Narrating Men, Narrating the City: An interview with Kanu Behl
By Madhura Lohokare
Titli, directed by Kanu Behl and co-written by Sharat Katariya, released in 2015. Titli desperately seeks release from his claustrophobic lower middle class life, which he shares with his elder brothers, Vikram and Bawla and their aging father, somewhere on the outskirts of Delhi. The film charts for us the violent, dystopic trail of the three brothers’ struggle to make ends meet in the city, while also making explicit their simultaneously vulnerable and violent emotional landscapes. Behl weaves for us a highly textured tale of men’s relationships with other men and with women circumscribed by an unforgiving city, which seduces with its shiny exterior but offers no respite for the likes of Titli. For the detailed story line and reviews of the film see here, here and here. Titli has won several awards including a nomination in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes. In this interview, Behl revisits his characters and their spaces and the ways in which his own narrative as a man is enmeshed with the shaping of his characters.
Madhura Lohokare: In Titli, I found it remarkable that Delhi is not present in the foreground at all; there is a very strong sense of being at the edge of Delhi though. We are not in the centre of the city, but there is always the suggestion of the big city, of Delhi. I think the tremendous torn up feeling of continually living with the titillating suggestion (and not the actual materialization) of the big city in one’s life shows on Titli’s face. According to you, where is Titli located in the city?
Kanu Behl: I would look at the continual angst on Titli’s expression from two separate points. First, a purely dramatic need of having this boy, who thinks he has been tortured enough to hide every little beat of his desire. And he will not express. Hence the stodgy aloofness. Shoot karne se pehle yeh clear ho gaya tha ki yeh margin pe hain. Aur iska anger dikhta nahin hain ab because Titli knows the price to be paid to gain access to the inner sanctum (from the margin). So it was clear that part of the rage and part of the anger within his house is the fact that everybody senses they are on the margin. And the fact that there is a world right on that margin which is forgotten and left behind. I think that was something that we were consciously working at. For instance, there were no real cell phones, or even the TV was a slightly older TV… even the mall that they go to is not PVR. It was not the shiny mall. It’s the East Delhi, slightly dodgy looking, slightly faded, it’s a very “almost there” kind of space…Even in the choices of going with almost steely blues with greys for the outer world, as compared to the pinks and the greens of their world, the house we were trying to get to the inaccessibility of that other world, reflected in its lack of apparent shine.
ML: What was that imagination of this “forgotten city” that you worked with? I think in your film you portray this sense almost in ethnographic detail…
KB: The forgotten city was, for me instinctively, cutting out of certain elements from their world, which were the modern elements. For example, the choice of Titli’s cell phone was a deliberate choice. He does not even have an access to a flip kind of a cell phone. And as I said, the choice of TV in their house, it’s that old, monochrome, button waala TV, or the scooter that they are on, it’s a broken Vespa, probably a second hand Vespa that they have brought from somewhere. It was choices like that. Or the opening sequence itself sets you into a certain world. Because you get to suddenly see a space which you don’t see usually in that state: we all walk into our malls when they are built. We don’t see, we especially don’t see basements. Even the finished mall is a ghost mall in a way. So I think all those choices, the sort of the “B-Mall” ness of where they go, those help to build a sense of the city, which is inaccessible to these people.
ML: I see a lot of empathy for Titli in the film and Titli also manages to break out in very important ways at the end of the film. But what also struck me was that the film looks at the characters of Vikram and Bawla also with enormous sense of empathy and care. How did you as writer and a director relate to these characters?
KB: Yeah it’s a very interesting journey that I went on, especially with Vikram’s character. Because when the film started it was a film about Vikram being this villain who’s torturing this kid and not letting him escape. I remember in the first draft, Titli’s anger in the climactic moments was directed at Vikram and he used to beat Vikram up in that draft (laughs). When Sharat and I revisited that draft after two weeks we realised that it was our anger all pouring out against our fathers in that draft. But I think as artists, who were in the pursuit of something more, we started questioning that draft and we said yeh itna one-dimensional kyun hain. Why is Vikram the way he is? And I think that’s when that empathy that you are talking about revealed itself to us because we tried to understand that anger more.
And Nirbhaya was happening around that time and there was this whole discourse of what these boys had done to Nirbhaya. And suddenly they were turned into, umm, there weren’t six identities there. There was no attempt to understand who these boys were as individuals. It was just a monster. A monster with six arms and six legs and it was bothering us. The way we were reading about it and the way it was being dealt with. That little bit of alternate questioning of yeh kya ho raha hain tuned us in into Vikram and where his anger was coming from.
And, of course, this whole dichotomy in my whole life of accusing my father of having behaved with me in abominable way and yet you can see that he feels he is justified…that combined with me having acted in completely abominable ways and feeling like, I was completely right (laughs) put me in a huge flux and made me want to understand what this other side was: of being a man, and of being brought up in a certain way, of things getting transferred to you without knowing who you are. And all that went back and informed Vikram in many ways. And we found the other side of Vikram.
So after we had had a long chat with Vikram, you know, which was essentially me and Sharat talking to each other, and we realised how we had never addressed ki yeh aisa kyon hain…iske upar toh ek responsibility aayi thi, because probably the mother died early, he didn’t know what to do, and he was trying to bring up this young kid (Titli); as we tried to understand him more, we saw that he was incapable in many ways and following this we wrote that draft.
And then there is the father. The father is the ex-patriarch you know, he is really the retired king, who has resorted to emotional manipulation now that he is powerless. And now that has made him the active perpetrator. And in a sense both of us were feeding into our own family histories; you know, so I was feeding into not just my father, but also the role that my grandmother played. So in a sense my father in the film, or Daddy in the film is almost my grandmother. He is a mirror of my grandmother reflecting the evolved power machinations…But after having finished the draft, we realised that the father was slightly cardboard. We hadn’t gotten to the bottom of him now…and because we asked ourselves the same question for the father and said yeh aisa kyon hain and that’s when we realised that it’s a film about circularity.
ML: You said that in the process of writing there was so much of plugging into your own familial relationships and looking at your own selves. So clearly your self -reflection about yourselves as men and what has shaped you as men have worked their way into the characters of Titli. Do you see more and more men around you, men like you, young, urban, probably rooted in very middle class backgrounds and yet having now achieved some distance from that middle class background, do you find men like these reflecting more about your own selves as men, as your role as men?
KB: (smiles) Umm, no. I don’t think so. I think it’s a very token reflection. I think whatever little is happening is because our world is expanding and we are exposed to much more now as a culture. Capitalism right now is probably at its worst best and it is creating a huge crunch on everybody. And in our country, its politics and economics has reflected in changing gender roles. Gender roles change because women are now stepping out. Power equations change because women are now earning. And more than men really actually being sensitive towards how to deal with women or what being a woman means, I think it’s a pressure cooker being built up where men necessarily find themselves looking at themselves very differently. And men find women looking at them very differently. And I think that is causing a positional shift, where you are having to behave differently to be able to exist in a new context. And really, in that sense, I feel it’s not an organic journey. It’s pushed…and it might be slightly harmful in the long run, because it might just suppress the true change that is necessary and it might just push certain attitudes under the carpet.
ML: For me, Titli is, amongst several other things, about men’s relationships with men: father-son, between siblings, between lovers. So how does Titli as a film about men’s relationships break out of the usual lens (of honour, loyalty, idealised friendship) through which Hindi cinema has looked at men’s relationships. So what is the lens through which Titli presents men’s relationships?
KB: To be honest, I don’t think I was actively thinking of it, while making the film. I think what we were trying to do was look at everybody as an individual and give them their own universe and existence. And yes, it was clearly a film about four men. We knew that we were dealing with a very patriarchal world; for us the missing mother was Bawla (Titli’s middle brother). But still it was four men constantly grating against each other. And somehow the father and the middle brother had assumed slightly feminine roles in the house for very different reasons; the middle brother had a huge black hole within him where he was not able to speak about his sexuality and hence had something to hide and had a need for a hole to crawl into and that space that was left between Titli and Vikram, almost helped him fill up his black hole. And the father, of course, because he was powerless now and he had to move into almost like a creeper kind of role where he was really still pining for that power in the house…so that was turning him into this slightly feminine guy in the house who was cutting aaloo or who was trying to serve the dinner.
ML: For me, when I thought of this question, I thought of contradictions. That here are these men who are living with so much of contradictions within themselves that it is at times hard to reconcile the two. I really appreciate that, because I don’t think till now Hindi cinema has done justice to men as having to reconcile with contradictions.
How do you relate to Titli’s context culturally? Why did the story happen in this particular, “on the margin,” lower middle class context?
KB: It happened in a lower middle class context because there is no other context that I understand as well. I mean, even though (pauses), I have personally spent more years of my life in slightly economically better conditions…but there is a fair amount of my life which I have spent there, which was probably a more impressionable age. Somewhere I feel like I belong to this class still…or let’s say, I feel more of a kinship to that class.
Madhura Lohokare has completed her Ph.D. in Anthropology from Syracuse University. She teaches Academic Writing at Shiv Nadar University, Greater Noida.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.