Titli started with my personal experiences but grew to be something more
Debut director Kanu Behl’s Titli opened to rave reviews at Cannes Film Festival this year. Tackling the universal themes of family, patriarchy and violence, even non-film audiences have been moved by the emotionally-layered feat in storytelling. Kanu engages us in a riveting conversation on the journey of Titli.
Is it true that the film started off as a crime thriller but evolved into this dark family drama?
I think the two overlapped at some point actually. This was really early on, probably when I wrote the first page of the film. But I think we knew pretty soon after that, that it was going to be much more.
I’d just come off the experience of writing a film that had not worked out. I’d spent a year and a half before this, writing and mounting a film that had refused to take off. Coupled with that, there was a lot going on in my personal life. I was trying to take a step back and reassess why I was trying to do filmmaking in the first place.
Around that time, I read an article in the newspaper about this guy called Joginder Joga and his gang of carjackers. Today, the character based on him is just a peripheral character in the film, but that’s what sparked the idea and got me really excited. Having come off my previous experiences, though, I questioned myself a lot about my reasons behind doing this film. I realised that it could be a story of a family in the garb of one about carjackers.
In our previous interview, you’d mentioned that Dibaker Banerjee and you think alike when it comes to films and filmmaking.
We have a very similar cinema ethic, we believe in the same kind of films rather than the same films. The idea is to do something that is resonant, that is universal… that leaves you with something more than just a consumptive experience at the end of the film. That is the common ethic we found together. We definitely find common ground when it comes to the storytelling aspect of films, and that it should mean much more than just watching a film.
What has Dibaker Banerjee’s creative involvement in the film been?
Dibaker has always been a sounding board for whatever I’ve written. We’ve known each other for a while now – almost 8 years – and we’ve collaborated for a large part of those 8 years. So he was involved from the very initial stages of the film, since I wrote that first page and got his take on it.
He got busy with Shanghai in between, and I started working closely with Sharat Kataria on the script. Later, we went to Dibaker with a screenplay that was in its advanced stages. It was at the Screenwriter’s Lab and we told him about the progress we’d made, and asked him to take a look again and see whether he liked it. He immediately remarked that it was interesting, and he liked it much more than its previous incarnation, as he understood my reasons behind pursuing this project better with the screenplay at this stage. He gave us the green signal, and I knew then that we were heading down the right path.
While family dramas in Indian films are something we’ve seen much of, what do you think makes your treatment of the subject different, and topical? What makes this the perfect time for Titli to release?
I think the film could have come out at any time. It’s about the power equation in a family, and how family members behave with each other in a lot of unspoken ways. There are a lot of undercurrents within a family, and a lot of specific kind of undercurrents in an Indian family, which are unaddressed. I think it’s a film with universal appeal, a story that could have come out at any time and it would’ve been relevant.
I think what makes it topical is the violence in a family that it depicts. It’s set in a deeply patriarchal milieu, and in a house that’s full of men. The attempt to understand the violence, which seeps in from outside into this house, and how the violence from the house creeps out as well, and the attempt to understand who these people are, and what their socioeconomic background is, as well as where it is set – these factors possibly make it topical. These aspects might give us a more human window into a set of people that we generally just brand as perpetrators, and close away from.
A larger debate around the circumstances behind the violence – that’s what makes it relevant today.
Violence, as a topic, is so loud to begin with. In interviews with other cast and crew members of the Titli team, I heard that it’s the subtle treatment of the story that sets it apart. Tell us a little bit about how you treated the story.
I generally go with one emotion for a story, around which it is built. In this case, the word was ‘oppression’ – all kinds of oppression. Not just about Vikram’s oppression of his son, Titli, but also Titli’s oppression of Neelu, and the middle brother, Bawla’s oppression of another character.
The central idea was to create that mood and explore what it feels like to be oppressed. Everything in the film was about creating that mood, through the various elements of filmmaking. We were as open to doing a loud, crass scene as we were to the subtler moments, such as those talking about Bawla’s homosexuality.
What were the challenges encountered with Titli and how did you overcome them?
Every little thing was a challenge, and if you look at it in another way, there was no challenge at all. It was a mix of both.
You had Atul Mongia casting for the film, who I hear was a great asset.
Absolutely. I’ve known Atul for about 12 years now, and we’re practically the same person, which really helps when you’re working on a film together. (laughs)
No, I think everyone has worked on the film to create a cinematic experience, that wasn’t just driven by dialogue. Siddharth (Diwan), who shot the film, and Namrata (Rao), who edited it, Parul (Sondh), who’s done the production design – there has been an equal contribution from everyone on the team and that’s the reason the film has arrived at the point that it has.
As someone at the helm of this project, how did you ensure that everyone was on the same page as far as the vision of the film was concerned? How did you brief the team?
As a director, you employ different means to bring team members on the same page. For instance, with an editor, you’d give them a musical piece to listen to as a reference. There were two or three main references for this film; I made everyone on the team read this book called ‘Politics of a Family’ by R.D. Laing, because that spoke about the theme of the film. It’s a small 20-page book that really encapsulated the mood of the film, and spoke about how images get transferred from one person to another within the family, without us knowing.
You know that feeling of ‘I hate who my mother is, but as I grow up, I feel like I’m turning into her’? That book is the definitive document on that feeling. There were also some really nice musical pieces by Maria Bethania and Caetano Veloso. Essentially it was different references for different people that acted as their own diving board, creatively.
Titli’s relationship with his father stems from your personal experiences and relationship with your father. Did you have to consciously maintain an objectivity while making the film without getting emotionally involved/biased?
My dad and I had a pretty tumultuous relationship growing up. He had this specific idea of what he wanted me to be, and I was an angry, rebellious teenager and I had my own idea of what I wanted to be. My dad also had specific ideas of how to deal with rebellion that were sometimes physical or violent. I remember several instances sitting and thinking about how it could be easier than that – how it was about having that conversation instead.
I also had a lot instances of just wanting to run away, and I remember the anger and frustration, the memories of that. I feel like a lot of that has seeped into what we were writing in the first copy of the script, where everything was from Titli’s POV. Then, Sharat and I realised that it was just a passive rant, and decided to give the script further depth. We started understanding the other characters’ POV a little better, and from there I think it’s become a more cogent view of the patriarchal world of violence we live in. It started off with my personal experiences but fortunately grew to be something more.
Objectivity came from exposure to a lot of other films and books, and I realised that I needed to use this tool of distance while retaining the emotional core.
Titli has had a great film festival run. What do you think has struck a chord with the international audience?
The film is about family, and issues surrounding one’s family, which I think is universal. Because we’ve explored viewpoints and aspects of different characters, there’s a window for many people to connect with the story.
The premiere was amazing – the days at Cannes were great, there were great reviews across the board. Non-film audiences were telling us about how much they enjoyed it, it was great that people from a different culture could appreciate it, as I had always made this film for an Indian audience. Now the response from them remains to be seen.
You had to cut a new trailer to suit Indian audiences. Please elaborate on why.
Titli is a film about a lot of things, and it’s a hard film to box. We weren’t able to grasp how to present it, or sell it. What was the ‘in’ into the film?
After a lot of discussion, both Dibaker and I decided that we would review this premise and finally settled upon pitching it as a family drama. With the international trailer, it was being positioned as a noir thriller sort of film, which is funny because it completely subverts the genre, and it isn’t a thriller at all, despite the violence and guns. We went with the sales agency abroad, as they were going to be making the sales.
What’s the story behind the title Titli?
It’s a coming-of-age film about a guy who lives in a house full of men, and is more effeminate than his brothers. We wanted a softer name for him, and Titli just felt right for the character.
You’ve adopted a documentary style for the film. Why did you choose this gritty kind of approach?
We had to make it feel like you were not watching a film, like it was actually someone’s life that had accidentally been captured.
What is the kind of response you’re hoping for from Indian cinema-goers?
I just mostly want the audience to be provoked enough to be talking about the film a few days after having seen it. I think there’s so much noise in our lives today, that I would just want for someone to get home a few hours later after the film, and open their fridge door to reach for that beer while still talking about it.
I’d consider it a job well done after that.