Violence propels the plot in Paka (River of Blood), but hardly any of it is depicted on screen.
In his debut feature, Indian filmmaker Nithin Lukose instead focuses on the fear, cruelty and hatred orbiting the act of murder. The diminished gore sharpens the impact of these emotions, inflicting viewers with the dread of violence more acutely than any outward display of carnage.
The Malayalam-language film, which premiered regionally at the Red Sea International Film festival, is a cautionary tale of intergenerational revenge set in the lush backwaters of Kerala in India. It tells the story of a young couple who try to overcome an age-old feud and hatred between their families. This lineage of vengeance results in a series of eye-for-an-eye murders and bodies that are then discarded in the village river.
Paka blends Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with the mysticisms of the ancient Sanskrit epics, but the kernel of the plot comes from the stories Lukose would hear about his village from his grandmother.
“It’s a Christian village in Kerala called Kallody,” Lukose tells The National. “In the past, according to my grandmother’s stories, people used to kill each other and then, covering the bodies in a sack, dump them in the river’s trenches. The trenches are very deep and usually no one would be able to retrieve the bodies.”
In fact, only one man had the skillset necessary to scale the river’s depth to retrieve the bodies – a diver by the name of Jose, who takes on the role in Paka.
“He is a real character,” Lukose says. “I remember seeing him as a child swim into the river and take out the bodies. And he is the only one who could do so.”
Jose is not the only person from Kallody who is cast in Paka. In fact, Lukose says the film was a collaborative effort between several members of the village. “Most people in the film aren’t actors. We trained almost every evening for two, three months,” he says.
Even Lukose’s grandmother, whose stories informed the film, plays a pivotal role in Paka. Her face doesn’t appear in the film, but her voice, wavering and even wicked at times, is a major instigating force.
“She’s the villain,” Lukose says. “She’s bedridden and about to die but continues to push her grandchildren to take vengeance, because vengeance is rooted in her and she wants to kill all the members of the other family.”
The brutality in Paka is not seen but it is certainly felt. Lukose communicates the film’s macabre through the sound of the Chenda. The percussion instrument, native to Kerala, breathlessly dribbles as a precursor to the film’s violent moments and becomes synonymous with murder.
Coming from a background in sound design, Lukose relies heavily on the background score to enrich and inform the world of Paka. From crackling radio feeds that hint at world events to the brass of trumpet that allude to the divine and the afterlife.
“I’ve done almost 20 films as a sound designer and location sound mixer,” Lukose says. “But I used to write before going to film school in 2009. I used to write scripts and stories, it was always a passion. But nothing materialised, not until Paka, when I felt I had a confident script, a good crew and good producers to make it.”
When Lukose first began writing the script to Paka, it found form as a drama reflecting on the political rivalries in Kerala, but then it gradually shifted from a political story to a family one.
“But the village is a microcosm,” Lukose says. He points out to a character in the film, who sits on the river banks, plays the trumpet and listens to radio broadcasts, and identifies him as a sort of divine entity “watching human folly".
While the majority of the cast in Paka are from Lukose’s hometown and are making their acting debut, the film also stars several seasoned talents including Vinitha Koshy, Nithin George and Basil Paulose. The film was produced by Raj Rachakonda as well as Gangs of Wasseypur director Anurag Kashyap, who Lukose says came on board after watching the first cut.
“He said he wanted to be part of the film,” Lukose says. “He went back to his village to film Gangs of Wasseypur, and I was going back after studying in film school to my village and make a film in my space.”
Lukose says he is looking into making more films in Kerala and the spaces he is familiar with. He is currently working on a political satire, he says, called The Partner, which reunites Lukose with Paka’s producers.
“I want to make it an indie film for festivals again.”
Lukose says his compatriots have yet to see Paka. The film, which premiered worldwide at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, is heading to the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January. It will then be releasing in India in March, which is when Lukose says his friends and family in Kallody will finally get to see it.
“It was a project that brought the village together,” he says. “They’re definitely looking forward to seeing it.”