Titli: Raw, dark and indelible
In Titli, Kanu Behl adds gritty realism to the craft he learned under Dibakar Banerjee
Sonali Ghosh Sen Delhi
If you have worked with Dibakar Banerjee, you tend to get familiar with three things – a city called Delhi, a flair for storytelling of lives less ordinary, and a sense of sympathy for characters that you might pass by on the street every day, but would never acknowledge. Kanu Behl (who has worked with Banerjee on Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye and co-written LSD: Love Sex Aur Dhokha), in his debut film, Titli, keeps all these three traits intact, and adds gritty realism which makes for compelling viewing.
Titli is a film about family, but a family far removed from a Karan Johar film template of plush mansions, rich silks and obedient sons. Our hero, Titli, lives in a half-finished house, next to a gutter, under a bridge, in a bylane in Delhi that might not even have a name or an address. His family also seems as rough-hewn and half-finished as its environment, where impotent rage is the only way the family finds closeness. Even Titli’s dream of owning a parking lot is symbolic of how far his dreams can go, where he thinks life can’t get better than the basement of a shopping mall.
Titli’s brothers are the yin and yang of harsh reality, with elder one Vikram bursting into mercurial rage on unsuspecting delivery men and carjacking victims, and the younger one, milder, yet cold enough to suggest that one gets a bride for Titli, so that she could be the innocent bait during their robberies. This is not just a dysfunctional family; it is a destructive family, where even the family patriarch goads them down their downward spiral, one brother at a time. Every relationship is a power play, and every action hints at repressed menace – Vikram’s loud gargles when brushing his teeth, and his younger brother’s frenetic dancing at a wedding are reminders of the violence lurking beneath. Everything in their environment comes for a price – marriage, freedom, even betrayal. This is a world where only the fittest will survive, reflecting their impotence against the other world – of powerful corrupt cops, sneering salesmen, rich builders – through constant acts of cruelty.
The introduction of a woman, Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi), in this house does not simplify but complicates matters for Titli. Now, he has his brothers, her lover and his own escape plan to contend with. Behl deftly maneuvers us through this complex web of relationships, leaving us feeling quite like his bride, Neelu, when, in a pivotal scene, Titli injects her with local anaesthesia before breaking her hand. The audience feels the same through the movie – numb, repulsed, horrified and yet managing to sneak in a thread of sympathy for Titli, because this is the only humane touch he can find in a life totally leached of love. You actually start rooting for Titli’s freedom, which in itself is a major feat, in a screenplay where none of the characters are sympathetic or even seem to want to be so.
Behl hems us in further with extreme close-ups of unwashed faces, of dark, dingy lanes, steel cupboard-lined bedrooms and, even when the camera moves outwards, buildings blocking the sky. The most potent image that stays with you throughout the movie is the one of Titli sitting sandwiched between his brothers as they drive down the city – an uncomfortable closeness that has no reprieve, no escape.
Behl and cinematographer Siddharth Diwan also discover a Delhi few other filmmakers have marked – moving away from historic monuments, the lanes of Delhi 6, to unpaved roads, brick settlements, half-constructed buildings. They strip Delhi of its hearty Punjabi shine to give us a Delhi that could be any nameless metropolis in any Third World country – a furtive, shadowy world that lives on the fringes of the sanitised, sunlit, paved capital of India.
The film, though, belongs to the ensemble cast, who make every character come alive – be it the hot-headed Vikram (Ranvir Shorey in a tailormade role), the more complex Bawla/ Pradeep (Amit Sial) who moves from gentle to cold to indifferent in the blink of an eye, or Shashank Arora as the eponymous hero, whose face betrays little but whose eyes convey everything going on in his mind. The film also belongs to Lalit Behl as the trio’s father whose presence defines benign malevolence, his silent presence sketching the back story the director never gives us of the characters. Shivani Raghuvanshi as Neelu also gives us a feisty presence and holds her own in this male-dominated family and film. Sarita Sharma’s cameo as the ex-wife of Vikram also catches us by the throat in the few scenes that she has, again speaking more through her silence than through dialogue.
Behl has made a powerful debut, making his Titli not the fragile, gossamer-winged butterfly of our imagination but a more resilient, steel-winged creature who will stay with you even days after you have left the movie hall.