Cast: Shashank Arora, Ranvir Shorey, Amit Sial, Shivani Raghuvanshi, Lalit Behl, Sarita Sharma
Director: Kanu Behl
Rating: 3.5 stars
Titli, writer-director Kanu Behl’s very disturbing and very impressive debut film, is set in those neglected, crammed pockets that seethe between cities and villages — urban-rural colonies where the “invisibles” reside. At the centre of the film’s story — an investigation into aspirations, how they are often met, and of having to live grudgingly with the aftermath of the choices made — sits property, or what we are calling these days, “development”. Based on a brilliantly layered script and screenplay by Behl and Sharat Katariya, Titli’s plot is linear, but it’s made up of merging, giddy spirals of deceit, lies and crime, all of which are devoted to winding down many lives.
In Titli, sound travels first, then the scene. There’s a lot of sound in the film, actually. Ambient and nauseating, but all of it very cleverly instructive. Titli (Shashank Arora), the youngest of three brothers, wants to buy parking space in a mall that’s under construction somewhere in the margins of a town in Uttar Pradesh. It’ll cost him Rs 30,000 more than the agreed price. When he hears this is when the expression on his face comes into focus. His eyes seem fixed and the jaw protrudes, conveying a conflicting mix of desperation, determination and fear. As he leaves, to return home, somewhere in Delhi, we see the mall through Titli’s eyes and feel the growing distance between them.
Siddharth Diwan’s camera work is very intelligent — it doesn’t just create a sort of uneasy intimacy with him, but is almost tactile, allowing us a sense of touch of Titli’s world. We don’t identify with him, but the camera forces us to think his thoughts. Heading home to ask his brothers for `30,000, he stops outside his house, in the narrow residential lane. Some new furniture has arrived, for Bawla General Store, Bawla (Amit Sial) being the middle brother. The eldest, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), a security guard in a Delhi mall, is requesting his estranged wife Sangeeta (Sarita Sharma) to stay a little longer. It’s their daughter Shilpi’s birthday and he has brought her favourite cake. Pineapple. The furniture guys have unloaded the stuff and want their payment. Vikram is asking them to wait, telling them about the wrong colour of the chair, and he’s asking his wife to please stay. The men start to pester, Sangeeta is trying to leave. And then, in a split second, Vikram unravels. It’s a tightly knitted scene that sets the tone for the film — of brief, bloody bursts of violence followed by disquieting moments of banal normalcy.
Over dinner it’s decided that they’ll help Titli get the money. He tells them it’s for a garage. The plan is as usual — carjacking. But things go wrong and Titli loses the money he had already collected, a fact he had kept from his brothers. Vikram, feeling both betrayed and trapped, lets out his deep frustrations in a scene that is loaded with explanations and the scary reality of a dysfunctional patriarchal family. Titli, it is suggested, should be married off. His wife will serve many purposes. Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi) meets her prospective husband and her in-laws with a scowl and without dupatta. And soon arrives in their house with an FD and a dining table.
The house is a model of hyper patriarchy. Four men, plus one who looks on from a frame. With an established hierarchy, here blood ties sit above all else, and women are brought in to serve a material purpose or are to be visited occasionally (Vaishno Devi) to serve a spiritual purpose. On both occasions they are expected to remain mute but giving. The house is like a garbage pile of used up things. There are empty cardboard boxes, old, fraying mattresses folded into sofa shapes. It’s a space where everybody and everything stays on once it arrives.
These items, some used, some simply ignored like the wedding gifts, offer more than a commentary. They add undertones to actions, and layers to these characters and their lives. Titli needs money for the parking space — his only hope of escaping this life, and now so does Vikram. And Neetu wants out of the marriage. Titli makes a deal with her and Neetu agrees. It involves her true love, her FD, and a new Figo. But life, which seems congenitally hostile to all their plans, draws circles around them. Titli’s theme is a return to Behl’s friend-mentor-producer’s first love — property (Khosla Ka Ghosla). Only this time it’s not light and heartwarming. It’s violent, gritty, brutal. And it doesn’t relent.
The screenplay is brilliant. It not only packs in more commentary on patriarchy than a week-long seminar, but the sights and sounds it catches add disturbingly discordant notes. The violence in the film will get discussed a lot. But in two bone-chilling scenes that will leave you cold even when you think of them later, a lot gets revealed. In the food chain, these three brothers sit squished towards the bottom, feeling the burden of millions on top. Their anger at having to crouch is scarily visible when they attack those better off than them. For those few minutes, when they are bludgeoning those on top of them, they seem to enjoy it.
Even Titli, the youngest and most frail of the lot, is itching for it, seems to relish it. It’s almost as if they believe that are remoulding their lives with every hard blow of the hammer. But it’s not just the gruesome violence that’s horrifying. What’s really scary is how easy and cathartic violence feels. And casual. After a few seconds of rage, they return to their normal lives, without a mention of it. What’s even more troubling is that these men, who entertain no moral qualms after a bloody encounter, are obsessed with oral cleaning. The film stays honest to its characters and its world and pays a lot of attention to its three main characters — Vikram, Titli and Neetu, at times at the expense of clarity and other characters. The father (played by Kanu Behl’s real father) is tantalisingly vague. The film allows him to linger on the sidelines of frames, seemingly disapproving of his sons’ incompetence, but the middle brother and the man in the frame are ignored.
The personal angle that Vikram gets adds weight to the film that’s otherwise just about desperation and deceit. And Ranvir Shorey, whose jaw remains clenched and temples throb even when he’s just eating, is razor sharp and insanely good. It’s appropriate that he’s paired with Sarita Sharma, whose name is not mentioned in the film’s promos though she is outstanding. Shashank Arora, whose expression hardly changes throughout the film, is a real find, as is Shivani Raghuvanshi. Both so young, and so good. They add a fresh zing to Yash Raj Film’s otherwise stale stable.