If you’re going into the Malayalam film Paka expecting the rush of Jallikattu or the cool vibes of Kumbalangi Nights, you'll be in for a surprise. This lushness of the Wayanad setting is at odds with the measured tone and eerie harshness of Nithin Lukose’s film. Lukose was the sound designer for Raam Reddy’s award-winning Thithi (2015) and Dibakar Banerjee’s Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar (2021). For his debut feature, he returned to his home district of Wayanad in north Kerala, drawing on stories about local feuds and characters.
Paka was part of the Work in Progress Lab at the NFDC Film Bazaar in January. It will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Lounge spoke to Lukose about violence, casting friends and family, and why this film is especially close to his life.
You’ve said the film was inspired by stories your grandmother told you growing up.
Wayanad, where the film is set, is near to my home. The river is 2-3 kilometres from my house. My grandparents used to narrate a lot of stories from their own struggles when they came to Wayanad just after independence. There was a lot of migration then to north Kerala from the south.
At the time Wayanad was about 80% forest and plantations. They had to fight malaria, wild animals, and gradually they started fighting each other. That’s what humans do, as a clan. They developed some kind of violence within themselves. An aftereffect might be the rise of Naxalism in Kerala, which was also based in Wayanad. The violence gets passed down the generations. Though I am not a violent man [laughs].
The inheritance of violence is a central theme in your film.
My grandmother told me a story in the 1980s about someone who had been killed in the family in the ‘50s. Someone would go to jail, and the rivals would wait for him to come out to take revenge. After survival, it was about accumulating family wealth and pride. It wasn’t just my grandmother—all the villagers know these stories.
You studied sound design at the Film and Television Institute of India. Were you planning to make a career in that?
I wanted to get into sound because I loved music. I was a good mimic and I tended to notice sounds in films. Sound works as a shadow to a body; it’s more spiritual than a visual.
But I always wanted to write and direct my films. I applied for the writing and sound course. Writing only lasted one year, so I went with sound. However, in my first year at FTII, I took the membership of film writers association. I registered my first screenplay in 2011. Every year after I tried to write something, I was continuously trying to register scripts.
In 2014 I got a scholarship from Resul Pukootty and FTII, and did an internship with him. We did Thithi in 2014, after which I got opportunities and built a career in sound. After working with Dibakar Banerjee on Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar in 2019, I started writing Paka.
People say directors draw from their own lives for their first film.
That’s a philosophy of film school. When FTII was started, the idea was to get people from different parts of the country in one place, so that they’d eventually disperse and go back to make films about their roots. It didn’t happen after that, because films started getting concentrated in the cities. But my conviction was: when you make your first film, go back to your roots.
I had a brother. He passed away in 2014. He was seven years younger to me, almost like Johnny and Paachi. Johnny is a manifestion of myself in many ways—all his friends in the film are my real friends and cousins. I started with the thought of the river, but the core family story came from my brother.
You conducted an acting workshop before shooting started.
That was almost two months. In Thithi we had worked with non-actors, trained them to act. That technique we used here. Ninety per cent of the actors in the film are from the village. It’s the first time most are facing the camera.
One delightful detail is that the best swimmers are old men.
Jose [a character in the film] is the one who takes out dead bodies from the river. He used to do it from when I was in school. He’s the only one who can swim around the trenches. He knows the river in and out. The other man who’s called in, Tiger Johnny, he’s from another village. He does the same thing, he’s a competitor of Jose.
Did you deliberately make the grandmother the toughest character?
That’s my grandmother in the film. I wanted her to act. She’s 88 years old.
I didn’t want to show the face. One edit had a glimpse, but my idea was: she’s a monster, and if you don’t show the monster people can imagine what she’s like.
How did you approach the sound design?
(Composer) Faizal (Ahmed) and I worked from the script stage itself, for almost two years, making themes. I didn’t want to do the sound since I was also directing and wanted to remain objective, so I entrusted that to the team I usually work with.
When I was writing the script, whenever I visited Wayanad for casting or something else, I’d take my sound recorder with me. I recorded sounds in all the seasons. At least half an hour I’d record every day. We used all that in the film.
What dictated the look of the film?
This is a violent film that's happening in a green space. Usually, this kind of violence happens in a barren land. There’s an irony that this a place where people should live peacefully, but instead they start killing each other.
People have said the film is like Shakespeare. I was looking at it more like Mahabharata—two families, the old man is blind.