Of all the damaged goods that have rattled into view in recent years – Dev.D, Udaan, Ugly, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Hunterrr, NH10, Piku – there are none as misshapen as the folks from Kanu Behl’s Titli.

The October 30 release is an uncompromisingly unpleasant account of a family on the margins of polite society and the new economy. Titli, co-written by Behl and Sharat Katariya, does not offer easy exits for its characters or viewers, nor does it stint on showing the verbal, emotional and physical violence that father visits upon son, brother on brother, husband on wife.

Titli follows a family of carjackers from the exurbs of Delhi that lie beyond the Yamuna River. The youngest of the trio, the eponymous hero (Shashank Arora), is quietly planning an escape route even as his older brothers Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Bawla (Amit Sial) drag him along on their nasty attacks on vehicle owners. Titli is distracted from his goal by his forced marriage with Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi). Neelu’s entry into the all-male household rattles at the mesh of blood ties and mutual need, and pushes Titli even further to the edge.

“I started out wanting to do a story about a boy who wants to escape his elder brother, and then reverse engineered the bit about the carjackers,” said 35-year-old Behl. “It is a film about oppression and wanting to root out that oppression, but then we also explore how the violence of the world seeps into the house.”

Shashank Arora and Shivani Raghuvanshi in Titli (2014). Courtesy Yash Raj Films/Dibakar Banerjee Productions.

In time-honoured tradition, the debut feature that Behl calls a “difficult child” was born in his backyard. He grew up in Patiala and East Delhi, the only son of actors Lalit and Navnindra Behl. Lalit Behl has also directed several television serials, and he appears in Titli as the mostly silent patriarch of the twisted brood. In a powerful sequence, he is called a pig by one of his sons – the moment particularly stands out when you consider Kanu Behl’s statements that the story draws heavily from his own troubled childhood and adolescence.

“I had a very tough relationship with my father while growing up,” Behl said. “He was a harsh man and had been moulded into a certain way of life.” Behl Senior, like Ranvir Shorey’s character in the movie, had to shoulder the responsibility early on of providing for his family.

“There was also physical violence – that seems to be a part of so many north Indian households,” Kanu Behl added. “That’s why I feel that this film is universal, because so many of us on the sets had the same sort of story – Sharat, Siddharth Diwan [the cinematographer], Namrata [Rao, the editor].” 

The filmmaker says that he tried to run away from home a couple of times. He was following in the footsteps of his uncle, who fled in his adolescence, was found as a young adult in Mumbai, and was brought back home and married off within a week. The uncle’s photograph is used to represent Titli’s grandfather in the movie – just one of many uncomfortably close autobiographical elements.

Trained at the Satyajit Ray Film Institute of Film and Television, Behl cut his teeth on Dibakar Banjeree’s films – he was an assistant director on the West Delhi-set Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye and also wrote Love Sex Aur Dhoka, the dark triptych about voyeurism and new media from 2010. Banerjee has co-produced Titli along with Yash Raj Films.

Kanu Behl.

Behl graduated with relief from SRFTI, where he says he had a “horrid time”. Whatever trauma he may have suffered there, Behl’s future interest in the intersection of documentary and fiction were discovered at the Kolkata institute. His mentors included the Dean, Nilotpal Majumdar and filmmaker and professor Shyamal Karmakar, whose documentaries rub out the boundaries between fact and fiction.

“I had always been fiction-oriented, but then I saw these documentaries,” Behl said. “Fiction had been missing a life force – I was getting all the shots, but the zing was not there. I learnt that every time I lost a bit of control and let things play out, it worked well for me.”

Before embarking on Titli, Behl wrote another screenplay, featuring three inter-connected stories, set in a small town in north India, and called The Election. “I shopped around the script for a year, but nobody wanted to do a multi-track film at the time, I guess,” Behl said. “Also, it wasn’t an honest film.”

His personal life was crumbling by then – his marriage to editor Namrata Rao, whom he met at SRFTI and has worked closely with ever since (she has edited Titli), was crumbling, and he had began to question his goals. “I was angry, I hadn’t figured out a lot of things in my own life,” he said. “I was so self-involved in trying to figure myself out that I wasn’t trying to understand anyone around me. I went into a shell, and took six months off to understand why the fuck I was doing this. I went back mentally into that room within my house and asked myself why I wanted to be a filmmaker. That is where Titli was born.”

Mining personal memories, especially painful ones, for dramatic material can be a heart-wrenching process, but Behl argues that the path of autobiography was the only one to take, especially since the ring of truth that surrounds real-life events are not always replicated by pure fiction. “How can you make a good documentary or a film without having lived it yourself?” he asked rhetorically. “Whatever I have lived will be the thickest and the most populated for me.”

Partners in crime

Katariya, who has directed 10ML Love and Dum Laga Ke Haisha, became Behl’s writing partner in late 2011. “He comes from the same spaces as me – he too has lived in East Delhi, and we have the same vocabulary,” Behl said. “I was dealing with fragile material and needed someone to handhold me and support me through the process. Sharat writes characters and understands human beings very well.”

Both writers agreed on emptying the screenplay of easy ways out for its characters. “We were writing an uncompromising film because I had tried to take the other path and had failed,” Behl said. “Everything that had to go wrong in my life had gone wrong. Sharat too was in a similar space: 10ML Love had come and gone, Dum Laga Ke Haisha wasn’t even close to being made. We came together and said, let’s go for it.

Behl and Katariya were guided in their writing by renowned psychiatrist and mental health theorist RD Laing’s 1969 essay Politics of the Family. At its most basic, Titli’s screenplay tries to answer some of the questions posed by Laing: “What is the texture of the actual lived experience of family life? How is the texture of this experience related to dramatic structure, the social product of the interweaving of so many lives over generations?”

Simply put: will Titli become his fearsome brother, or his loathsome father?

“Laing’s text reinforced our thoughts and helped me directorially,” Behl explained. “The text opened up the physical space of the film beyond the carjacking.”

Shivani Raghuvanshi in Titli (2014). Courtesy Yash Raj Films/Dibakar Banerjee Productions.

The hardscrabble locales depicted in the movie are fictional versions of the neighbourhoods from such documentaries as Rahul Roy’s When Four Friends Meet, an intimate exploration of the dreams and anxieties of working-class men from Jahangirpuri in Delhi. The characters of the father and Vikram in Titli carry echoes of monstrous patriarchs all through the history of cinema, including Pete Postlethwaite’s abusive father in Terrence Davies’s autobiographical Distant Voices, Still Lives.

Olivia Stewart, Davies’s producer on Distant Voices, Still Lives, was an early collaborator on Titli when its screenplay was entered at the Screenwriters’ Lab at the National Film Development Corporation-run Film Bazaar in 2012. “Olivia opened up a lot of doors, she was the first one to say, stop looking at the film only as a writer,” Behl said.

Titli’s cast and crew had to be infected with Behl’s enthusiasm for dark material, and this process too involved some degree of violence. Debutant lead actor Shashank Arora had to be literally slapped out of his upper-class mannerisms to fit into the role of a scrawny young adult from a criminal family that lives from one week to the next. Casting director Atul Mongia shares some of the credit and blame for Arora’s metamorphosis.

“We discovered a hellhole into which we put our actors,” Behl said. Arora is the cousin of Behl’s friend from Delhi, but that didn’t prevent him from being beaten up without warning. “Atul and I were not making a breakthrough, and on our signal, one of the characters in the film picked up a chappal and beat up Shashank for 15-odd minutes.” Behl said. “He was very upset, he cried. He didn’t have a repository to go into for the role, and the incident helped him understand the character.”

The filmmaker and casting director tried a different tack with Ranvir Shorey, who portrays Vikram with chilling magnificence. “I had seen Ranvir in many things, including the play The Blue Mug, and I have always felt that he is tremendously underrated,” Behl said. “With Ranvir, our main attempt was to make him insecure on the set – we didn’t want him to know whether or not he was giving a good performance. We would not speak to him at all, and his main grouse was that nobody was telling him anything. Vikram is a character who lives from one day to the next and deals with problems as they come, and we wanted Ranvir to be in that space.”

How did Lalit Behl react to being called a pig by his screen son, who is modelled on his real son?

“We knew it would be tricky, and we mitigated it by not giving him a script,” the director explained. “He knew what the film was about, and he was playing our game. We kept the scene for the last day of the shoot, and it was professionally done.”

Lalit Behl in Titli (2014). Courtesy Yash Raj Films/Dibakar Banerjee Productions.

The levels of manipulation, exploitation and subterfuge in the service of popular art seem straight out of a Bigg Boss house crossed with a David O Russell set. “The whole crew wanted to kill me,” Behl said. “We had a 40-day shoot, and on the 36th day, I cried in a corner and told my chief assistant director that I didn’t want to do this anymore. We were shooting 16-17 hours and making this depressing movie.”

A long way home

The downbeat indie had its international premiere in the prestigious Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014. Titli had good reviews in leading trade papers such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, and also secured distribution deals in France and Germany, but the movie’s journey in India has been rocky. For its co-producer, Yash Raj Films, the gruesome drama is as far removed from anything the leading Bollywood studio has ever handled as Pluto is from Earth.

Yash Raj Films and Dibakar Banerjee Productions have, however, mounted a vigourous campaign to soften Titli’s jagged edges. The movie poster depicts the key characters carrying objects that supposedly represent the sum total of their screen personalities; a new trailer has been cut for India that makes the movie appear like a violent yet quirky family satire; publicists are encouraging journalists to ask the actors about their own dysfunctional relationships with their fathers.

The dirty linen that will be aired by the time Titli opens is necessary to attract regular movie-goers, Behl said. “As many people need to watch this film as possible – the marketing campaign is aimed at creating room for a film like this one,” he said.

At a little over 116 minutes, the Indian version is 11 minutes shorter than the Cannes cut. The adult-rated movie has retained its violence, but some of the scenes have a different editing rhythm, Behl said, while sound effects have replaced the prolific profanity in a few places.

In his head, the filmmaker has already moved on to his next project, titled Agra, and described as yet another exploration of the dark spaces that exist within families. It will be shot through with the same anger that permeates Titli, Behl promises ‒ it is not catharsis or closure he seeks, but a seat in the confessional.

“I am in the same zone, I am still angry, and I try to be angry as far as possible,” he said. “Now that I know what I want out of a film, I won’t be able to approach it any other way.”

Titli (2014).