A grandmother inspired Malayalam filmmaker Nithin Lukose’s Paka, and a grandmother plays a crucial role in the movie. Lukose based his feature debut on stories his grandmother told him about inter-generational violence and blood feuds in Kerala’s Wayanad region. In Paka, a matriarch instigates her sons and grandson to keep alive the family tradition of vengeance. The elderly woman, who is never seen in the movie, is played fittingly by Lukose’s grandmother.

“If you show something, it becomes less scary, which was one of the reasons I didn’t want to show her face,” Lukose said. “We had a cut where we see her face, but we took it out in later edits.”

Paka will be premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (September 9-18). Although the tagline in English is “River of Blood”, Paka actually means vengeance, said Lukose, a 36-year-old sound designer and Film and Television Institute of India graduate.

Despite the potential for gruesome acts of bloodletting, Lukose has opted for a low-key approach. In the movie, revenge flows quietly rather than gushes forth, he said. “Commercial films about vengeance are loud and violent,” Lukose told Scroll.in. “We decided that the cinematography and acting had to be believable within the space.”

Vinitha Koshy and Basil Paulose in Paka (2021). Courtesy Studio 99/Alif Talkies.

The backdrop is migration from other parts of Kerala to Wayanad between the 1940s and 1970s, a period marked by intense struggles for survival and pitched battles for land, limited resources and pride, Lukose added. “But we didn’t want to show too much – although it’s actually a very violent film, we have given it the subtle treatment,” he said. “We decided to opt for neutral colours and costumes.”

The stories Lukose heard while growing up in Wayanad were blood-chilling, including an account of a man who killed five members of a family and was then slain in retaliation. Many of the bodies were dumped in the Orappu river. This tributary of the Cauvery river plays a vital role in Paka: it is where the victims of decades-long tensions between two families meet their end.

The task of fishing out the bodies belong to the marvellously moustachioed swimmer Jose. Like several other characters in the movie, Jose plays a version of himself. Lukose looked for non-professional actors from within the local community, including casting his friends as the buddies of one of the key characters, Johnny.

Played by Basil Paulose – among the few professional actors in the production – Johnny is in love with Anna (Vinitha Koshy), who is from the rival clan. The inevitable fallout of this taboo union embroils Johnny’s uncle Kochappan, who has recently completed a prison sentence for murdering Anna’s father, and Johnny’s brother Paachi. Led by Anna’s grandfather, her family seeks to keep the cycle of retribution in motion.

Paka (2021).

Lukose’s experiences as the sound designer of Raam Reddy’s Thithi eased his own collaboration with unschooled performers. While Paachi is played by first-time actor Athul John, Lukose picked Jose Kizhakkan, who was his drama teacher at school, to portray Kochappan. “He has never been in a film before although he is a professional theatre actor,” Lukose said about Kizhakkan. “It was a beautiful process.”

The movie has been co-produced by Raj Rachakonda (Mallesham, Sila Nerangalil), and Anurag Kashyap. Indeed, the unending thirst for revenge across generations in Paka might remind some viewers of Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur.

“I had sent Anurag the first cut for his feedback,” Lukose said. “He called up and said, what is the plan? He trusted the film and saw its potential and supported its journey.” We want to take it to festivals.”

The filmmakers are aiming for a general release after the movie’s premiere at Toronto.

Nithin Lukose.