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(From left) Shashank Arora, Shivani Raghuvanshi and Ravir Shorey in ‘Titli’.
(From left) Shashank Arora, Shivani Raghuvanshi and Ravir Shorey in ‘Titli’.

Kanu Behl & Sharat Katariya: ‘We weren’t interested in a top-down gaze on the world’

The writers of the film 'Titli' on being influenced by R.D. Laing, writing women characters in a 'male film', and the 'chai peeoge' syndrome

When Kanu Behl and Sharat Katariya first met, their careers were at a similar impasse. Both had worked as screenwriters—Katariya on the runaway hit Bheja Fry besides others, and Behl as co-writer on Dibakar Banerjee’s path-breaking Love Sex aur Dhoka. And while Katariya had made his debut with the romantic comedy 10ml Love that hadn’t got much attention, Behl was emerging from the harrowing experience of spending over a year on a “dishonest script" that went nowhere. On a handshake, they began working on a screenplay that became Titli, a dark yet funny look at the underbelly of Delhi, and at the Indian family.

The story revolves around the young Titli’s dreams of escaping the drudgery of life with his violent elder brother Vikram (played with elan by Ranvir Shorey), second brother Bawla (Amit Sial) and his father (Lalit Behl, the director’s father and a veteran theatre and TV actor). When the family engineers Titli’s marriage to Neelu, he finds an unexpected accomplice in his bid for freedom, as Neelu will do anything to get to her own lover, Prince. The film sets up the family conflict against the backdrop of Delhi’s impoverished pockets as well as the massive malls and colonies coming up on its edges. In an interview, Behl and Kataria talks about their collaboration, and how they managed to strike a balance between the comic and the tragic by turning to their own lives. Edited excerpts:

Director-writer Kanu Behl on the sets of ‘Titli’.
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Director-writer Kanu Behl on the sets of ‘Titli’.

How did you meet and begin collaborating on the screenplay?

Kanu Behl: Around 2011, soon after working on LSD, I was going through a bad phase of my life personally and work wise. I had spent nearly two years working on a script that went nowhere, and that experience made me stop and question myself about why I wanted to make films at all, why had I even come to Mumbai, and so on. I decided that the next film I wrote had to be really honest and personal, and family seemed the correct reference point from which to begin looking inwards. I was looking to collaborate with someone who could act as a foil and who could own the screenplay and story with me. Because I was clear that the film couldn’t be my personal rant. At that time Urmi Juvekar (creative producer of LSD) suggested Sharat’s name

Sharat Kataria: I was also in a similar space. I had a script ready that had no takers (that became Dum Laga ke Haisha), and no other projects. We met in a coffee shop and within the first few minutes we hit it off, because we found we shared the same language and knew the same spaces. We are both from east Delhi, and grew up in almost the same area. For the first time in Mumbai, I met someone who knew where I was from, and I knew where he was from. We even knew each other’s addas, because there are fixed spots for smoking and hanging out.

How did you arrive at the plot of a dark family saga?

KB: I had read an interesting news item about a gang of carjackers who were three brothers. It began from there and rapidly moved to becoming a film about family. We began by working on a detailed step outline, where we cracked every scene. For almost six months, we were just talking...

SK: ...which is what annoyed me a lot. I was like, ‘Lets write and finish it.’ Kanu is more disciplined than I am, he had made a chart that went something like ‘One month for story, then two months for step outline, then a first draft’ and so on. And I thought, ‘It’s going to take that long? Fatafat khatam karte hain.’ But it helped us in making all our major breakthroughs.

KB: We would ask each other questions about the characters, their motivations. Even after we had our scenarios, we wrote almost 3-4 different drafts of the film. In one of these versions, everything felt right dramatically but key characters like Vikram seemed too cardboard and unconvincing. We realized its a film about a young man escaping from his oppressor, but can you simply run away from the oppressor and the oppression will go away? We tried to understand more deeply why Vikram was the way he was. Was he also manufactured somewhere, perhaps from the silent father? So we introduced elements like the grandfather’s photo (that broods over the family home). We were already playing with this idea of circularity that is central to the film. Around the same time I had given the draft to (filmmaker and his former teacher) Kamal Swaroop. He suggested we read pioneering psychiatrist R.D. Laing’s work called The Politics of the Family. That really lit a lot of battis (lights) in our heads.

Locations play an important role in the narrative, like the dark house the family shares...

SK: The idea for the half-completed house came from a lot of people I had seen in my neighbourhood, the depression of people jinke ghar aadhe ban ke reh jaate hain (whose homes are left half-built). They would be eaten away by the anger and frustration that stemmed from this. And Kanu had the idea of Vikram aspiring to own a dining table in this house that I had originally disagreed with, as it seemed to be too middle-class an object for this family. But he felt that showed their aspiration, which was to be middle class. Even the decision to make Vikram a security guard at a mall reflects that aspiration.

KB: Around the same (time) the Nirbhaya rape case had happened in Delhi, and we had long discussions on where was this anger coming from in these people? We were trying to situate this violence...

SK: But my concern was to do it with empathy. Lets not be like educated upper class people, who comment on this part of society. We should be like them, or understand them when we make the film.

KB: Of course, neither of us were interested in employing a voyeuristic or top-down gaze to show this world. We wanted to understand the internal context through which such acts come. Can we just dismiss (the perpetrator) as that guy who slipped an iron rod into the vagina of a girl and lock him away somewhere? Just say that he is evil? But where does all that anger come from? The attempt was to have this unspoken layer in the film of construction, aspiration, the malls, the buildings coming up.

So was it a conscious effort to show the backdrop of uneven development that we see in cities like Delhi?

SK: For me it was more at a subconscious level. I understand it because in Delhi you see how society grows in a erratic fashion, some people grow quicker than you. So that angst I knew very well. But the human angle was more important for me. No matter what Titli does, it should never feel he is doing anything wrong. Even if he is doing something wrong, there is a reason why he is doing it, he is pushed to the wall.

KB: I think the writing process was like a ball passing between us, I said something that Sharat passed back and that opened some doors. So even though he says it was not conscious for him, I remember some of the ideas for these spaces came from him. Like making Prince (Neelu’s paramour) into a construction contractor. And setting some of their scenes in the sample flats that his company is trying to sell. For me, the core of the film was a family stuck together in a house, and exploring the power equation between them. We have all, in our families, experienced such power play, or at least I have, when you become like someone you hate. And you half hate yourself for being that person and half feel for yourself for not knowing what truck hit you. This was the internal landscape of the character. The other thing I wanted to do was to put it into context, because this doesn’t happen in isolation. So how do we see if from outside? The violence, the construction, the aspiration, were the crutches I needed for the primary emotional journey that Titli was going through.

SK: A lot of it came through the direction also. The ingredients are there in the script, but its easy to overlook these elements when you’re reading, I think he has brought these out strongly in the film.

How much of the film draws from your own experiences?

KB: I identify with Titli’s world closely. I have lived on its fringes, a lot of what you see in terms of textures, spaces, clothes, are what I have observed. Till I was 12 or 13 the whole family was living in a one room kitchen, in the railway colony behind Bengali Market in Delhi. And my family was probably just a little bit better off than the rest of the extended family who were still struggling to make ends meet.

SK: It was the same for me. We didn’t need research or effort. Talking purely as a writer, when you are writing for others it generally doesn’t happen like that. Very rarely do you get work on a subject where you are familiar with the world you are writing about. For the first time I feel I really worked with a director, because normally people leave to you to write the film and are not so involved. Kanu had the sincerity to make the film for the right reasons, and I could see it would fall into place. It was also the first time I wrote something other than comedy, so there was no pressure to write a joke in every scene. But its a very funny film. Its also a love story.

Did you have any references that you turned to as writers?

KB: A pet peeve we both share is that a lot of the new cinema you see these days feels very referenced and sourced. It has a strong European influence and we were actively trying to make it seem not influenced. Besides the book by R.D. Laing, I only shared a song with the entire crew, called Maria Bethania by Caetano Veloso, that I felt captured the mood of the film.

SK: For me it was the documentary on the making of Martin Scorsese’s classic Mean Streets, called Back on the Block where Scorsese goes around showing the streets of Little Italy where he grew up, and the people he based his characters on. Its very moving.

How did you approach writing the women in ‘Titli’?

SK: Writing women characters is more interesting, purely as a writer its good to see them doing things you don’t see in real life. And how promiscuity works, how people are at ease with it and how comfortable they are with it. That’s what makes me interested in these lives.

KB: When we talked of Sangeeta and Neelu, again we had parallels around us in women we had observed. There are certain examples of this really brazen way to deal with promiscuity, and it was almost an empowering thing for the woman. One of my regrets is that in the final film Neelu has emerged as more suffered than we had envisioned her, because its such a male film and is trying to grapple the men so much for you...

SK: I am frankly a bit bored of feminist attitudes on films. I like to see more vulnerable men in films, weaker men, the way they are in real life. It’s not like they are heroes. We also discussed how society and the pressure of being the patriarch brings in violence. In Sangeeta’s case and regarding her moving onto another man, I’ve also seen that. But when she leaves Vikram, the common philosophy is that she will make the same mistake again. I would like to see her with a person not like Vikram, because now she has a larger wisdom and realizes she doesn’t want to be with that kind of a man.

Bawla, the middle brother between Vikram and Titli, is hinted at being gay, and this is accepted by his family. Tell us about how you wrote his character.

KB: His sexuality is accepted in the family, but nobody talks about it. Its a family secret that is protected. In my extended family, I have grown up with the knowledge of a family member (being gay), and I remember the day that knowledge was passed to me. It was something that was held closely.

SK: So when we were trying to pin down the character, it seemed to be an organic part of Bawla as he is not able to have a real identity, it makes him vulnerable. The idea was not to wear it as a badge.

KB: Its also a way of showing how Indian families are really peculiar with how we choose not to talk. They have what I call the ‘chai peeoge syndrome’. There will be a big fight, then half an hour of silence, then someone will say—‘chai peeoge?’ And no one will talk about what happened. Titli comes from the anger around this- why cant we talk about these things?

Titli releases in theatres on 30 October.

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