Kanu Behl’s indie film,Titli, may change the game for Indian cinema

  • Aparna Pednekar, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Oct 31, 2015 19:13 IST
(Photo by Satish Bate/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)

Kanu Behl is hard to read. The 35-year-old filmmaker is soft-spoken, polite and articulate, but there’s a cool veneer that one can’t really crack. Not until he delivers – with minimum words and maximum impact – a one-line synopsis of the haunting plot of his second, in-development film, Agra.

Sensing that he’s got you in the palm of his hand, Behl’s bespectacled face breaks into an ear-to-ear grin. This is the self-assurance of someone who knows he’s good at his job. It’s also the childlike delight of a natural-born storyteller.

You’re not likely to know Kanu Behl very well at this moment. His first film, Titli, has just released in India after a premiere at Cannes last year, followed by screenings across half the globe.

The name Titli (butterfly) might sound light and fun, but it’s actually dark, brutal and psychologically violent. Its principal characters are a dysfunctional family of carjackers in a gritty city that Patiala-born Behl knows like the back of his hand. They’re each more repulsive than the other, with the youngest, called Titli, trying desperately to escape the family business, and thus, the family.

Powerlessness manifests as several kinds of cruelty in Titli. The film’s language alone caused alarms to go off with India’s censor board, which asked Behl to tone down the abuses before its India release.

Butterfly effect: Behl’s film is dark, brutal and psychologically violent.

Titli seems like far cry from the adorable bhaiyyas and servile bhabhis routinely served up by Bollywood. And Behl seems determined to flip the Karan Johar-Sooraj Barjatya formula – he wants to drag the squalid desi family and its skeletons out of the closet with viciousness.

All in the family

The son of writer-actor-director parents, Behl says he practically grew up backstage at theatre productions. Back in the Nineties, his father and mother made 90-minute featurettes for Doordarshan. Behl, who faced the camera at age 12, remembers them shooting for 72 hours at a stretch and being woken up at midnight with cries of “Shot aa gaya! Shot aa gaya!”

Behl’s strained relationship with his father and memories of domestic discord not only found their way into Titli’s screenplay but into the casting too. “Our casting director Atul Mongia and I looked at a lot of senior actors for the part of Daddy, but couldn’t find anyone to nail the character’s energies,” he says. “It’s a very silent, inexpressive role with a latent intensity.” Behl eventually cast his own father Lalit (a National School of Drama alumnus) as the seemingly powerless father figure.

Lalit Behl was the only one from the largely unknown cast to find himself working without a script until the last day of the shoot. The strategy was part of Behl and Mongia’s arsenal of unusual methods to push their actors.

Ranvir Shorey, who turns in a hard-hitting performance as Titli’s hot-tempered elder brother, Vikram, attests to the unorthodox preparation. For a workshop, he was left in a room with Senior Behl where they were asked to share personal information that they’d never revealed to anyone else. “We wept like babies, sparking off a lifetime bond,” Shorey recalls.

The unrelenting violence of the material, however, hit a raw nerve with Shorey. “I’ve had my brush with corporal punishment as the youngest of two brothers with a heavy-handed father,” he explains. “But in this film, I play the perpetrator of violence. The material became too close; a little out of control.”

The big fat Indian indie

It’s easy to think of Behl’s film as one of those “other India” films: festival-friendly stories about hope rising out of third-world squalor. But Behl says that Titli isn’t a “look down at an issue from a Western gaze” or a film that exoticises India. He and co-writer Sharat Katariya began writing the film during 2013’s Nirbhaya rape case as they tried to “achieve a larger understanding of the violence in our world”, an attempt (like so many of us made) to look at patriarchy and oppression in the context of violence. “It was always a very ‘us’ look at our lives,” Behl says.

But he is heartened that even non-cinema people have embraced the film and its universal theme of family dysfunction. Titli’s debut at Cannes last year garnered 10 days of praise, and toured the world from Beijing to London and Rotterdam to Los Angeles. That’s pretty impressive for a first-time director, though Behl remains cautious. “It’s everyone’s second film and body of work thereon that really matter,” he says.

Fight club: Violence and cruelty dominate the film, which, Behl says, stems from powerlessness.

Titli, however, has more than just a brutally honest Indian idiom working for it. It’s co-produced by an odd pair – Dibakar Banerjee and Aditya Chopra (who coined its tagline for the Indian release: Har family, family nahi hoti). The duo gave it a heft and marketing push that many indie films don’t get, with or without success abroad.

Banerjee considers the partnership a massive advantage, but he’s also terribly realistic about independent cinema in India. “Independent films take long to gestate here,” he says. “With 800 films releasing in 52 weeks, it’s a struggle to hold on to the theatres and YRF helps us do that. In the next five years, we are going nowhere if the quantity of screens doesn’t increase and distribution channels don’t change. For now, for our audiences, a film like Titli is not a bad second option, after a Salman Khan film,” he adds wryly.

Protégé rising

Banerjee rounds out Titli’s crew (which includes Aditya Chopra, Katariya and Behl’s ex-wife and the film’s editor, Namrata Rao). His intellectual, detached mentor-protégé relationship with Behl, who assisted him on Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (2008) and co-wrote Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010), works well for both men.

“Kanu has unplumbed depths which he does not reveal,” says the ace filmmaker, admitting that it suits him just fine because he’s hardly known to be chummy himself. “Our relationship is focused on the job at hand. The only impassioned discussions, bitching and fighting sessions we’ve had have been on films. We’ll finish work on a film, won’t talk at all, then call after a year and pick up [on work] without missing a beat,” Banerjee adds.

Having lost out on the opportunity to direct Titli (it was his first reaction when he heard the script), Banerjee makes sure he has the last word on the film’s desi appeal at least. “The average Indian, I believe, is quite mental,” he says. “We’re a country in the throes of a nervous breakdown, living on the edge of reality, which is why we need the outlet of escapist cinema. But that also makes us schizophrenic. In this scenario, a film like Titli provides some kind of a connect with reality.”

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