Kanu Behl makes his directorial debut this Friday with the drama Titli, approximately 24 years after he made his acting debut in the tele-film Tapish. This was the first such film directed by his father, Lalit Behl, who then went on to direct others such as Happy Birthday, Aatish, and Sunehri Jild.
“I was 12, I think, when I started acting and ADing [working as an assistant director] on a bunch of my dad’s films,” he says to me, in a conversation at Yash Raj Studios in Andheri (W), Mumbai. “I have memories of 72-hour shifts, being woken up at 3 am with people saying ‘Shot aa gaya tumhara’.”
Behl, now 35, remembers “almost hating” this period of his life. He had no dreamy-eyed view of the film and television industry — there was simply too much of it around him, all the time. Aside from his father, who also went on to direct several Hindi TV serials, his mother Navnindra was a professor in the Department of TV and Theatre in Patiala’s Punjabi University, aside from being a well-known actor, writer, and director in the same fields.
Kanu’s response to this abundance of talent and potential guidance he had access to was fairly age-appropriate — like any self-respecting, hot-headed teenager, he rebelled. He stayed away from film and TV and pursued a degree in business management, until cinema ultimately caught up with him again. “It’s all so cliché — I came into contact with all the usual suspects of international cinema,” he says, rattling off names of directors such as Krzysztof Kieślowski and Abbas Kiarostami. This was enough to propel him back into that world and reignite previously extinguished dreams of being a filmmaker (he went on to study film direction at Kolkata's Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute)
Titli — starring Ranvir Shorey, Amit Sial, Shashank Arora, and Shivani Raghuvanshi — is his first film as director following successful collaborations on two acclaimed Dibakar Banerjee films: Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008), on which he worked as an AD; and Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010), which he co-wrote. It had its world premiere at the 67th Cannes International Film Festival in May last year, in competition under the Un Certain Regard category.
A dark and violent drama about a dysfunctional (to say the least) Delhi family, Titli earned strong reviews from the likes of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. According to Behl, there were “at least 15-20 instances” where Arora (who plays the titular character) was accosted by festival attendees who would exclaim “Titli!” excitedly upon recognising him from the film. In total, the film has travelled to 24 international film festivals.
The film's cast: (From left) Shashank Arora, Shivani Raghuvanshi, Ranvir Shorey, Lalit Behl, and Amit Sial
“A lot of what is there in the film stems from my troubled relationship with my dad,” he says, quite candidly. In a recent Mid-Day interview, Behl admitted that his father and himself are usually “at loggerheads over almost everything”, although they aren’t estranged. This dynamic was a huge reason for the casting of his father in the role of the family patriarch in Titli. “The part required someone with residual anger a latent, volcanic sort of presence,” he says. “We tested a lot of people and deliberated over this for a month, but then realised that dad would be perfect for it, even though he’d never acted in a feature film before.”
The film, whose script has been written by him and Sharat Katariya (Dum Laga Ke Haisha), was first conceived in mid-2011. After more than a year-and-a-half of writing, Titli was green-lit at the end of 2012.
The shoot, which took place over 40 days in the summer of 2013, covered “practically all of NCR”, says Behl. “We shot all over Delhi, Noida, Ghaziabad. A part of the shoot was pretty guerilla. Our crew was skeletal and we shot some portions in placed by hiding the camera inside a bag because we didn’t have permission.”
The new trailer for Titli caused quite a stir when it was released about a month ago, with its gritty imagery and staccato flashes of violence. Behl chose to shoot the film in Super 16, a vintage film format used to great effect in recent movies such as Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012), instead of the usual high-definition digital cameras that are the norm nowadays.
“The idea was that it should feel like these characters are stuck in a different time,” he says. “The film is divided into two worlds: the [lower-class] mohalla they stay in and the city, which has malls and buildings — which isn’t accessible to them. But even those malls aren’t the posh ones. We chose the seediest possible ones. We wanted to show that the characters are part of a world of have-nots.”
A central theme of the film is oppression, he says, ranging from those inflicted by other people to socio-economic oppression. The makers tried to make sure that this seeped into the look of the film as well, by not allowing a lot of daylight in indoor scenes to heighten the sense of gloom and disillusionment being experienced by the characters.
Aside from being technically challenging, the process of making Titli has also, occasionally, been emotionally taxing for Behl. Casting his father was tough, although he says their on-set relationship was “absolutely normal, like any actor and director”.
Another stress-point that Behl initially tried very hard to avoid was working with editor Namrata Rao, his ex-wife. The pair, who have known each other since college, split after two years of marriage and were not on talking terms for a few months. “I didn’t want her to see the film before it was finished because, in some way, I was trying to speak to her through it,” he says. “We tried two editors but it just wasn’t coming together. Eventually, I panicked and called her. She came in, saw what we had, and I think she liked it enough to say, ‘Okay, main karti hoon, yeh tujhse nahi hoga.”
However, the actual process of working together was far from easy. The two were meeting for the first time since the divorce, and there were many unresolved issues that manifested themselves as raging arguments in the edit room. “We fought like cats and dogs,” he says, “but made it through — sometimes by talking, sometimes by not talking. I think what really made it work was a common belief in the film.”
He chuckles now, looking back at all the ‘drama’ that it took to make the film, looking visibly relaxed. “I think I’ve made the film I wanted to,” he says. Despite the film’s release coinciding with the 17th Mumbai Film Festival, he is hopeful that passionate cinephiles in the city (a significant portion of the audience for a film like this) will make time to catch it.
Titli releases in theatres across India this Friday.