Titli has its own unique voice – Kanu Behl
“The film is more about the violence that permeates beneath the top layer veneer of a happy family,” says director Kanu Behl about his film, Titli. Behl is a proud man these days as his debut directorial venture is slated to premiere in the Un Certain Regard section of the prestigious 67th Cannes Film Festival. The filmmaker speaks to Pandolin about the making of this drama, the journey to Cannes and what lies ahead for Titli.
Let’s start with your foray into filmmaking and association with Dibakar Banerjee.
I’m basically a Delhi boy. I grew up in a film – television environment as my father is an actor-director and mother is an actor-writer. So I was exposed to a lot of cinema at an early age. But as I grew up in this whole television kind of set up, I developed a dislike for it. When I spent some years away from it, I realized that there are the other kind of films that were happening which are interesting and I would like to do something like this. So when I was 16-17 years of age, I decided that I want to tell stories, want to become a filmmaker. When I got into film school, SRFTI, it gave me the chance to practice the kind of films that I wanted to make. I was seeing a lot of cinema; it exposed me to a lot of films, which for me was the main purpose of going to film school. I knew that I wanted to know what has happened in history so that whenever I get down to making my own film I don’t repeat what has been done earlier.
Also there was a very strong documentary movement originating from my institute and a sort of commissioning platform started which exposed me to documentary, which I had no idea about. I was a very fiction oriented person up until then. And I discovered that documentary was beautiful. Not only did it give me a chance to practice making films at no major cost, it also added to my life experience, put me in intimate contact with real life, and helped me build my experience band. And all of this helped me form a slightly different style of filmmaking. I finished around 2007 and by then I had done 3-4 documentaries. Around that time I accidentally met Dibakar and he was just beginning Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and was looking for someone. He saw some of my documentary work and liked the flavor of what I’d done. And from there on the association with Dibakar started. I joined the film as a DA and script supervisor but by the time it finished I had done much more and my relationship with Dibakar grew rapidly on that film. By the time Oye lucky… finished, he asked me to co-write Love Sex aur Dhoka (LSD) with him. Right after LSD I wrote a screenplay but it didn’t materialize for various reasons. I started wondering what went wrong and that is when Dibakar sat me down and told me that you’re just making a film because you think someone wants to see this. What is it that you want to do? That became the breakthrough for me. I decided that whatever I am going to write next has to come from within me. So I began asking myself what is it that bothers me, disturbs me most, what would I like to talk about? And I think it is from there that the initial seeds of Titli were born.
How did the idea of Titli germinate? You have mentioned that it does have a personal connect, could you elaborate.
The seed idea stems from a totally personal experience. In my growing up years, like most north Indian boys, I had a really tough relationship with my father. He had his own ideas about what he wanted me to be and I had my own ideas, which led to mandatory friction. And I went through a whole rebellious phase, a lot of personal things were happening at that time in my life. At the end of which I realized that the more I was trying to physically escape an image, the more I was turning myself into the same person that I was running away from. And I think the day that realization hit me, there was a shift in the person that I was, that became one of the most important phases for me. As writers, Sharat and me have taken a lot of creative licenses and gone ahead and woven our own matrix around that central idea, explored around it and tried to make sense of it. Like me, he shared very similar experiences and so did Atul my associate director. It’s a very universal template that we all feel at some point of time.
Tell us about your partnership with co-writer Sharat Katariya.
It has been a wonderful association and I have learnt so much from him as a writer. My script got selected for the NFDC Screenwriter’s Lab and the year before me, Sharat’s script was at the Lab. When I started writing Titli, I was talking to Urmi (She co-wrote Oye Lucky… with Dibakar) and telling her that I would like someone to write with, this is not something that is all my own. She had been a mentor on the lab when Sharat was there and brought us together and we hit it. I told him my central conflicts, what I’ve gone through, what I want to talk about and he totally understood that. He has a tremendous sense of character, a certain serendipity, a certain surprise in a scene, he has a great sense about what a character is thinking at what point. And it’s always amazing for a writer-director to have that kind of a support.
Did the selection of the script for the NFDC Film Bazaar’s Screenwriter’s Lab give it an added impetus?
Yes, it totally did because even before it got selected for the Lab, we had been working on the script for about 15 months. Having learnt from my earlier screenplay experience, I knew that this time around, I didn’t want to talk about it until I was totally convinced that I had managed to be completely honest with myself. I took a lot of time and got the draft to a certain stage where I was happy but I knew that it still has some way to travel. The lab became that final step for me. Once it got into the lab, the mentors helped me crack some final layers in the script, which took it to the level it is at.
Was Dibaker Banerjee involved in the film from day one or did you approach him once the script was ready?
We had been talking intermittently about the film. I keep bouncing my ideas off him and he does the same with me, so he knew about what I’d been working on but hadn’t read the draft. So post the Lab, I asked him to read it and tell me what he thought. Dibakar found it really exciting and something that he would want to do. That really became the push for the film to get made.
How did Yashraj come on board? Was there any struggle in finding producers to make Titli?
YRF had read an earlier draft of the script and liked it. Post the Screenwriter’s Lab there were a lot of people who were interested in the film and were talking about it. I knew that for the direction I wanted to go in, I really needed someone who could handle the kind of sensitive material that we were talking about. And Dibakar being a director himself and us thinking about cinema in a very similar way, I went to him. It is around this time that Dibakar and Adi (Aditya Chopra) started talking about the three-film deal and since Dibakar had read the draft, he proposed to Adi that this is the one he would like to do first. And Adi too knew about the project and liked it, so he agreed; it all just fell into place.
The struggle was on the script, during the two years when there was no Dibakar, no Yashraj. A lot of sweat and blood went into getting the screenplay to where it reached and I think that has paid off in the apparent “ease” of getting the film made. It is not an easy film to make. A major strength of the film is that it has its own unique voice, which I don’t take any credit for. And this voice is very personal yet very universal. It is a film about family and all of us in India have lived with our families so everybody can connect with the script very easily.
Coming to the film, since it is set against a backdrop of violence and family feuds, what is the look that you have adopted?
There is a lot of psychological violence in the film; there are very little spots of physical violence. The film is more about the violence that permeates beneath the top layer veneer of a happy family. It lies a lot in people’s reactions rather than people talking. In terms of the edit style, I knew very early on that this is how I wanted to cut it. In terms of visual texture, we were always trying to understand where this violence came from because we knew, that if we are talking about violence, it should not be there just for the heck of it. And we realized that there are these two different worlds that are now slowly getting established in our cities – the world of the have’s, who are shopping, consuming etc., and then there is the other mass that is being constantly pushed to the fringe.
We were talking about characters who were on this fringe, stepping out from a forgotten world, going to this other shiny world and serving the people there and then coming back to their same forgotten world. So while I was discussing the visual texture with Siddharth (Cinematographer), we were trying to understand what these people go through, what is their mental state and what else will it give them apart from violence. The visual texture was a lot about separating these two worlds.
While casting, what were the essential characteristics that you were looking for? Also why did you choose a debutant as your protagonist? And how was the experience of directing your own father, Lalit Behl?
Our central idea was to make a film that doesn’t feel like it has been acted out, been performed. We wanted to do something that feels accidental, the camera should feel like an extension of the people and for that we needed to create a certain freedom, not just for ourselves, but the actors as well. This was mainly to reduce the baggage from the performances, where an audience comes into the experience without the baggage of an actor that they know. So I was clear that apart from Ranvir Shorey and Amit Sial, whom I’d written the parts for, the rest of the cast had to be new. And we had to make the whole world so accidental that five minutes into the film, you should forget that you have come to watch a film. That was the attempt. So we decided to cast people who are not known at all, who can be the part completely.
It was a strange and rewarding experience to work with my father. A lot of times we were working on material, the rhythms of which both of us knew very well. So that has its own sort of nerve-racking points but it had its own rewards which I knew would benefit the film greatly because he knew the film as intimately as I did.
And finally, how would you describe Titli’s journey to the Un Certain Regard category at the prestigious Festival De Cannes. Was it anticipated?
I had never thought of this. I knew that I felt strongly about something and wanted to talk about it and all the energies of everyone on the crew were focused on getting it made in the way it should be made, not compromise on anything as far as the filmmaking process goes. So it was not something that anyone had expected. The film has had its own journey, people are watching it, connecting with it at some level, not just people at test screenings here in India but the western audiences as well. The more reactions I’ve seen the more I can sense that there is something universal about it.
With Guneet Monga overlooking the international strategy for the film, what are the various avenues you see opening up?
Ultimately the film has to speak for itself. The avenues that open up would be that the more people connect with it, the more they would want to take it out and want other people to see it. So hopefully if it connects to even more people as a universal experience it might find more distribution and sales overseas which could help it to reach a wider audience, which would be great for the film.
When is it likely to hit theaters?
You’ll have to wait and watch.