Written and directed by Nithin Lukose, Paka (River of Blood) will premiere at 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. The Indian film in the Malayalam language is set in North Kerala and focuses on the long and bloody cycle of vengeance between two feuding families near a serpentine river. Johnny (Basil Paulose) and Anna (Vinitha Koshy), a young couple, wish to end the hatred within their families and hope to begin a life together. However, the return of Johnny’s uncle, Kocheppu (Jose Kizhakkan), after being released from prison, becomes a major obstacle to overcome.
Lukose studied sound at the Film and Television Institute of India, and worked on international projects such as Raam Reddy’s 2015 film Thithi (Funeral), which premiered at the 68th Locarno International Film Festival and won the Golden Leopard — Filmmakers of the Present Award. Lukose’s latest contribution as a sound designer in Dibakar Banerjee’s Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar (2021) immerses viewers into the sounds of urban and rural India. I recently spoke to the Paka (River of Blood) filmmaker about his creative journey so far.
Dipankar Sarkar: How did you get interested in filmmaking?
Nithin Lukose: While growing up in the Wayanad district in Kerala, I used to watch lots of Malayalam films on the Indian television channel Doordarshan [an autonomous public service broadcaster founded by the Government of India] and the Hindi films that were telecast on Fridays and Saturdays. I also used to watch Hollywood films that were available on VHS cassettes. Later, I joined the Department of English Literature at St. Joseph’s College, Devagiri, in Calicut. I discovered that there was a film club in the college run by the department. By becoming a member of the film club, I was exposed to world cinema. So, that was the kind of orientation I started developing towards cinema. Later I decided that I should learn the craft of filmmaking by going to a film school.
DS: Did the literary world of poetry, prose, fiction and drama help you strengthen the storyteller within you?
NL: Yes, it helped me. I like literature a lot, and since my student days, I was an avid reader. There was a small library in my hometown, and I had read almost all the books available there. My family members also had a habit of reading. My grandmother and father used to read a lot. So, since my childhood, I started developing a liking towards English literature. I also started writing short stories and poetry at that time. In due course of time, as a student of literature, I had also finished reading the Indian epics “Mahabharata” and “Ramayana,” along with Greek mythologies “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” and Shakespeare too. So, my literature background has helped me to strengthen my storytelling instincts.
DS: Did your short stories and poetry ever get published?
NL: I tried to publish them as a book but that never happened. I had compiled them together, and now they must be somewhere in my Google drive. But some of my writing on film reviews and criticism got published in some magazines. But I will always have this regret of not being able to publish my stories as a book.
DS: How did studying at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) help you shape your cinematic sensibilities?
NL: Before FTII, my situation was something like an individual who had a passion for cinema and wanted to embrace the medium but did not know much about it. I once wrote a script but did not know how to technically approach the material. So, by joining FTTI, I learned everything about cinema, from the aesthetic appeal to technical execution. The learning happened mostly from the peer student group [at] Institute and that includes both seniors and juniors. According to me, the film institute is a place where you learn if you want to learn. No one is going to teach you. You absorb things around you and people will help you to learn. But you can’t be taught. Every single day in the institute, I got the opportunity to watch a film on the print, and the discussions that followed after the screenings were enriching. The collection of books in the institute’s vast library and the workshops from professionals were equally helpful to me. But most importantly, the freedom I enjoyed there being a student also played an important role. So, the accumulation of all these factors had helped me shape my cinematic sensibilities.
DS: How did the idea of Paka (River of Blood) originate?
NL: I was always interested in writing screenplays. After passing out from FTII, I developed this habit of writing screenplays and pitching them to people. I become a member of the “Screenwriters Association” in India so that I could register my work legally before pitching to filmmakers. But my scripts never materialized into a feature film. In 2014, I began working in Tithi, and after the success of the film, I started getting lots of work and could not spend time on my writing. All the while I concentrated on my career as a sound designer and worked in 25 feature films. In 2018, I worked with Dibakar Banerjee in Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar and the project got delayed due to several reasons. Around this gap period, I got some time to write. In 2019, I visited my hometown in Kallodi, Kerala, in February, when the St. George Church festival was happening. I was experiencing this festival after a long time, almost five years. When I saw the huge scale of the festival with thousands of people attending, it was visually and sound-wise very appealing. I told one of my friends that I wanted to make a film which ends with the St. George Church festival. Then I started looking for stories that were particularly related to this space. There is a river that is three kilometers away from my house which has a notorious reputation of people falling into it and dying in an accident. In the past, there were also incidents of people being killed and dumped into the river. The river has very deep trenches. And then there is a man named Jose who retrieve bodies from the river, and I found the activity of this guy unique enough to weave a story around the river.
DS: Did you seek any help in writing the Paka (River of Blood) screenplay?
NL: I got a lot of help from Asad Hussain, who is a screenwriter and was introduced to me by the filmmaker Gitanjali Rao. He acted as a mentor and helped me to develop objectivity in the screenplay. It took me around one year to complete the screenplay.
DS: Did you face any difficulties finding a producer for your debut?
NL: It was a challenging process. After finishing the screenplay, I pitched it to around 20 production houses in Mumbai. But none of them were interested in producing a Malayalam film. I found a producer from the regional film Industry who was ready to come on board. But he was taking lots of time to greenlight the project because he was busy setting up his production house. I could not [wait] for him, as I had to shoot the film between December and January when the level of water in the river was accurate. In 2019, I was a crew member [for the] Telugu film Mallesham, produced and directed by Raj Rachakonda. One night, during a session on a sound design, I asked him if he was interested in producing my film. I pitched him the story of my film along with a storyboard, and Raj agreed to produce the film. That is how I found a producer for the film.
DS: Tell me about the casting process for Paka (River of Blood).
NL: Except for two or three actors from the Malayalam film industry, most of the people cast for the film [are] non-professionals from my village who are my friends and were ready to help me make the film. Jose played a real-life character. So, 90 percent of the actors are non-professionals.
DS: Share your collaboration with the cinematographer of Paka (River of Blood), Srikanth Kabothu.
NL: I worked with Sam (Srikanth Kabothu) during my film institute days, so I had asked him to come on board for the film, to which he readily agreed. We did the recce together, and I used to share the storyboard of my film that was prepared by my batchmate from animation, Deepak. Sam shared his suggestions, and when he came to shoot the film, his sensibilities helped me to shape the film from the camera’s point of view. We agreed upon most of the things we were shooting, and it was a pleasant experience for me to work with him and figure out certain aspects of the film. His contribution is immense to the film.
DS: Could you talk about the edit for Paka (River of Blood)?
NL: Arunima Shankar is the editor of the film who is based in Goa, India. So, I had to travel to Goa for the edit. Two weeks into the edit of the film, the nationwide lockdown was announced, and the process became hectic. As a result, the edit of the film took more time than we had expected. It took us around six months.
DS: You have worked as a sound designer for several internationally acclaimed films. But you did not design the sound for Paka (River of Blood). Why did you take such a creative call?
NL: I believe that while shooting a film, a director should not get into the technical department because he has lots of other things to do. While a director is on the location, he needs to be with his actors, and that limits his possibilities to operate other departments. He should have objectivity towards post-production while shooting the film. Getting in the department of sound requires too much involvement, and I did not want to do that. I had a good team with whom I have been working for a long time, and I trusted them completely with the film.
DS: Paka (River of Blood) won the best WIP project in the Work-in-Progress Lab of NFDC Film Bazaar 2020, India. How did it help the film?
NL: The NFDC Film Bazaar 2020 changed the fortune of the film. Before the Film Bazaar, Paka (River of Blood) was a small indie film that a crew of enthusiasts had made. But after the participation, when the mentors saw the film, they liked it and helped us in several ways. After the film had won an award, it became easier for me to pitch it for distribution. The edit suggestions provided by mentors helped me to reduce the length by 12 minutes and shape it into a better film. Also, when your project is selected at such a platform, then festivals around the world are going to give serious attention to your film.
DS: At what stage did the internationally acclaimed filmmaker Anurag Kashyap board the project as a producer?
NL: Anurag came on board after I had shown him the first cut of the film. I had also shown the film to acclaimed Malayalam filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan who had his say on the film. Anurag shared his suggestions and asked me about my plans for the film. I told him that I want to send the film first to the festivals and then think about the release. I think maybe he trusted the film, and during further discussions, he got involved and became one of the producers.
DS: Who were the mentors?
NL: They were Marco Muller, Derek Malcolm, Philippa Campbell, Olivia Stewart, Marie-Pierre Duhamel and Lizi Gelber.
DS: What are your expectations from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)?
NL: The film is going to have its world premiere at the festival, and people are going to watch the complete film for the first time, and I am expecting feedback from the viewers. Some of them may like the film, and some may not. It is all subjective. But I expected the film to reach out to more audiences, which is the purpose of the crew behind making a film. After TIFF, I hope that the film travels to other international film festivals. And I wish to release the film in India by the time the theatres are open.
Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.