Toronto Film Festival: Wayanad’s ‘River of Blood’, Jodhpur’s ‘Bullet Baba’ temple, now frames of world… –

'A Night of Knowing Nothing' by Payal Kapadia, which premiered at the Directors' Fortnight in Cannes in July, will have its international premiere in Toronto.

‘A Night of Knowing Nothing’ by Payal Kapadia, which premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes in July, will have its international premiere in Toronto.

In the middle of a raging pandemic, two young filmmakers – one from Kerala and the other from Rajasthan – chose widely different storytelling techniques to catapult them to the top of the global film festival circuit.

For Nithin Lukose, a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), it was a deep dive into the violent history of a river in his backyard in Wayanad, Kerala. While it was the outright bizarre nature of beliefs and rituals that fuelled the imagination of Ritwik Pareek, a Jaipur-born former art director in advertising.

Malayalam film 'Paka' ('River of Blood') by Nithin Lukose is a love story set in Wayanad, exploring the region's violent history of human settlement in the last century. Malayalam film ‘Paka’ (‘River of Blood’) by Nithin Lukose is a love story set in Wayanad, exploring the region’s violent history of human settlement in the last century.

Malayalam film Paka (English title River of Blood) by Wayanad-born Lukose and Hindi film Dug Dug by Pareek are part of the Discovery programme of the 46th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which opened on September 9.

Both movies are first features of the directors, who believe in the abundant stories in their own backyard. While Paka and Dug Dug are world premieres in Toronto, A Night of Knowing Nothing by another debutante director, Payal Kapadia, will have its international premiere in the Wavelengths section of the festival.

The Toronto festival, which was forced to opt for a digital edition due to the coronavirus pandemic last year, has returned this year as a hybrid event with in-person and online screenings, and even drive-in venues and an open air cinema. The official selection this year has gone up to about 100 feature films from 50 last year, though still much below the 300 features in world premieres alone in the previous editions.

Strict Covid-19 regulations are in place for attending guests and professionals from the global film industry. All festival staff, audience members and visitors are required to show proof of full vaccination or negative tests taken up to 48 hours before entering venues.

Toronto, the commercial capital of Canada, boasts of a high 74.9 per cent vaccination of its eligible population.

“We have relied on municipal and provincial medical direction and advice on rapid testing, and we expect this will provide another level of clarity and comfort for all 2021 festival goers,” say TIFF co-heads Joana Vicente and Cameron Bailey.

Feuding families of the Western Ghats

The presence of three Indian feature films in the TIFF official selection this year follows a pattern set almost two decades ago by the North American festival. Independent films from India have proved to be crowd-pullers in Toronto, which has a sizeable South Asian community. Paka, which will have its world premiere on September 13, follows another Malayalam film, Jallikattu by Lijo Jose, an audience favourite at the festival in 2019.

One of the rare Malayalam features filmed in Wayanad, Paka centres around two families engaged in a generations-old conflict. Written by Lukose as a love story between Johnny (played by Basil Paulose) and Anna (Vinitha Koshy) – two young members of the feuding families – the film exploits the raw emotions hidden behind the region’s history of human settlement in the 1950s. The two lovers are from families of settlers who arrived from central Travancore to start new lives. But the race for power and domination ensured violence and constant tensions.

“The film is the story of our village,” says Lukose, whose grandparents were among the initial settlers in Wayanad. “I remember growing up listening to stories by my grandmother. She used to tell me about the river in our village where people have drowned because of its deep trenches and rocks. There was always danger in the river. And there was also a man in the stories who retrieved the bodies by diving deep into the river,” recalls the director.

“Borrowing from the tales of migration and melodrama passed down to him from his grandmother, writer-director Nithin Lukose infuses his feature debut with rich Keralite oral tradition,” says TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey. “This mature vengeance tale doesn’t revel in generational butchery but reflects on the limits of peace when familial pride and survival hang in the balance. Lukose invites you to step into the densely forested world of his riveting modern folktale,” adds Bailey.

Paka benefits greatly from the nature-endowed Wayanad whose mist-enveloped hills and rivers, and sounds of rain and crickets, are skillfully woven into the tension-filled frames of the film. “A pre-production team recorded the ambience for a year and a secondary camera unit filmed the rain during the last monsoon,” says Lukose, who graduated in sound recording and design from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, seven years ago.

Lukose also benefited from the big-heartedness of celebrated Malayalam director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, a member of the first batch of FTII. “I wanted to show the film to Adoor Sir and made a request through my FTII seniors,” he says. “He immediately agreed and I sent him the first cut. He called me the next day and said he liked the subject and suggested a few things. He said not many films have been made about the culture of Wayanad settlers.”

A Temple for a Motorcycle

A satire on quirky rituals across the country, Dug Dug by Pareek tells the story of a fatal accident on a highway that leads to unimaginable incidents. The motorcycle driven by the man who died in the accident disappears from the police station and surfaces on the same spot where he died. Soon, a temple springs up by the highway and people start worshipping both the rider and his motorcycle.

'Dug Dug' is a satire on quirky rituals across the country. ‘Dug Dug’ is a satire on quirky rituals across the country.

Pareek, a huge fan of special effects and IMAX screens, conjures the bizarre with the aid of the vast landscape of Rajasthan and elements of absurd reality in the society. “My film is a blend of larger than life cinematic visuals and unpretentious rawness of Indian rural life where I want viewers to lose themselves in the bizarre and colourful world of Dug Dug,” says the director. Inspired by true events, the film straddles the sensitive border between honest faith and the business of beliefs.

“In depicting the emergence of a full-blown religion, Pareek escalates this wave of motorcycle reverence through skillfully constructed montages propelled by stylish staccato crash zooms, brilliant colours, and a toe-tapping jazz soundtrack from Salvage Audio Collective (who scored the blockbuster hip-hop musical Gully Boy),” says TIFF programmer Peter Kuplowsky. “A slick satire of religious commercialism and uninhibited idolatry, Pareek’s debut feature abounds with irreverent wit and formal invention, exuding an irresistible zeal that mesmerizes as it begs the biggest of questions,” adds Kuplowsky.

Cat, Dog and Cyborg

Filmmakers around the world have responded to the tensions and uncertainty of a pandemic-hit world with works that retell history and reinvent ideas of relationships and identities. The recent shocking discovery of more than 1,000 unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools – mandatory for indigenous children in the 1980s – in Canada has led to the Toronto festival making indigenous filmmaking a centrepiece of the festival this year.

Celebrating Alanis Obomsawin, a special section on the famous Canadian filmmaker who is considered one of the greatest indigenous artists in the world, includes films that illuminate the lives and stories of indigenous children. “This remarkable artist has led by example, shining a path of generous empathy, of boundless curiosity about the human experience, and of righteous anger when that’s needed,” says Bailey.

The global uncertainty is reflected in the collaborative film Futura by famous Italian directors Pietro Marcello, Francesco Munzi and Alice Rohrwacher, who ask the young people of their country about themselves and their future.

Taiwanese director Chung Mong-Hong looks at the quarantined family of a divorced woman and her teenage daughter in her new film, The Falls, to explore relationships.

The Middle Man by Norwegian filmmaker Bent Hamer tells the story of a town’s official whose job it is to break the worst news to its residents.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the English artist whose portraits of cats brought humans and the felines closer in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain by Will Sharpe (Cumberbatch also plays the lead role in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog) while I’m Your Man by German director Maria Schrader raises questions about the future of companionship in a story about a new line of humanoid cyborgs.