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Distressing portrait of Indian family life in Cannes

Cannes, May 20: To say Titli shocked audiences when its world premiere was held today at the Cannes Film Festival might be going too far but the tale of a violent and dysfunctional Indian family certainly made for uncomfortable, even distressing, viewing.

Titli has the distinction of being the sole Indian film in competition in Cannes this year in the category known as Uncertain Regard, which is kept for new directors.

Kanu Behl was congratulated by some after Titli was shown in a packed Salle Debussy but anyone who had come expecting a subtle Satyajit Ray movie, a Bollywood melodrama or something like The Lunchbox, with which it has been compared, was certainly in for an unsettling experience.

It has been co-produced by Yash Raj Films, which had also invested in the Cannes opener, Grace of Monaco, and Dibakar Banerjee, and could be said to be the new face of Indian cinema.

All over the world — and especially in England — Indians are lauded for the strength of their family system.

“That image is shredded in this film,” said Avtar Panesar, vice-president (international operations) of Yash Raj Films.

Through “gritty” films such as Titli, India is attempting to make an impression at Cannes and perhaps on a world audience.

Titli, which means butterfly, is the name the child’s late mother had picked when she thought she was expecting a daughter after two sons, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), and Baawla (Amit Sial). But the name was retained when her youngest son was born.

Now the family, who inhabit the badlands of Delhi, consists of a slob of a father who sits around all day doing nothing, while his eldest boys pursue a career in violent crime.

Indians may have got used to the disgusting sound of early morning throats being cleared but foreigners have not. All men also spent an inordinate amount of time brushing their teeth.

The focus of the film is Titli who is beaten by his elder brothers on the slightest pretext and is so brutalised that he seems set on following Vikram and Baawla and becoming a professional thug. Vikram and Baawla determine that the best way to keep Titli in check is to marry him off — which they do to a young woman called Neelu (Shivani Raghuvansh). But on their wedding night she resists Titli’s advances — by and by, it emerges she has a lover, a married man by the name of “Prince”.

Apart from brushing their teeth, the brothers have a family tradition — stopping cars for the purposes of robbery in deserted streets and using a hammer to bludgeon their victims.

Those at Cannes who came in thinking they would watch a gentle movie, which would reflect the values of Mahatma Gandhi, took away instead an image of an excessively violent society.

At times, the violence appears gratuitous, so that the hammer is used to make a point, literally and symbolically.

“The core of the film comes from an extremely personal experience,” said Kanu Behl, who is making his debut as a writer and director. “I had a very difficult relationship with my father, growing up. Like a lot of young men in India, I was always trying to escape this really heavy oppressive presence in the house, so I left home. Then I eventually went to film school (the Satyajit Ray Film and TV Institute in Calcutta) and in the subsequent years, I realised that the more I was obsessing over wanting to be someone else other than my father, the deeper I was becoming exactly like him in different ways, and gradually it turned to being oppressive towards someone else.”

Today, the father-son relationship cannot be all that bad — Kanu is the son of Lalit Behl, who plays the father in Titli.