As “Titli” descends at Cannes, director Kanu Behl talks about its flight.
It is that time of the year when the media eagerly scans for films that are taking a flight to the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Prestigious in the sense that it is perhaps the only film festival which is director driven and gives small independent films space to market themselves. This year we have a “Titli” taking the “Udaan” to the ‘Un Certain Regard’ category. Made by debutant Kanu Behl, the film is backed by Dibakar Banerjee and co-produced by Yash Raj Films, a blend that was hard to imagine a couple of years back.
Set in Delhi’s underbelly, it is about Titli, the youngest member of a car-jacking gang of brothers, who wants to escape from the family trade. To make him fit in, or as they say in Old Delhi — “settle him”, his indignant brothers offer him the carrot of matrimony, not realising that his wife will turn out to be an unlikely ally in Titli’s great escape. Behl seems to be asking if breaking away from one’s roots is the same as freedom and whether it is actually possible to say goodbye to one’s roots.
A long time collaborator of Banerjee, Behl grew up in Delhi and shared a difficult relationship with his father and then he came across the news story of a real life carjacker Joginder Joga. The two got intertwined and found a new life, which was noticed at NFDC’s Screenwriter’s Lab. Starring the underrated Ranvir Shorey and Amit Sial, the film introduces a bunch of newcomers.
Excerpts from an interview:
What does Titli stand for? For How long was it trying to find an outlet inside you?
It is a film about family, the ghosts of circularity within our closest relationships and patriarchy amongst other parallel themes and undercurrents. I had been toying with the theme since about early 2010 and had been wanting to find out what it meant to me, and where I wanted to take the film. It gradually started taking shape once I let go of the other script I had been working on. I knew whatever I would do next had to be more honest. I started digging deeper inside myself. Asking myself, what disturbed me the most about my own experiences, the days that I had lived, the people I had observed. From there came the stem of the idea. Then as me and my co-writer Sharat Katariya started working on it, the screenplay started evolving on its own and started speaking to us. From a film about oppression it turned into a film about family and then in the next draft to a film about circularity and images. The next two years were spent in keeping the rigour alive and constantly going back and telling ourselves we were not there yet. There was something more the story was trying to reveal. Until at the end of the fourth ‘big’ draft. we finally felt we had something which no one had talked about in the way we were trying to. That became the tipping point to share it with Dibakar.
Is it cathartic, can a film be cathartic for the filmmaker…?
As for it being cathartic, I think the word itself is a bit overrated. The experience hasn’t moved mountains for me as a filmmaker. But yes, the process of writing the film and finding what we found as a matrix for the bigger curve that we were wanting to talk about, has been enriching. In that sense, I feel now after having made the film I understand family and generations and people’s behaviour within a close knit group better. In that sense if we want to use the word catharsis, maybe it holds.
We often find Hindi cinema celebrating family and familial bonds and here you seem to be questioning it…
My aim was not to go against the grain of anything or not to tell something that has not been told before. I had this story that was half personally lived and half creative experience and I just knew I wanted to tell it as fearlessly as possible. I’m not taking it upon myself to break new ground or take a position of telling something. The film just happens to be set in Delhi - because that's where I grew up - and it just happens to have my own personal view on what family is or does, or can do. What works for the film is the energy of its universality.
How did you pick the cast?
I’m a huge admirer of both Ranvir and Amit Sial’s work. They are a couple of rare actors who can completely submit themselves to the part and become the character. So they pretty much cast themselves. The parts had been written for them, and I knew the parts were complex and multi-layered and needed actors who were willing to completely submerge themselves.
It was also always intended as a film which feels more caught than ‘filmed’, so the idea was to surround these two with completely new faces. I didn’t want to burden the audience with the pre knowledge of actors and their work unless those actors could guarantee that wouldn’t happen. So apart from Vikram and Bawla, the other three principal actors in the film are debutants. Shashank was worked upon to turn him into Titli over a series of gruelling three month long workshops. He suited the part physically very well but came from a different milieu. My attempt was to create a strong enough memory bank for the five principals, for them to be able to dig into when they were playing out the scenes. So the workshops were more about doing other things that the characters would do apart from the ‘written’ scenes.
The same with Neelu – Shivani Raghuvanshi, who knew the milieu well but was a first timer. With her, it was more about making her aware of what the basics of a performance are and how she needs to construct her graph through the film, since she had to deal with the chaos of randomly shot scenes. And then Daddy – Lalit Behl (Kanu’s father) – who is a seasoned theatre and television veteran had to unlearn a lot of rhythms of what he already knew and submerge into this world which was close to his own reality and be okay with it. With him, we worked on him not ‘acting’ and just ‘being’. The workshops were beautifully designed by Atul Mongia - my associate director and casting director.
What does the Cannes Premiere mean to you?
Cannes would be the first major public outing for ‘Titli’. So I’m keenly looking forward to the reactions of a large audience. Other than that, I feel the film’s presence would give it legs to run slightly faster as its own animal and am happy to know that as the director.