A news report in 2011 on a gang of car jackers in Delhi led by a local tough, Joginder Joga, got Kanu Behl thinking about a plot for a thriller. Once he started writing, though, it became a story about the Joga-like character and his two brothers, and the dynamic between them. As the story evolved, a father, a household and a ghost of a family member were introduced as well. By the time Behl was done writing the script, the film that had started out as a thriller had become a complex story about patriarchy and family, with Joga as the only trace of the original storyline.
“It’s a subject that resonates with everyone. We all turn into our mothers and fathers. The film explores this ‘circularity’ which exists within each family,” says Behl. Titled Titli, Behl’s directorial debut, which is the official selection of the prestigious Festival de Cannes in the Un Certain Regard category, looks at this family dynamics through the story of Titli, the youngest member of a violent gang of car-jackers. He realises over time that while trying to escape the family business, run by his elder brother Vikram, he has turned into the oppressive sibling he so detests.
The film, produced by Yash Raj Films and Dibakar Banerjee, first started to draw attention last year at the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC) Bazaar in Goa, where it won an award for Best Work-In-Progress Lab Project and was selected for Film Bazaar Recommends — as a part of which select films are screened for interested buyers and film curators. It’s also where members of the Cannes selection committee first saw the film.
Seated at a coffee shop in suburban Mumbai, Behl plays out portions of the film on his laptop. The film is set in Delhi’s underbelly, a world that is both real and symbolic. The script’s evolution, says Behl, began when he, with co-writer Sharat Katariya, started to question if the film was really a thriller or about the oppression faced by Titli from his indignant elder brother.
In seeking the answer, Behl started to sift through his own experiences. “I realised that the difficult relationship I had shared with my father while growing up is not unique to my experience. I was a young boy trying to find myself and he had his own ideas about what I should be. Over time, I realised that while I escaped him, I hadn’t escaped my roots,” says Behl. That realisation made him look at the three brothers differently: was Vikram the oppressor or the oppressed?
While Behl may have explored one aspect of it in Titli, his roots have defined his journey so far. The 33-year-old’s parents are veteran thespians (writer-actor-directors Navnindra and Lalit Behl) and so, his relationship with the visual medium started early. “My parents would act in and direct telefilms for Doordarshan. As a result, I grew up on film sets,” Behl says. Since this was in Delhi, Behl says it taught him the basics about constructing a performance, but also grounded him in reality — something that would not have happened had his parents been part of the entertainment scene in Mumbai where the industry is an “all-immersive bubble”.
He was clear, too, about which career path to follow. The stories he wanted to tell didn’t fit the conventional idea of mainstream cinema. By the time he was 16, he knew that to become a filmmaker, he’d either have to join the bubble or battle it out. “Joining film school seemed like the best way to arm myself for the battle or find out where I stand,” he says. Behl bid his time by trying his hands at a multitude of skills — copywriting, radio jockeying, theatre — till he enrolled at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Kolkata.
It was at the film school that Behl “discovered” documentaries, a form that honed his voice as a filmmaker and became integral to both his fictional narratives and filming style. Behl’s first documentary, An Actor Prepares, captured a struggling actor who after seven years gave himself 15 days to make it in the film industry, vowing to return home if he failed. Since the actor was a friend, the documentary became a candid account of an actor’s struggle, in places interwoven with the impact the filmmaking exercise was having on their friendship. Made during Behl’s film school days, the documentary was selected at the prestigious documentary film festival in France, Cinéma du Réel. He later made and produced a few other documentaries for international channels such as NHK. “With documentaries, you start with making one film and arrive at another. It’s a format that’s designed to make you let go of the control you may exercise in a fictional feature. It made me ask myself if I am the one who should be telling stories or if the stories should be speaking through me,” he says.
So when it was time for him to shoot his first feature, Behl decided to “let go” of his role as a director. With no script on the sets, he let the actors explore the scenes. To ensure that the performances were not “acted out”, the director chose to work with relatively fresh faces. While newcomers Shashank Arora and Shivani Raghuvanshi play Titli and Neelu respectively, actors Amit Sial and Ranvir Shorey essay the two elder brothers. In the role of the patriarch, Behl cast his own father. “Since we were portraying circularity, much of which drew from my own experiences, it made sense to cast my father in the role. He was familiar with the rhythms of the family I was trying to show. Plus, he’s a brilliant actor.”
The actors are aided by another strong character, the house. A dingy, cramped space in a perpetual tube-lit haze, it adds to the stifling feel of the film. For this, the team redesigned the house where a large part of the film is shot. The spacious entrance was changed to give it a labyrinthine feel, the rooms made smaller and sources of natural light cut off.
Behl hoped to evoke the two distinct worlds that make up India today — one is occupied by the privileged, while the other belongs to those who serve them but are constantly being pushed to the fringes. “We wanted to consciously separate the two spaces in the film without spelling it out. We wanted to convey a sense of the anger and frustration that people of that world feel when they return home after serving the glittery world of the privileged. This frustration permeates through our culture. If Vikram is violent towards Titli, is it one-off or is there a reason for it? When someone pushed that rod into a girl, where is the violence stemming from?”
The experiences he gathered in his early years in Delhi show up in Behl’s work. For instance, the script for Love Sex Aur Dhokha that he co-wrote with Dibakar Banerjee. The characters were drawn from the people he knew or had met, such as Loki Local, who was based on a contemporary pop star. In Titli too, he has referenced an experience from his teen days when the son of his landlord nearly molested him.
He modelled an oppressive sexual relationship between two characters in the film on this incident.
With the festival merely a few weeks away, Behl is busy wrapping up the post-production of the film. He is happy that the film is reaching out to people even before its release. “If the story which chose to tell itself through you, and for which you made tough choices, is grabbing people by their throat and saying ‘Look I’m here’, my job as a storyteller is done.”