The official trailer for Kanu Behl’s ‘Titli’ is pretty hard-hitting. Following its international release last year, the film has been sweeping some major awards including several awards in the Best Film category at the South Asian International Film Festival in Seattle and New York. The film was also nominated for Caméra d’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.
The plot revolves around the protagonist ‘Titli’, carrying out an existence of violent desperation in the dark and poverty struck alleys of Delhi. With the male members of his family relying on carjacking as a means to sustain their lives, Titli, the youngest of the brotherhood seeks to escape the harsh realities that surround him by helping his new bride do the same, albeit, for a price.
We get so used to listening to juicy tales of rags to riches or strugglers making it big in Bollywood that often we fail to notice the simple stories of success. Kanu Behl is one such story. Hailing from Punjab, Behl shuttled between Patiala and Delhi as a kid – both his parents are film and theatre personalities who were heavily involved with the National School of Drama and Doordarshan – and was exposed to cinema and visual arts quite early in his life. He was often taken along for shoots and rehearsals, and by the time he was seventeen and ready to make career choices, he was heavily saturated. “I really wanted to distance myself from that world because I had had enough of it,” says Behl, when I ask him to talk about his childhood days. “When you have spent 72 hours straight on the sets of a shoot as a teenager, you start hating it. I was fed up. So, I stayed away from film and television for about 2-3 years and then, when I was 20, I guess, I found international cinema and ended up seeing a whole new world of cinema. I watched Kubrick and Kieslowski and Kusturica and realised that there was a completely different way of handling the medium. That got me excited again. These narratives excited me and I fell in love with cinema all over again. And the moment I decided that I wanted to be a film-maker, I knew I had to attend a film school. And that brought me to SRFTII, Kolkata”
This was 2003, and Kolkata was experiencing a renewed passion for documentaries. Behl was soon absorbed into the growing movement, and his first few attempts at film-making were interesting documentary projects which were highly appreciated in his circles. You cannot really keep a film-maker away from Mumbai, however. Behl made the shift and soon met Dibakar Banerjee, who was extremely impressed with Behl’s approach and style. “My move from documentary to fiction was quite accidental. I was finishing my fourth documenary film when Dibakar had finished Khosla Ka Ghosla and was looking for an editor. He had met the HOD of our Editing department at SRFTII and wanted a sample of his work. I was coming to Bombay for some reason and I was given the responsibility of handing over the DVD. So, I just thought, why not slip in a CD of my doc film’s final cut? A couple of weeks later, I got a call from Dibakar and he said that he liked my stuff and wanted me to work on Oye Lucky Lucky Oye with him. I got sucked into the process and I was bowled over by him and Khosla, because nothing like that was happening in the industry at that point of time. After that, he discussed the germ of LSD and asked me to write it with him.”
When you see Titli, you realise that the film has a heavy Dibakar (Banerjee, along with YRF, are the film’s producers) shadow cast over it – a gritty portrayal of Delhi’s underbelly, dark humour, realistic treatment and a whimsical style that stands apart. The film follows a dysfunctional family of headstrong, chauvinistic men as they go about their corrupt odd jobs to stay afloat in the rat race, and one innocent young fellow grapples to escape the quicksand. Though Behl firmly states that he never wanted the film to be a “festival film”, Titli has already earned rave reviews internationally and was screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival this year. Starring Ranvir Shorey and Behl’s father, Lalit Behl, Titli promises to be a crackling addition to India’s almost non-existent noir cinema scene.
Talking about noir, how can one not discuss Anurag Kashyap? Behl chooses to play it safe and refuses to comment on both Kashyap and Banerjee, stating that “it is too early to discuss their style and craft as both of them are still evolving.” On further grilling, he does mention that Girl in Yellow Boots and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! are their weakest films, respectively. As for Bollywood, where does he fit in? “I am not even trying to place myself yet. I have stories I want to tell, and I know my films will be weird and quirky, but they will be accessible and easy to understand. For me, Titli is the new commercial cinema that should have been here 40 years ago. Hollywood had made films like this decades ago, when Scorcese made Taxi Driver – that’s the kind of film that Titli is.”