Director Kanu Behl doesn’t think his work is dark. He doesn’t want the audience to be depressed, contrary to the popular opinion around his first film Titli (2014). Even the buzz around his latest offering Binnu Ka Sapna (BKS) — a 30-minute film currently streaming on MUBI — seems to echo the same sentiment. “It’s slightly more cathartic, especially if you are undergoing that experience,” says the 39-year-old. “Nothing has happened to me, no dark incidents have taken place. I don’t think my work is dark. I am just respecting my audiences by bringing in a nuance, and not adding to the noise that is already out there,” says Behl.
The film is told through a voice-over by Binnu, who narrates his story of growing up in a loveless, insipid household. There is an abusive father, and a far more accomplished mother who puts up with the said abuse unflinchingly, because at the end of it all, there is “meethi, kadak chai” made by the husband. Violence, inherent patriarchy and anger — all set in the grey areas of semi-urban India, are very much part of Behl’s cinematic oeuvre. “A film for me always begins with an emotion; the space, setting is more of a palette… In BKS, the emotion was that of anger. I have personally dealt with it and wished to contextualise it. What does anger do to you, what are its roots?,” says the filmmaker, who spent a chunk of his life in Delhi.
“Additionally, there were these sensational cases that resulted in the society coming together. The Delhi gangrape case, for instance, and various cases of acid attack. But narratives around them are presented in a very simplistic way, I am not saying it’s easy. We need to understand who are these people who did what they did in the Delhi case. We can’t just call them monsters and lynch them. Then we are not being a society where we can actually weed them out. In some way, we are all perpetrators, it’s just those who get caught, we hang them,” he adds.
The film has a screen aspect ratio of 1:1, and it appears as if shot on a phone. The end result is very edgy and it will make you fidget in your seat. “It’s shot on a normal film camera, but me and Siddharth Diwan (cinematographer) had discussed the aspect ratio of the film. We wished to reflect Binnu’s myopic mindspace in every which way. You want to get inside his head and his emotional space and not just view it from the outside,” says Behl.
With BKS, Behl has tried and subverted gender stereotypes in a post #MeToo world, with women who are making the proverbial first move. “We have opened that debate, we are in the middle of it. But in my limited understanding, I also feel that debates are cyclical. Our debates were far more nuanced 20 years ago. I am all for the #MeToo movement, and I see the toxic masculinity around me and I want to talk about it. But equality has a male component too. It can’t go from having a foot to one gender’s throat, to the other,” he adds.
While the industry pundits and film-goers might be hailing the new wave of progressive cinema and we finally have the moment were story is the king, Behl strongly disagrees. For him, mainstream Hindi films have lost all nuance and are largely just nice moments strung together. “The biggest misconception around Bollywood is that films are all about stories. They are at best moments which we remember. A slapping scene in a film, for instance, we don’t even remember characters. They are at best about time and space and how people at a certain time in a certain background act in a certain way. Bollywood doesn’t want to show nuance, as it’s hard work,” says the filmmaker.
Behl, who has previously co-written Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010), is very concerned about the larger dumbing down of conversation in our films, a reflection of our society. “All expression is throttled, the gatekeepers of cinema, with their larger distribution system, only allow those films to flourish which don’t question the status quo, or make you think. Films today are just sermons,” he says, adding that “it’s not just films, our politics too is subscribing to the same sentiment”. “People who were otherwise very moderate, now have to take a clear position today. We have gone from being pacifist, moderate country to being one that has to chose one side or the other,” he says.
Maybe it’s to break from such trappings of mainstream Bollywood that Behl chose to release his second directorial feature on film streaming app Mubi, and worked with newcomers — even when his last film had received much critical acclaim. “My reason to make cinema is to not make bigger or more expensive films, or to be the next big thing. The urge was always to share my personal experiences with an audience that respects that desire. Also, if I am not adding something new to a debate, why make a film?,” he adds.