TITLI is a story about a young man – the film’s title character – living in the slums of Delhi, who seeks freedom from his violent, oppressive older brother and his patriarchic crime family. After thwarting Titli’s plans for escape, his brothers force him to marry. But Titli’s new bride is a strong-willed girl with her own plans to flee and be reunited with her lover. The couple makes a devil’s bargain to make a break for freedom from his family’s legacy. TITLI is a gritty docudrama that upends the stereotypical expectations of a Bollywood film. With beautiful cinematography and powerful performances from the entire cast, it is part of the World Cinema section of AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi.
AFI talked with director Kanu Behl about the film.
AFI: Where did the idea for the story of TITLI come from? To you, what is the film about?
KB: The root idea for the film was different from what it became. I started out wanting to do a film about oppression, about a boy who wants to run away from an oppressive older brother. It borrowed from some of my own experiences while growing up, including a difficult relationship with my father. But as we started writing and exploring motivations for all of the characters, we realized pretty quickly that we were dealing with a story about circularity, with all of the characters stuck in roles and repetitive patterns of behavior that created inescapable vortexes. Slowly, the story and the characters took over and started voicing themselves. The film revealed itself as a tale of patriarchy and a young man’s realization that the release he thought was about physical escape is actually about killing the patterns within.
AFI: What was the biggest challenge in making this film?
KB: It had to be the rigor. To not give up at any point, to continue to ask questions of the characters and of ourselves – originally as writers and later as crew members working to make the film transcend at every level from the cinematography to the final mix. What is the truth of the moment? Are we doing justice to that cut? Is the performance honest to the grain of the moment? For me, personally, as a director, the challenge was to prepare everyone to bare all each day, to reveal the naked truth. And then to stand back and watch. To not pretend to be the be-all, controlling force — so much of what the supposed “auteur” theory is about.
AFI: What was your favorite scene to film, and why?
KB: There are actually two, for different reasons. The most difficult to do was the last scene of the film — because that is what I made the film for. When Titli comes to Neelu to apologize, leading up to the last shot of the film…it was a highly emotional point. I found it hard to control my own emotions as I saw the two actors perform and live through that moment. It was possibly cathartic. The other scene that I feel proud to have been part of is the scene between Titli and the father — the pivotal “release” moment in the film. It was difficult to stage, and the process of discovering the scene with the actors and with cinematographer Siddharth Diwan was enormously satisfying. The simplicity, and yet the power, of the final scene, experienced while watching with an audience, is surprising.
AFI: Shashank Arora is amazing in this film in the lead role. What qualities did he have that made you cast him as Titli?
KB: Shashank just fit the part physically to a T. That’s where it started. He was the face that I wanted for the part. Someone who did not necessarily need to express himself verbally to say anything. His eyes did most of the talking. And then, him discovering the part…putting in all that hard work, just added to the joy. It’s a doubly difficult part for him because he’s so far from the world of the character he was portraying! His perseverance and hard work, his focus while we were prepping, his sheer energy at the early stages of workshopping, all gave me the confidence that he was right for the part.
AFI: What do you hope AFI FEST audiences take away from this film?
KB: TITLI is a view into an India that is fast changing. A world snapping at its own heels. It gives the audience a perspective into a milieu that’s often romanticized and papered over. The film will hopefully deliver an alternate experience which helps people understand India in all its vivid complexities and sensitivity. Beyond that lies the global story of what families do to each other. The roles that we choose to play in relationships. And the possible dangers of the politics of the family.
EDEN screened at AFI FEST 2014 as part of the World Cinema category. Watch the trailer for the film below.