By: Kanu Behl
How integral is violence to a man’s life? Where does it take root? Kanu Behl, writer and director, found some answers during the writing and making of his film.
I remember I was about 15. A bunch of friends and I were playing cricket near my house in east Delhi. It was a regular afternoon of fun, when a group of Kendriya Vidyalaya kids walked in and said they wanted to play with us. We resisted. They were not our friends. They insisted. Very quickly, a discomfort grew.
None of us knew it then, but it wasn’t about playing cricket anymore. One thing led to another and the boys started to interfere in our game. And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, one of my close friends — the sweetest boy ever — went up and slapped one of them.
All hell broke loose. There were seven of us. Four of them. They picked up our bats and wickets and lashed out with venom. Pure unadulterated violence. One of us got seriously pummelled, but we managed to run away.
I’ve had a fairly intimate relationship with violence over the years. And I have seen it from both ends. The perpetrator and the receiver. And I’ve often wondered how to explain it. Where does aggression come from? Is it hardwired in our DNA? More importantly, is it just men that are violent? Is passive aggression not violent? Through it all, the ghost of that first slap has never faded away.
When I started out writing Titli, with Sharat Katariya, I quickly realised we had several themes on our plate. Family, patriarchy, violence, among others. I started out wanting to do a film about a boy wanting to escape an oppressor. I began sifting through the most intimate parts of my life. My early years… a difficult relationship with my father.
How I had invested all my energy in getting away. How I had raved, ranted, fought. And somehow managed to get out. I headed to film school. But the gradual realisation was that something was amiss. I had developed a temper. I was showing signs of being unnervingly close to some of my most feared ghosts.
I had left behind the oppressor, but the oppression had stayed on. I had imbibed it so deep that it was a part of me. A phantom limb.
Had I wanted to be this person? Hadn’t I actively resisted being him all along? How far had the ghosts travelled? What was this monkey on my back?
The answers weren’t easy to come by. My investigation started from the world I knew well. Family is the cocoon everyone is nurtured in. It becomes a sort of observational micro-universe. How the father deals with the mother. How the mother deals with the child. How the child interprets all action. Do daily spoken and unspoken transactions become crucial? Then, one fine day, I realised I had started brushing my teeth like my father, with strange retching and puking sounds I had heard him make.
As I got deeper and deeper into writing the film, a whole host of questions swirled around me… Who was I playing in my family? Was I part of a bigger pattern I was unable to see? Suddenly, though, I could see the similarities between my father and I. My mother and her mother. My uncle and my grandfather. Weird image imprints coming out of some giant, cosmic Xerox machine.
The world we live in is complex. RD Laing, the maverick psychiatrist, mentions how codes transfer between basic units of family, each member playing specific roles. These get passed on, sometimes skipping as much as two generations.
Each role has specific demands and its own set of perks. As we play them, we also interact with the outside world. Which is fine as long as the image we play fits in with the rapidly changing world we encounter outside. I try to play myself to the hilt, but what happens when factors in the outside world do not let me play “kind, understanding or affectionate” because I don’t live in a world that supports these values? Do I feel thwarted playing me? Am I constantly frustrated? Angry?
In a world full of malls, buy-offs, chaos and panic, the economics of lack plays out like a dream. No matter which class we might belong to, most of us feel anxious waking up each morning. From high-pitched voices to angry outbursts, from stares and finger-pointing to pushing and jostling, from slapping to hitting and stabbing, raping to killing — it is an escalating spiral.
Titli slowly revealed itself to me. It was a film about circularity. It was about an anger felt towards the self and the immediate other; and simultaneously an oppression slammed by the world on the individual. My characters were all struggling with dissonance, trying desperately to adjust and upgrade to the new world. Never once getting the space to snap out of the daily drama of their lives.
And what of that mysterious slap? What role was my friend trying to fulfill? Protector? Leader of the pack? He was the son of an insurance man, who’d singlehandedly taken care of a fractured post-Partition family. Did he feel it right to protect his kin? Would the violent streak have ended at that? And what of the maid in my parent’s house who mercilessly egged her daughter on to beat her younger sister for the sake of discipline? Was the youngest one — while getting beaten — learning, and stowing away the pain for later use?
Violence, I feel, is not only about gender. It’s about a structure of lack. Many kinds of complex lacks. It’s about the inability to articulate to the other and more importantly, to the self. It’s endemic to the society we live in —one that thrives on not talking — it’s about the haves and the have-nots. It’s about denial. It’s about pretending that everything is in shape. That there are no cracks visible.
As for hope, there is, and forever shall be. I woke up one day and looked within. Found the monkey lurking. It was someone else’s animal but I had been feeding it. The responsibility for my own fight lay within me. Slowly, looking inwards became my holy grail. Because all structures, at the end of the day, are created by me. Whether I am a man or a woman.
Titli is a film about a young man who decides to escape his family’s carjacking business. It is directed by Behl,
and co-written with Sharat Katariya.