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India’s Kanu Behl and Dibakar Banerjee Explain ‘Titli’ Challenges

Gritty family story is a world away from 'The Lunchbox' or Bollywood sugar coatings

Indian director Kanu Behl
Courtesy of Kanu Behl

Presented this week in Un Certain Regard, Kanu Behl’s “Titli” is a gritty drama that is both contemporary Indian fiction and documentary in style.

The first feature by Kanu Behl, it draws on his extensive filmmaking experience and the expanding script-workshop and project market scene in India. Some buyers and festival selectors had a chance to see “Titli” as a work in progress at last November’s Film Bazaar in Goa.

The story follows a young man named “Titli” — or “Butterfly” — in a family of crooks. He is married off to a woman in order to help the male-dominated family out of its financial crisis. But however much he tries to fly away from his mean and violent surroundings, Titli and his wife are drawn further back into the cesspit.

“I tried to use a documentary style when we began and made the film using a lot of non-actors. I didn’t want it to feel like fiction,” says Behl, who hails from a film dynasty and attended the Satyajit Ray Film School in Calcutta, before spending three years making documentaries for Germany’s ZDF and Japan’s NHK.

The film is certain to spark debate in India as it bluntly challenges the idealistic notion of family as is portrayed in Bollywood films, and because, following recent news events, rape and violence against women has become a hot social topic in India.

Behl says he went through many drafts of the script. The first focused on the boy and his oppressor. The second opened a deeper layer and sought to ask why one was oppressing the other. A third version added the elder brother character, but Behl says that appeared to shift the blame. A later draft added the legacy of the dead grandfather, a move which helped the characters close the circle of violence, squalor and exploitation.

“It is a universal story in that all of us have dealt with family in some way, but in terms of texture, voice and background it is very India,” says Behl.

The film is also an unusual diversification into lower budget and indie fare for Yash Raj Films, one of the giants of the Bollywood scene. (YRF through its new U.S. arm was also a co-financier of Cannes opening film “Grace of Monaco.”)

That connection was made through Dibakar Banerjee, one of India’s edgy new generation of directors and producers. Behl had co-written Banerjee’s “Love Sex aur Dhoka” and co-directed Banerjee’s “Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye” and showed early drafts of “Titli” to Banerjee.

“Titli” is now the first title of a three-picture deal between YRF and Dibakar Banerjee Productions.

“It was clear to me that the soul of the film was there from the beginning, which was why I backed it. But then the development process took its time,” says Banerjee. “This kind of film is an outlier. We can’t fix the problem by throwing money at it, but what we can do is help through careful planning, support and the kind of experience I’ve had making ‘LSD and ‘Oye Lucky.’ ”

“Titli” is a far removed from either the star-driven world of Bollywood, or the version of India presented in Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” and it is unclear how far international audiences are yet ready to tune in to the new age of Indian indie cinema. “’Titli’ is also a world away from ‘The Lunchbox,’” says Banerjee.

Finding the international — professional — audiences is the role of Guneet Monga, one of the producers of “Gangs of Wasseypur” and last year’s “Lunchbox.” A prolific producer in her own right, she and her Sikhya Productions company, were drafted to find the right sales agent and consult on international strategy. They eventually settled on London-based WestEnd Films as the film’s international sales agent.

“Indian cinema has its own idioms and own audiences, and has become very inward looking. Guneet has made her career as someone who has gone out selling and marketing Indian films abroad. We are all going to need those skills,” says Banerjee.