FTII-trained sound designer Nithin Lukose's first film as director, Paka, premiered last week in the Discoveries Section of the Toronto International Film Festival. The work is a true discovery in the way that it as much as aural experiment as it is visual. A film that places a bloodthirsty river as the home of two warring families, we get a modern Cain and Abel story, where brothers kill brothers for a reason they no longer remember. Currently doing its run at film festivals, the director expects a wider release early next year. With the film getting its share of acclaim from early viewers, the director takes us through the film and how his life in Wayanad inspired its eerie setting. Excerpts:
I watched Paka last week and I'm very excited to talk to you about it. But before that, you've worked as the sound designer in celebrated films like Thithi, Mallesham and the recent Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar. How did you get into the sound department in the first place?
I think I was always fascinated with the use of sound as a storytelling tool. Even when I applied to study in FTII (Film And Television Institute Of India), I applied for the three-year course in sound design and the one-year course in screenwriting. I was interested in music too and I used to perform mimicry. I'm not sure if it is because of this but I used to notice how they've used sound in movies. I was a part of the Film Club in college and this got me into world cinema. I started watching films seriously and that's when I realised that cinema is something to be studied. More than the visual aspect, it was the sound that got me more interested.
Do you remember a particular movie or a scene that got you to notice this aspect better?
Krzysztof Kieślowski's Blue was very transformative. I would attend screenings at the PTI hall of my college and this would lead to discussions among students. People with cinema knowledge kept visiting and I too got into reading more about cinema in general and sound in particular. Adoor Gopalakrishnan's films and his innovative use of sound inspired me a lot during this phase.
Can you name a film or a scene from then?
The scene between both the sisters in Elippathayam is a great example. The protagonist (Karamana Janardanan Nair) lives with his two unmarried sisters, played Sarada and Jalaja. He probably doesn't want them to get married because he fears he will end up being alone. There is a scene early on where Jalaja's character runs outside when she hears an aeroplane fly above their house. Jalaja calls her older sister to come and see it but she's not able to. She just faints because of the heat. The younger sister is the only one who can see the plane. And the very next day, Jalaja runs away from that house. This whole imagery is created through sound and we don't even see a plane. This made me realise that one half of a scene is sound.
You wrote Paka right? Did you also keep writing through these years?
I did. Back in 2012, I had written a screenplay and I even pitched it to Anwar Rasheed. It didn't turn into a film but I still have that screenplay somewhere. Writing has always been happening on the side. I started working on sound and I completed around 25 films. I was taking a break during the shoot of Dibakar Banerjee's film and I came home to Wayanad. On that visit, I knew I could place a film in this setting.
Was the process of joining film school a smooth one?
Not really. I was working as a higher secondary school teacher when I started to apply for these courses. The decision to quit my job to study films was a controversial one back home. I was considered a rebel (thanthoni) until I returned having made films.
When did the concept of Paka come to you? As you'd prefaced in the film, it is supposed to be inspired from the stories your grandmother narrated.
It was in 2019. There is a river that's around two kilometres away from my house that's infamous for how dead bodies keep washing up. There are people who are specialised at retrieving these bodies and I found these elements interesting as a setting for a revenge drama. At first, I had seen it as a political feud but it gradually evolved to what it is now when I integrated my grandmother's experiences and memories into it.
You mean to say that the stories in Paka happened for real or is it a mix of fact and fiction?
It is a mix of the two but the river is real. It is a tributary of Kabini and there have been several cases of people dumping bodies into the river. There was a corpse retrieved just last week by the same Joseettan we've shown in the film. His character is almost entirely factual and he is considered an expert navigator of that river. I grew up watching all of this and it made its way into the film.
Was there really two warring families like in the film?
My grandmother told me a story of a man who returned from jail after 15 years. He had served his life sentence but on the second day of his return, he was hacked to death by people who were waiting for him to come back. What was that day like? What did that person do on that day? Some of these questions made their way into Paka.
Let's discuss the film a little more. I was fascinated by your decision to not show the face of the grandmother. Along with her voice, this made her scarier than any actor you could have shown…
That character was played by my own grandmother (laughs). Even the actor who played Paachi is my cousin. I wanted to show her a person who didn't want any light in her room. She is about to die but the lure of revenge hasn't left her at all. I imagined the room being filthy. The sound of flies was used in those scenes to create this feeling. But the idea wasn't always to hide her face. We even shot a reveal but it was Anurag Kashyap (the film's producer) who insisted we remove it. If you had seen my grandmother, her face is gentle and that would have destroyed the image of a monster people create for themselves.
Equally fascinating was the idea of making the patriarch of the opposing family blind. It gave the film an almost mythical quality.
I looked at him as Dhritarashtra. In a way, Paka is a retelling of the Mahabharata with the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Paachi could even be read as Abhimanyu and Johny as Arjun. None of these characters are either black and white and I wanted my characters to be a shade of grey. To see how revenge lingers on the minds of people so close to death was another quality I wanted to highlight.
You mentioned you started writing screenplays a long while ago. Learning sound must have been something that happened after writing. So when you learnt sound design, did it change the way you wrote scenes?
Sound becomes an integral part of the writing itself now. For instance the church festival, with the band playing in the background, is a part of several scenes, but it is more in the soundscape than visuals. Even the WWE commentary when characters walk into the village was for this. When the Uncle's character is being compared to Goliath, a second layer comparing him to a wrestler like Undertaker was added. Similarly, I had written the character of a trumpet player who is able to see all of this in-fighting from a vantage point. He has a radio with him and he listens to things like Colombian football commentary and newsreels of a war. I thought of using him like a God figure and it was sound that helped in creating that.
But I feel there are just as many visual motifs as there are aural ones. For instance, there is a repeated use of a triangular ridge as the entry and exit point into the river. Its v-shape stays as an image for a long time.
We had even called it the 'v-shaped entrance' in the script. It is the main way to enter the river and we shot so much there that all of us started calling that place 'V Shape'. I used it as a visual metaphor, almost like the entry point into a womb…an entry into the womb of the river. People either die or get a sort of rebirth once they make their entry here. There are elements we were able to add because of the cyclical nature of revenge. Even as an idea, revenge lends scope to visual and sound motifs.
How did director Raj R of Mallesham and Anurag Kashyap join?
Raj and I made Paka into a film. I narrated it to him when I was working on Mallesham and he funded it. Anurag came onboard after the first edit. I had shown a first cut to a small group that included Adoor sir, Raam Reddy and a few others. Adoor sir mentored me through this period and he had asked me to cut around 10 minutes of it, which we have. Anurag too watched it then and he's been a part of it since. But Anurag saw Paka very differently, as a very personal piece of cinema, kind of like his Gangs Of Wasseypur. That was why he joined in.
Isn't the film personal, though?
It is. The central relationship between the two brothers, Paachi and Johny, is based on my own relationship with my younger brother. My younger brother passed away eight years ago when he was studying law in New Delhi. In Paka, you see Johny as someone who is afraid of water, but when Paachi goes missing, he swims through this river to return with his body. For this scene, I drew from my own experience of having to fly to Delhi to return with my brother's body. He needed to be embalmed and brought back on an Air India flight. I had to navigate several fears and that's what has returned through my movie. Personal cinema will always connect.