In one of the earliest scenes in Kanu Behl’s Titli (2015), an altercation takes place in front of a house inside a working-class locality in East Delhi. A birthday party is supposed to begin shortly, but the front-door entrance appears to be too small for a party table to enter. Heated words are exchanged between two men, where one keeps interrupting a couple’s tense conversation, while the other maintains he’d insisted on maroon seat-covers, but was handed red, possibly because nobody expected him to tell the difference. Invariably, the matter comes to blows – with Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Bawla (Amit Sial) beating up the decorator and his assistant. Just another day in a Hindi film, investigating the roots of the National Capital Region’s volatile rage.
The National Capital Region (NCR) – comprising Faridabad, Ghaziabad, Noida and Gurgaon, and Delhi – has become a recurring choice for a setting to point out the glaring disparity between the limitless wants of the 21st century, and those forced to eke out a survival. From Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008) to the first season of Made in Heaven (2019), there seems to be a marked shift in NCR becoming a default milieu to depict a nation’s obscene wealth inequality, and how it possibly leaks into their characters’ foundational values, thereby breeding a certain kind of behaviour. Many filmmakers have shown curiosity to examine the grimey bylanes hidden behind NCR’s glossy, posh neighbourhoods, to tell stories that are local in flavour, but where an entire nation’s aspirations are nursed and bludgeoned on a daily basis.
The history of spaces
Director Kanu Behl grew up in East Delhi’s Patparganj area, with many relatives residing nearby in Mandawali. It was only natural that he would base his directorial debut in NCR. The home in Titli is one of the major characters, where at least half of the film unfolds. After scouting various neighbourhoods in Delhi, Behl found the perfect location to his liking in South Delhi’s Sangam Vihar – a colony situated behind the posh Sainik Farms locality. “Their livelihoods were probably dependent on these people, who live behind such obscenely large gates, so much that you can’t even get a peek into the bungalow,” Behl said, pointing out the relationship between the Sangam Vihar residents and those in Sainik Farm bungalows, which informed the desperation and the violence in his film.
Behl and his team — cinematographer Siddharth Diwan and production designer Parul Sondh — spoke about the changes they would have to make to the house, to reflect Titli’s noxious family history. “One of the first things I remember imagining is not a lot of light coming into the house. It’s a space jahaan din mein bhi lightein jal rahi hoti hai (where lights have to be turned on even during the day),” said Behl. The crew made four major changes to the house. They lowered the ceiling of the central courtyard so that less natural light would come in. They built a wall in Daddy’s (Lalit Behl) room and the central courtyard. They hid a room, next to Titli (Shashank Arora) and Neelu’s (Shivani Raghuvanshi) bedroom, to make the house more claustrophobic. Behl and his team also replaced the house’s main entrance with an L-shaped passage. “I wanted Titli to feel like he’s entering a maze each time he’s entering the house,” said Behl, “where he can’t easily escape from.” All decisions were made with the idea to showcase the decay of a space inhabited by four men for years, without a woman.
Similarly, Prateek Vats’s Eeb Allay Ooo! (2019) is largely set in an unorganised colony behind the Tilak Nagar station. The house belongs to a couple (Nutan Sinha and Shashi Bhushan), who is barely able to make ends meet. Vats pointed out that while most of the elements in the house are incorporated as a scene requires it, there’s also a bit of design involved. “There’s a peculiar, symmetrical shelf of cups and plates, right above their bed, properly placed. It’s not something we might see in most houses in the neighbourhood. But I insisted on it because it says a certain thing about the character,” he said. “It’s not another generic house in the colony, it’s been inhabited by these characters for a few years at least.”