Best Debut Film of 2015: Meet the Man Behind ‘Titli’

Kanu Behl tells us what it took to make ‘Titli’, arguably the best debut film this year

8 min read
Best Debut Film of 2015: Meet the Man Behind ‘Titli’

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As dark, gut-wrenching and intense as Titli was, it was equally hypnotic, palpable and exquisite. Arguably this year’s best debut, if the yardstick were to make a film that stopped looking like a film and resembled a gritty documentary instead, Titli premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, and released in India in October this year. I got Kanu Behl, the man behindTitli, to talk about the journey of realising his first film.

Also, scroll down for the video of a quick Q&A with the filmmaker, in which he names his favourite film and performance of the year, besides revealing who he thinks is Bollywood’s most overrated director.

Q: Before the first film, which is what gets talked about, there is always that script or a series of scripts that never get made. Tell me about the script, which eventually never became your first film and your learning from it.

Kanu: I don’t how good it was, there was a something tentatively called The Election, which I was writing. It had three stories running parallel against the backdrop of a very small level MLA election in Ghaziabad. It was about how these people affected the elections and how the elections ends up shaping their lives. In many ways I think it was kind of a cop-out, I think it was a slightly dishonest film, not much of it was coming out of direct experience any way.

It tried to mount it for a couple of years, it took me about a year, year and a half to write it. I think the experience of that, the process of writing it, it got talked about as a “good” script. But there were several different kinds of obstacles that I had to face while I was trying to mount it.

My take away from it was that, I realised where I needed to work harder as far as me investing myself in a project is concerned. I somewhere realised that part of it was because I was just panicking, I was just trying to make a film and it could be any film. I sat back after those 2 years and thought what is going wrong where, why is it not THAT film, why did I want to be a filmmaker in the first place? And all that lead me to organically conclude that the next thing that I write has to completely honest, has to be lived, has to come from my own experience and I think that lead to Titli.
Shashank Arora in Titli (Photo courtesy: YouTube/YRF)

Q: How did the idea of Titli germinate and you said the story was born out of personal experience, which aspect of the film did you live through?

Kanu: Every aspect of it. When we say we have to live through a film, it’s slightly misunderstood, it doesn’t mean that you have lived the film actually. For me at least, it means that emotionally the film is all yours and I think emotionally all of the film is very very very closely lived. It’s just that, the texture or the juxtaposition doesn’t need to be exactly the same, because I would also like to leave room within my film for it to be more than just my story, to give the story the opportunity to be a little universal.

I was going through a kind of tough period, my personal life was all over the place, I was going through a divorce and several things were going wrong. And I stepped back and I said, “Ok, honest story, honest film, what do I know that I can really talk about?” And childhood is something you always go back to and I had a really tenuous relationship with my father, so that’s where the idea began.
Shashank Arora in Titli (Photo courtesy: YouTube/YRF)
The germ was to do a film where a boy wants to run away from his oppressive older brother and the age-gap between them, they’re almost like a father-son. Even though they are really three brothers and a father, there are really three generations in that house. Sharat came on board, we wrote a first draft, after which we felt that Ranvir’s character is feeling a little cardboardish, why is he doing what he is doing to Titli and that’s where the real investigation into where we wanted to go started.

We then found the father in the film, and we said so maybe some of the father has come into him and then we felt though Ranvir’s character was justified, now the father needs some substance, which lead to further talks, discussions, frustration, as is usual until we finally cracked the idea of the grandfather’s photograph in the house.

We parallely realised that what we thought was our film on patriarchy or violence or circularity was what RD Laing’s work ‘The Politics of the Family’ was all about, it gave us a real hold on what we had stumbled upon.

Shashank Arora and Shivani Raghuvanshi in Titli (Photo courtesy: YouTube/YRF)

Q: Going by conventional wisdom, Titli is not the kind of film that Yash Raj Films is associated with. Did it take some amount of convincing, or was it a part of the deal between YRF and Dibakar Banerjee Productions?


I think all bigger studios and everybody about town is now realising that we are at a point now where audience’s tastes are changing. This year itself, if you see the kind of films that have worked, there is an NH10, there is a Badlapur, there is a Dum Laga Ke Haisha, people are realising that there is another market where people want different kinds of stories and they are lapping it up.

For YRF, a Titli or a Dum Laga Ke Haisha is an active part to explore that other zone and see what story they want to tell there. As soon as the decision was taken that Titli is a film that will be done in a different way in a different process, then it was just about being focussed and letting the film achieve all that it could within that matrix that it was set in.

Shashank Arora and Shivani Raghuvanshi in Titli (Photo courtesy: YouTube/YRF)

Q: I am really interested in knowing how Aditya Chopra reacted to your film


He saw the film the night I was flying to Cannes for the Un Certain Regard. He liked it and we had a long chat about it over a cup of chai. He liked all the directorial flourishes, I remember him saying that it feels so real that you can’t take your eyes off it, you just forget that it’s a film.
Kanu Behl assisted Dibakar Banerjee on Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhokha

Q: An important element that makes the film such a winner is the casting. How was the process of casting for Titli done?

Kanu: By the time we did the second draft and we got a hold of Vikram’s character, me and Sharat began thinking, what if Ranvir did this? Because, both of us are huge admirers of his work. Ranvir and Amit Sial, I pretty much knew before we reached the final draft, that these are solid options for these parts.

Amit Sial as Pradeep and Ranvir Shorey as Vikram in Titli (Photo courtesy: YouTube/YRF)
Everyone else then fell into place around that. I knew that it had to have a really real feel, that it should be like a documentary, but we were talking about Ranvir Shorey, a known face as Vikram, so we decided to hide him by bringing about a completely new cast around him.

Titli and Neelu had to be absolute new faces, I knew that. Getting Shashank was a stroke of luck, he’s my best friend’s little cousin brother, I’ve known him since he was seven. He wanted to be an actor and had come to Bombay.

Shashank Arora as Titli (Photo courtesy: YouTube/YRF)

Around the time of casting, my casting director Atul, was asking me what does this guy Titli look like, give me a feel, and I pulled out one of Shashank’s reels and showed him, so Atul said so why don’t we test him. But Shashank was nothing like Titli in the mindspace, so from then it was really about him working hard for over 2-3 months and us giving him an idea into what Titli was all about.

Shivani Raghuvanshi as Neelu (Photo courtesy: YouTube/YRF)

With Neelu, we looked a lot, it was a struggle, we finally locked on Shivani about 2 weeks before shooting began. We’d looked in Bombay, we looked in Delhi, but we got lucky with Shivani because even though she is a non-actor, she knew the space very well as a West Delhi girl.

With Daddy it was a different kind of struggle, we auditioned a lot of known actors, but it’s such a tricky part, because he’s really someone who just lurks in the background and then explodes at one particular point, he needed a lot of that latent energy, we couldn’t find that intensity anywhere.

Kanu Behl’s dad Lali Behl made his feature film debut as the partriarch in Titli (Photo courtesy: YouTube/YRF)
Then this idea struck that why don’t I try my own father, because he is from the National School of Drama, a trained actor. We just took time in deciding whether we want that, it was my first film, I think he was hesitant because he was going to do a feature for the first time, but once we sort of took the decision ki karna hai, then it sort of flowed from that.

Q: Any lovelies killed on the edit table? Your favourite one?

Kanu: There were lots of scenes I was attached to which have gone out, but as a filmmaker I don’t think I am that attached to anything. There was this whole episode of how these guys do their heists, what is their emo of staking out. It was written for Vikram’s violence, but as soon as we reached the edit table we realised that it was just doubling up, it wasn’t adding anything new to Vikram’s character. But I thought it was something that was shot really well, maybe in a longer version we could have added it to the film.

Q: So throughout the film you hold the audience with the palpable tension, seething violence, anger and frustration that lurks in every frame of the film. Then finally, when Titli returns to Neelu and says,’Let’s start afresh’ - the audience gets a breather, a feeling of hope, but then you quickly bring in the dialogue that Neelu’s fractured hand may need a permanent rod. Why! Why! Why!

Kanu: (Laughs) Because that’s what the film is for me. It’s a film about family, it’s a film about relationships, it’s a film about how human beings deal with each other. I think at the end of the day as human beings, we all carry our scars and somewhere our scars do tell us how much we have lived. So to have gone through this whole journey with this boy where he realises where he wanted to be and what he has become and not end it with the realisation that scars do stay, and by the way, that really isn’t intended to be a downer, you make your own ending with this.

Q&A With Kanu Behl

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Topics:  Ranvir Shorey   titli   Kanu Behl 

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