Can Indie Director Kanu Behl Change India?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because art is sometimes the best way to address a national tragedy.
By Sanjena Sathian
Please join us on Saturday, July 23, in New York City’s Central Park to hear Kanu Behl — in person — along with other intellectuals, artists and “trend-makers” who love good conversation, a rich mix of food and great music. Welcome to OZY FUSION FEST, and enjoy this special encore presentation.
To act on Kanu Behl’s film set is, by his own admission, to be in a state of perpetual psycho-emotional distress. The Hindi director crafted it that way while shooting his latest film, Titli. He refused to give the main star any feedback, let alone big budget primping. He planted props in one actor’s hands with no forewarning for the other performer. He wrote a script and then threw most of it out the window, instead relying on improvisation. His directorial M.O.? “It’s just plain mindfucking,” he says.
“It’s not as though I’m trying to torture them or anything,” he says. And, ironically: “It only works because there is a trust, between actor and director.”
Or maybe it works because the 34-year-old Behl lived the psychic discomfort, too, he says, for the three years he spent imagining, writing and shooting Titli, his directorial debut — and a remarkable one at that. It was the only full-length feature out of India to show at Cannes this past spring, and unlike most Indian films, it’s dark, visceral and psychologically violent. But the camerawork is only part of the story. Titli may be the first intelligent grappling, on an artistic level, of a painful episode in India’s history: the brutal rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman on a Delhi bus by six young men — two years ago this month.
The rape catalyzed marches, shifts in political rhetoric. And a year into writing the script, it “absolutely changed” the scope and concerns of the film, Behl told an audience after a festival screening in San Francisco. The influence is visible: Each of the main female characters in Titli is modern, independent; one serves her husband with divorce papers, another blatantly takes a lover. And each woman is beaten for her troubles. Many men, too, including the slight, effeminate star character Titli, are victims of violence. Through the film we see even this sweet-faced character throw more punches in effort to prove himself. In the end, the film is about the middle class seeking an escape. For Titli, it’s the dream of simply owning his own parking garage. For many of the women, it’s freedom from their men and families. The subject matter is almost journalistically relevant.
The rape “managed to completely alter discourse here,” says Hindi film critic Deepanjana Pal — getting people talking not just about sexual violence but also about the poverty that’s often behind it. Big stars like the iconic Madhuri Dixit are making films addressing rape like this year’s Gulab Gang; Bollywood sweetheart Kalki Koechlin’s spoken word poetry and comedy sketches about the struggles of being female in India went viral. But, unlike many other approaches to the issue, Behl’s is subtle, an investigation of a mentality; Behl seems to want not just to condemn brutality, but also to explain why it happens in the first place.
It’s about how independent women who want sex — just not with you — debilitate young men who, in turn, beat and rape those women.
Much of Behl’s work is about mentality and class, from Titli to his previous Love Sex Aur Dhoka (he co-authored the screenplay). It’s understandable: India’s metamorphosed during his lifetime. The nation of a billion-plus people, especially the capital, where Behl was raised and shoots his films, is changing fast. As Delhi’s rich get richer, the storyline goes, the slum-dwellers get poorer, angrier, more violent. When women gain more power, wear jeans on buses, take lovers, serve divorce papers, their men punch back, or worse. That’s one reading of Titli: It’s about how independent women who want sex — just not with you — debilitate young men and how men, in turn, beat and rape those women, how they shoot guns and steal cars out of some inner impotence.
A film like this, political and artsy, would have been an oddity out of India just a few years ago. Today it’s just the latest sign that the formerly bombastic billion-dollar Hindi film industry is eyeing the art-house world. Behl himself was groomed in Bollywood, where three-hour films follow a so-called “masala” (as in, the spice of life) formula: melodrama, family conflict, a love story, defense of a woman’s honor and boom-boom action shots, plus lots and lots of songs and improbable dance montages. But he’d like to distance himself from all that drama. He was educated at a prestigious film school in India’s intellectual capital, Calcutta, and cites avant-garde heroes like Stanley Kubrick and Emir Kusturica as influences.
On the exterior, he is a soft-spoken, slightly awkward, bespectacled fellow. In the yuppie San Francisco cafe where we meet, he could pass for another Bay Area engineer. At first, I am baffled by his calm, his lack of agitas: such a turbulent and angry film can’t strike from nowhere. “I do have lot of anger inside me,” he says, with a smile and shrug. Which I feel entitles me to play Freud. There is the obvious autobiography question: Behl, the son of two B-list television actors, cast his own father as Titli’s family patriarch. Not on purpose, he says, but simply out of frustration with the other roster of actors he auditioned. It’s a dark choice. No one shoulders more culpability in the film than the thugs’ father; he watches, grunts, consents to the perpetual brutality.
Behl, an only child, admits to teenage conflict with his dad, of an internal sort; chalk it up to the frustration of the urban lower-middle class. His parents were the most successful of their clan and supported an extended family, yet they themselves were struggling TV actors living in a one-room apartment in Delhi, the three of them sleeping on the floor at night. Behl tells me he wishes his father hadn’t “role-played” so much in real life, hadn’t “felt the need to perform what he thought a father should be.” I mark this down as one possible root for the anger.
There’s a lot of compassion that accompanies the mindfucking.
— Namrata Rao, Behl’s ex-wife
There’s another, a cheaper one: Behl tells me he’s recently divorced after five years and living in a studio in Bombay. Indeed, Titli obsesses over divorce, as one new way women can define their independence. I reach his ex-wife, Namrata Rao, by phone; she helped edit Titli (it wasn’t awkward but “cathartic” to work together, she says). She speaks about him gently. Tells me he carries leftover childhood angst, pushes his team, but adds, “There’s a lot of compassion that accompanies the mindfucking.”
So I could turn to yet another, more existential explanation. One more abstract than anger at a father or an ex-wife. I could cite the only time in our conversation when he rants, ironically, about our daily performances. “There is something I just cannot understand: Why it is people keep pretending with each other. You can see it,” he glances around the coffee shop, a glimmer of paranoiac eyes, melancholic tiny smile, as though fumbling for proof: “They’re talking in codes.” The cryptographer repeats himself. ”I have such an enormous amount of anger about that game we all play.”
Indian Films Go Abroad
- Mehboob Khan’s Mother India in 1957
- Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay in 1988
- 1950s filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s honorary Academy Award in 1991
- Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Lagaan in 2001
- Ray’s Pathar Panchali won a documentary prize in 1956.
- Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool premiered in 2004.
- Gitanjali Rao’s Printed Rainbow won the Grand Rail d’Or Audience Award in 2006.
- Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan premiered in 2010.
- Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox won the Grand Rail d’Or Audience Award in 2013.
- Aamir Khan’s Peepli Live is the first Indian film to premiere at Sundance.