It is rather quiet for a Dussehra morning at the West Patparganj apartment of the Behls. The ground floor apartment is tastefully done up, exuding a warmth that enscones visitors. As mother, father and son sit down for a conversation, they look relaxed. Yet they are far from having a breezy day-off.
Navnindra Behl studied Punjabi literature and joined as a lecturer in the Drama department of Punjabi University, Patiala. Subsequently, she progressed to write, direct, produce and act in stage plays. Her husband, Lalit Behl, had an equally prolific life as a stage-actor. Besides, they both dabbled in television when the medium was still taking baby steps in India. Lalit directed the much acclaimed TV series Afsane and telefilms like Happy Birthday and Tapish, that dealt with the political turbulence in Punjab much before Gulzar took it up in Maachis. While Navnindra had acted in small but memorable roles in Hindi films — her latest being the NRI family friend who spoke ‘pidgin’ French in Vikas Bahl’s Queen — Lalit never got the opportunity to venture into films. However, that changed a couple of years back when he was cast as ‘Daddy’ in the Dibakar Bannerjee production Titli. An interesting trivia here, the film’s director Kanu Behl, also happens to be his son.
A film that revolves around a family of car-jackers who live in a Delhi suburb is enough to pique curiosity. But it sure does get even more interesting if the actor playing the patriarch in the film happens to be the director’s father. After a little prodding, one learns that the process behind this casting coup was rather exacting.
An articulate Kanu states rather matter- of-factly that it was a decision borne out of ‘necessity’. He explains, “The film’s first draft was quite different, the basic plot was a coming-of-age tale. Yet beside Titli [the protagonist], the older brother’s character looked a tad sketchy. So Sharat [Katariya, co-scriptwriter of Titli] and I sat down to question the older brother’s motivations. At this point of exploring the script we discovered the father’s character.” Then the struggle began to cast a suitable actor for the role of Daddy. “It was not a very expressive part and several senior actors have this tendency to act. I needed someone who would just be,” says Kanu.
It was during a brainstorming session with casting director, Atul Mongiya, that they considered Lalit for the role. In his characteristic firm tone Kanu mentions he had a stressed equation with his father while growing up and his father would therefore recognize some of the reference points behind the character.
The idea of making a film around a dysfunctional family came from Kanu’s lived experiences. He recounts, “Before Titli I had worked on another script for quite some time but it wasn’t happening. Eventually I realised this was because it wasn’t a great script. It was a dishonest effort at best. My personal life also saw me going through a divorce and I was forced to reassess my intentions to make films. Titli was finally born when I told myself whatever I do next has to be personal and honest.”
The story of a boy wanting to escape an oppressive older brother came naturally to him. He confesses that while he was developing his script he had imagined the film was about patriarchy, violence and the desire to escape; instead it turned out to be a film about ‘circularity’. “It [the film] was about these images that get transferred from one person to another in a family mostly unconsciously,” Behl concludes.
Much later when Kanu has rushed off to a hectic day of more interviews, Lalit agrees with his son’s vision. Speaking in a slow baritone, Lalit commands as much attention as his son. He has a hint of confidentiality in his voice as he declares, “It’s easy to praise him in his absence. He has included some subtle details in the film. Take for instance, the way you brush your teeth might suddenly strike you as being very similar to the way your father does it. Even if you are away from your family, it travels with you, inside you.”
But bringing Lalit on board was no easy task. Kanu seems to have inherited his straight-speak from his father as the latter bluntly remembers he had wanted no part in the film initially. And he had his reasons. “In the back of my mind I knew the film is a first for both of us. I already had a tense relationship with him. I was anxious that in case the film didn’t turn out well or if I couldn’t do justice to my character, the onus of the film’s failure would fall on me,” says Lalit. Consequently, a little help from friends and family was needed to convince him. But once he visited the sets of the film he conceded that Kanu had a good grasp on the film’s subject.
On his part Kanu says, “He brought with him that latent intensity and power that was needed of the character.” But his father was never given a script on the sets so Lalit never had an inkling of what the film was really about. Lalit maintains that he got a whiff of where the film was headed from the workshops that were conducted prior to the film’s production. It was only when the film was being screened in France that Lalit saw it for the first time. He is vocal about the fact that there are elements in the film he still disagrees with but as an actor he is ready to give his director the creative license of having a differing perspective. Though Kanu swiftly explains that directors and actors engage in a little game while filming, he is genuinely curious when he asks his father whether he had tried to ‘prepare’ for his role at all. Lalit replies objectively that he trusted his director’s instincts and only did what he was told.