October 30, 2015
Shashank Arora, Shivani Raghuvanshi, Ranvir Shorey, Amit Sial, Lalit Behl
Titli is one of the most gripping Hindi films to come to theatres this year. It is entertaining in a hard-to-explain sort of way because it is so heart-stoppingly matter of fact about the horrific, sad, almost bizarre reality check it delivers.
“Reality check” because its universe is far removed from the Hum Saath Saath Hain brand of family that Sooraj Barjatya and many of his colleagues have popularised among Bollywood audiences. Vikram, Bawla and Titli in this film are together not for the saccharine reasons that have bound Barjatya’s many clans. They don’t sing, dance and beam at the camera. They don’t joyously celebrate festivals, marriages and every day of their lives bedecked in designerwear. They don’t match their clothes to their wall paint and furniture. The most these three brothers can afford or bother with is to shave and appear less scruffy when they try to get a bride for the youngest of the three, the interestingly named Titli. They share a home by an accident of birth and an inexplicable bond that comes from the happenstance of being born to the same parents.
When we first meet them, Titli is straining at the leash, trying to get away from the life forced on him by his violent, car-jacking siblings. He is desperately saving money when the elder two discover that he wants out. They decide to get him married. A wife will not only tie him down, they figure, she will also be a big help in their trade. The young female entrant into their all-male household – which includes their eerily quiet father – has a strange story of her own.
Titli is gritty. It is often violent, entirely disturbing, occasionally tough to watch, unexpectedly amusing in flashes and at every step of the way, compelling. What makes it worthwhile even when it is challenging is the non-voyeuristic manner of the portrayal. Besides, despite the dismal scenario in which it is set, in an unlikely alliance that emerges through the story, there shines an unexpected ray of hope.
So assured is his hand on the baton, that it is hard to believe Kanu Behl is a debutant in direction. Some explanation for his steady vision comes from his CV: he has assisted Dibakar Banerjee in the past and was the co-writer of Love Sex Aur Dhoka with Dibakar (who is a co-producer of this film). No doubt it helps too that Kanu’s co-writer on Titli is Sharat Katariya, the writer-director of my favourite Hindi film of 2015 so far, Dum Laga Ke Haisha.
Like Dibakar, it is clear that Kanu and/or Sharat know Delhi well. This is evident, for instance, from how specific they are about the locality where they place their parivaar of Dillivaasis in the story. Jamna Paar (the other side of the River Yamuna) is not a standard Hindi film location. For most snooty south Delhi inhabitants, it has for long signified a lesser part of the Capital which the wealthy do not inhabit. They have less knowledge of the city’s geography and sociology than Team Titli who are aware that there are worlds within worlds, that rising property prices have meant that many moneyed families too reside here. And so Vikram, Bawla and Titli are not just generally placed somewhere in Jamna Paar but precisely in a narrow bylane of a messy mohalla near Jamna Paar’s Mother Dairy plant.
This element in the detailing is as delightful as the banians the men wear at home, discoloured from the original white to a sweat-and-overuse-induced dullness. It is among the many reasons – the unrelenting intensity included – that make Titli such an oddly pleasurable experience.
If I have a grouse against the film, it is that in the post-interval portion, certain plot points and especially the explanation for Titli’s getaway plan get slightly confusing. And though I understand the need to shock with bloodletting especially to convince us of Vikram and Bawla’s consciencelessness and unblinking amorality, I do not want to watch a self-indulgently extended puking scene in which the camera wanders close to the mouth of a puking man.
That being said, the film gives us much more to celebrate than not. It is, for instance, a sermonless, unobtrusive smack on the face of patriarchy. It is also a twisted ode to love and second chances. As for Titli’s cast, they are uniformly, intimidatingly good and highly believable. I confess I have not so far found Ranvir Shorey interesting – that changes with his performance as Vikram in this film. Even lovelier is Amit Sial as Bawla. This wonderful actor ought to be routinely cast as a leading man in films. Newcomer Shashank Arora plays Titli with great restraint and Shivani Raghuvanshi as his wife Neelu is brilliant. The two are so amazingly real, it’s as though the film’s casting director plucked them out of real homes in Dilli’s Jamna Paar in a grimy colony somewhere in the vicinity of Mother Dairy.
Titli was screened in the prestigious Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival last May. It has taken 17 months for this remarkable film to come to mainstream Indian theatres. That is 17 months too many.
It is but natural for Dibakar to back a film that shares his cinematic worldview. The pleasant surprise here is that Titli’s co-producer is Aditya Chopra, whose directorial blockbusters so far are the polar opposite of this film. The Dibakar-Aditya collaboration bodes well for the future of filmmaking in the country. Together they have introduced us to an important new voice in Indian cinema with Titli. Welcome to the national scene, Kanu Behl.
Rating (out of five): ***1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
Poster courtesy: Yash Raj Films