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Kanu Behl’s first feature film Titli, chosen to compete for the Caméra d’or in the Un Certain Regard category of the Cannes Film Festival this year, has a stormy assemblage. It’s set in an east Delhi neighbourhood—an urban cul-de-sac right at the bottom of the consumerist chain. Material abundance, employment and creature comforts are still unattainable to the family at the centre of the drama. Two brothers, played by Ranvir Shorey and debutant Shashank Arora (Titli, the film’s hero), are part of a carjacking gang. Their family of three, the two brothers and a frosty and oppressive father, are on a slow boil. A grim young woman, Titli’s wife, joins this family. The young couple want to escape, and predictably fall into a crime loop.

Oppression, and the tension and violence accompanying any kind of human oppression, underline many scenes in Titli. It does not have repose or eye-pleasing beauty.

In an interview last week at a suburban editing studio in Mumbai where he was working on the film’s sound mix, Behl said: “From crime thriller, it became a film about family, and about where oppression comes from within a family. Through Titli’s journey I try to answer these questions: Is this the guy (the father) who made me like this? Then who is the guy who made him like this?" Before Titli, he worked on a script called “The Election" for a few years. It was aborted, he says, because it did not have satisfactory answers to some personal questions he was trying to ask through the script.

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Shashank Arora and Shivani Raghuvanshi in ‘Titli’

“These things happen in life. But when we turn it into a film—we often cannot resist the temptation to sex them up. Kanu’s script was refreshingly free of all artifice and what I call ‘the tickling-the-audience’s-balls-syndrome’," Banerjee says.

Titli was born laboriously, says Behl, over four drafts and two years. Once the screenplay was final, Banerjee took it up. Titli is one of the three films for which Banerjee tied up with Yash Raj Films in 2013. The studio hired Guneet Monga, arguably Mumbai’s smartest seller of small-budget, artistically driven films, to pitch Titli to the global market. It was chosen for the Un Certain Regard category, following recent Indian representatives in the category such as Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan (2010) and Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely (2012).

A few days after the Cannes announcement, WestEnd Films, a London-based sales and feature film financing company, announced its association with the film. The Variety magazine quoted Fabien Westerhoff, head of sales at WestEnd Films, as saying: “Titli is the kind of punch-in-the-gut movie that stays with you long after the credits have rolled. The tension builds up from the first scenes and will keep audiences on the edge of their seats worldwide."

Made with “a pittance", according to Banerjee, the provincialism in Titli is unmitigated. External details like accent, costume and art direction meant to authenticate a milieu can often make a film’s appeal exotic, if not backed by emotional truth. When the setting and the film’s emotional curve are intricately and seamlessly related, the provincial is universal. In the age of the “glocal", it is a film-maker’s challenge to retain the purely local. Titli’s success beyond Cannes depends on how fine this local-universal balance is.

Behl says while he tried to be conscious not to gloss over any of the small details, his focus was always the family’s and Titli’s emotional life. “I went through many drafts because I wanted to be more and more honest with the story. When it comes from a deeply personal space, the film-maker can defeat a lot of his own ego. With an honest personal document like this, there is no showing anything—or saying let me show you this," he says. “There is an ideology in the film, but it is not in the form of a message. It’s never spoken out or shown."

Behl and Atul Mongia, who is the film’s associate director and casting director, had written the role of Titli’s elder brother with Shorey in mind, convinced that he would best articulate the character’s brutality and helplessness. It was for the casting of the young hero that Mongia set up many auditions in New Delhi.

In his upbringing and background, Arora is far from the film’s canvas. “He is an educated city guy who mostly watches Hollywood movies and listens only to English music. His screen presence was the clincher," Mongia says. For him to drop his natural swagger, Mongia and Behl tried to “break" him—ensuring he was in a zone of hopelessness. They sent him to assist the locations manager to spend days in the kind of neighbourhood the film is set in.

Shivani Raghuvanshi, who plays his wife, had never acted before either, but in contrast to Arora, she was familiar with this world, having always lived in a similar neighbourhood. After numerous workshops and auditions, she got the acting right—she is a sharpshooter in her portrayal of a woman with a plan, who wants change, unravelling in bursts through packed scenes.

Behl, 33, grew up in east Delhi to actor and writer parents. A “set kid", he imbibed cinema early on when his parents were making featurettes for the national broadcaster, Doordarshan. “But I think what helps finally is absorbing all the relationships playing out around you," he says. He wrote from those memories and observations, as well as his own experiences with family.

Always leaning towards fiction, he completed a degree at the Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute (SRFTI), Kolkata, and wrote and directed personal documentaries. An Actor Prepares is a documentary about an aspiring actor who is negotiating a newly emerging India while struggling to find himself. Three Blind Men, a short film, is set in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar area, the venue for public protests. Behl joined Banerjee’s team after 2003, when he was about to make Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!—when Banerjee was refining his voice as a director. “So many people in that team were first-timers on a film set. There was a desire to find a different tone and texture. That energy seared into me pretty early on, and I still thrive on it," he says.


Two Indian films that have won the Caméra d’or

The Caméra d’or, or “the golden camera", prize is awarded to the best first film presented in the Official Selection (Competition, Out of Competition and Un Certain Regard), in Critics’ Week or Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. The prize was instituted in 1978 by French director and producer Gilles Jacob. Two Indian films that have won the Caméra d’or:

u Shaji N Karun’s ‘Piravi’ (1988)

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u Murali Nair’s ‘Marana Simhasanam’ (1999)

Produced, written and directed by Murali Nair, the film is about an old farmer who makes a living by stealing coconuts from his neighbour. He is taken into police custody and is charged with the murder of a man who has been missing for many years. It is election time; politicians use capital punishment as a tool to earn votes, and the protagonist, played by Vishwas Njavakkal, is electrocuted.

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