Godfather, Kireedam, Mahabharata - Nithin Lukose on the inspirations of Paka, and more
Sound designer-turned-director Nithin Lukose talks about the creative choices that shaped his critically acclaimed directorial debut, Paka
Nithin Lukose's directorial debut Paka is a heartwrenching tale of family feuds and vengeance that runs down generations. Produced by Raj Rachakonda and Anurag Kashyap, the film premiered in the Discovery section at the Toronto International Film Festival and got rave reviews. This detour into direction was an interesting path for Nithin, who started his cinema career as a sound designer. “Though many say cinema is a visual medium, I always believe that it is a combination of both visual and sound. In cinema, if visual is the body, then the sound is its soul,” says Nithin.
Before getting into Paka, let's begin with how your interest in cinema developed?
I grew up watching mainstream cinema, and it was only during my college days that I started watching international films through a film club. That exposure inspired me to study cinema academically. Before joining FTII, I was just another film enthusiast. But the five years in that institute shaped me into what I'm today. We watched films from various languages on a daily basis, discussed and argued over them. Together we all grew.
When did you decide to try a hand in writing and filmmaking?
I was always drawn to writing. During my first year in FTII, I registered a script in the Writers Association. I had also pitched a script to Drishyam Films about a rural-based comedy-drama, which had a cameo role by Mahendra Singh Dhoni. But unfortunately, it didn't materialise.
How did the idea of Paka first germinate?
Most of the things shown in the film are based on what I heard from my grandmother. As a child, she used to narrate to me these stories of how people get killed and dumped in the river. 'Kayathil kall ketti thaazhthi kalyaum panni' is a very commonly used phrase in our locality. So I'm used to seeing people recovering dead bodies regularly. These things struck me at a very early age and I wanted to tell this story.
Let's talk more about one of the film's central characters, Goliath Kocheppu, who might seem like a ruffian but does have a softer side...
When I was studying in 10th grade, I remember this incident where a person who committed a murder was returning home after spending some 15 years in jail. He was killed on arrival by the rival family and Kocheppu's character was inspired by that. Jose Kizhakkan, the actor who played the role taught me drama in school. So Paka is like my gurudakshina to him.
An interesting visual motif is the old band player who makes an appearance whenever a body is recovered from the river.
We tried to place him as the God who keeps an eye on these humans and their actions. He is like a witness to everything. He carries with him a radio with which he has access to things from around the world. He listens to football commentary and news about wars. There's a possibility of another interpretation. The grandmother's husband was a band player. So it's up to the audience.
Paka presents an altogether different picture of Kerala. It is not the progressive society that is often shown in our films.
Humans have always been fighting with each other for some reason or the other. It's a never-ending process, be it for land, race, or religion. What I tried to convey is that village in Paka is a miniature of the whole universe. The stories about these family feuds and what I've seen happening around me during my growing-up years inspired me to make a movie out of it.
The two families that are at loggerheads are headed by elder people. Interestingly, one of them is blind and the other person's face is never shown...
If you notice, the grandmother's character is livid when Kocheppu opens the windows. Similarly, the grandfather character is blind. Both of these characters hate light. If light falls upon them, they might become sane. They prefer to be in the darkness where vengeance is all they yearn for. Guru (1997) was the inspiration behind that whole idea.
Talking about inspirations, Paka has shades of films like Kireedam, Godfather etc. What are the ones that influenced you?
My core idea was, it is the old generation who carry with them these hardcore emotions like revenge and vengeance. When you think from that angle, you instantly get reminded of Godfather (1991). Similarly, Basil's character in Paka is more like Mohanlal's Sethumadhavan from Kireedam (1989). Not just movies, even the books I've read have influenced me a lot. For example, the blind man's character is inspired by Dhritarashtra from Mahabharatha.
How did Anurag Kashyap get involved in this project?
After the first cut, I showed it to a closed group of people including Adoor Gopalakrishnan sir, Dibakar Banerjee (Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar), and Raam Reddy (Thithi), just to know what they think about the film. I reached out to Anurag through Raam. He liked the film and gradually got involved in further discussions and helped us through the edits.
Incidentally, the grandmother in the film is played by my real grandmother. We had originally shot a scene where her face is revealed. But later during the edits, it was Anurag who felt that it would be better if we don't show her. One of the reasons was my grandmother didn't have that monster-like face that one would associate with a character like that. It definitely worked better because the audience could have their own interpretations of how she looks.
What are your upcoming plans?
Now that theatres are reopening in Kerala, we'll see if we can get Paka to the big screen. I'm working on another script currently. I would also love to do a prequel to Paka. My dream project is to remake a Malayalam film with Shah Rukh Khan in Hindi but I can't reveal which one it is (laughs).