ideal [ground],” he says. It’s the annual feast of St George Forane Church that is organized on a massive scale, with participation from thousands of believers and it did eventually make its way as the crowing point of Lukose’s Malayalam film Paka (River of Blood). However, besides the vivid festival, the film also draws a lot else, in terms of creative inspiration, from his own life and times and the people and places he grew amid.

Paka is set to have its world premiere next month in the Discovery section of one of the world’s leading festivals—Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, Lukose firmly believes in harking back to the roots. Life at FTII was grounded in a sense of cosmopolitanism with students coming together at the campus from different regions of the country. “[After that] We had to disperse back to our own cultures,” he says.

Nithin Lukose
Nithin Lukose

Naturally, he homed in on Kallody. The church festival aside, the film also features the river—Orappu, an offshoot of the Kabini—as a significant site and metaphor. A primal force that is the keeper of the inherent violence and restlessness propelling Lukose’s story and characters. “The river was considered dangerous, not where you could swim”: Lukose goes back to the memories of his childhood. It was all about killings and dumping bodies which is how it gets evoked on screen as well.

There was one man—Jose—who would swim and brave the river’s currents to recover the dead. He had several competitors who couldn’t hold a candle to him. The 65-year-old man, with no experience of facing the camera plays a similar character in the film. In fact, while the cast of Paka features professional actors like Basil Paulose, Nithin George and Vinitha Koshy a bunch of them are the villagers themselves who were introduced to the basics of camera and acting in a two-month long workshop before the shoot.

The tale of feuding families itself goes back to the stories told by Lukose’s own grandmother. It is a fictionalized stringing together of events from her own life. Incidentally, the 88-year-old lady herself appears in the film, playing the crucial role of the granny of one of the families. Lukose considers the main character in the film as someone cast in his own spirit and the character of the younger brother is a tribute to his own.

Paka is about love flowering in the midst of family fights, it is about the imprint of the rivalries of the past on the present, it is about revenge and retribution, guilt, punishment and atonement. The synopsis states: Paka is a tale of a river that swells with the blood of two feuding families and a young couple that tries to overcome this hatred with their love”.

Reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet? Lukose thinks otherwise. The familiar trope charts a different zone under his baton. He claims to be guided more by the Mahabharata and the character of Dhritarashtra, the blind witness to the dynastic war. According to him, the film also draws from the growth of Naxalism in the area during the 70s.

Most of all, the bloodshed is contextualized in migration of people from Central Kerala to Wayanad that happened from the 40s to the 70s. His own family had moved to Kallody from Kottayam in the 50s. “There was nothing here but forests. It was all about survival,” says Lukose. The simmering violence in the film is ultimately a symbol of that spirit to persevere and endure.

Before taking to direction, Lukose had earned laurels for sound design in a range of well-known films—from the critically-acclaimed Kannada indie Thithi to the recent Dibakar Banerjee film Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar. Why the switch to direction? It was always on the cards bolstered by Lukose’s love for writing.

Even though he trained in sound at the FTII, he actually wanted to study scriptwriting. “But it was a one-year programme and I wanted to spend more time at the FTII,” he smiles. Something that the course in sound recording and sound design allowed for.

It was while working on Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar that Lukose began writing Paka. The pre-production began end of 2019 and the film was shot early last year at Kallody, well before COVID-19 brought life to a grinding halt.

Did he step in to do the sound design as well? Lukose had to let go of it to focus on direction though he had spent more than a year earlier capturing the unique sounds of Wayanad. Jobin Jayan, Toby Jose, Aravind Sundar and Pramod Sundar worked in the sound department. Srikanth Kabothu helmed the camera, Arunima Shankar edited the film, and Akhil Ravi Padmini handled the production design. Faizal Ahamed composed the music which makes lovely use of the trumpet.

A lot of Lukose’s collaborators on the film are from the institute. It all boils down to the comfort factor and the easy chemistry. “You don’t have to brief people after a point; they get you,” says Lukose.

The rough cut of the film was part of the Work-In-Progress lab at the NFDC Film Bazaar in January this year where it received the Prasad Lab DI Award and Moviebuff Appreciation Award. It proved to be a place to meet some creative allies. Legendary filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan who gave it a chit of approval, Anurag Kashyap boarded as co-producer and mentors like television producer Philippa Campbell, film critic Derek Malcolm and festival director Marco Muller helped sharpen the film further.

The premiere at TIFF, one of the largest publicly attended film festivals in the world, is what Lukose regards as a “good fit” for Paka, considering it is more commercial than arthouse in its orientation. While he is hoping to travel to Toronto—pandemic protocols allowing—the quest for ideal festivals for the European, Asia and Indian premieres is now on. For Kallody, Lukose and the river of blood, the world is turning their oyster. One festival at a time.

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