J Jagannath: The Titli effect

I haven't been to the Chicago slaughterhouse where Upton Sinclair claims to have heard the “the hog-squeal of the universe”. The closest I have come to experiencing it is during the scene in Kanu Behl’s Titli where the titular character (a willowy Shashank Arora) keeps hitting the hand of his wife Neelu (a remarkable debut by Shivani Raghuvanshi) with a hammer to get her hand fractured. Every little knock of that hammer reminded me of that Sinclair quote. The image of the livid flesh, radiating agony at the end of the full-on frightening scene is burnt on my cortex. It’s as good as anything I watched in world cinema in recent times. As harrowing as the scene in the Greek film, Dogtooth, where a girl extracts her tooth with a stone or the crude abortion scene in the Ukrainian film, Plemya.

Titli is easily the most carefully textured Hindi movie I have watched since Ship of Theseus. Behl’s po-faced motley crew of characters somewhere in the National Capital Region who are morally deviant is ridiculous amounts of fun, and grim portraits of the lives that are pushed to the fringes in the wake of breakneck development in big cities. Ranvir Shorey as the default pater familias of a dysfunctional family gives a peerless performance. He’s ably supported by Amit Sial, who is stunningly good as his younger brother, and so is Lalit Behl as the father. Titli is their youngest brother. As small-time highway robbers the brothers are a hoot.

So I watched Titli at the end of the second week of its release. I thought of turning into its biggest evangelist, imploring everyone I know to not miss it, and the next thing I know it’s not being shown at a single theatre in Mumbai; a city that has a floating population of a staggering 20 million, and is, in Pahlaj Nihalani’s immortal words, “the hub of Bollywood”. Anyway, the asteroid that decided to spoil the very well deserving party of Titli is Salman Khan’s latest magnum crapus Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (PRDP). So greedy were the multiplex owners to cash in on the long Diwali weekend that they let Titli go under the bus.

I would love to know what sort of “economies of scale” these multiplex owners are aiming at by having this snooze fest of a movie called PRDP running every 20 minutes. Each of the big multiplexes in the city had no less than a staggering 21 shows every day. That’s like five out of every six screens at a multiplex are reserved for a movie that is not even dumb fun and is just a painful slog for nearly 180 minutes. The solitary show at most of these theatres was reserved for another monument for vacuity: Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2.

It pains me to see that such a powerful and utterly gorgeous movie like Titli is no longer around just because PRDP had to break the existing record of being the biggest weekend opener. This is a very sorry state of affairs and probably an indication that alternative culture can thrive in India as long as it doesn’t remotely impinge on the supposed territory of the mainstream arts. This incident makes me think of all sorts of conspiracy theories: Yash Raj is the co-produer of Titli and, considering its financial might, it could have let the movie run at at least a ridiculous ratio of one show for every 300 shows of PRDP. And I have been told that the movie was running at minimum 60 per cent occupancy ratio, a very heartwarming fact. But because Salman Khan’s next movie (Sultan) is a Yash Raj Production they didn’t want to draw his ire in any which way and thus let Titli get asphyxiated. I might be grossly mistaken but, either way, this is daylight robbery.

Thanks to the A-rating, the movie will not find any takers for satellite purposes either.

PVR, which just had a brilliant second quarter (a whopping four-fold growth in net profit), is rapidly turning into the monolith of cinemas in the country. Maybe it should consider showing movies like Titli as part of its corporate social responsibility. That might be the most depressing thought that came to my mind lately but something’s gotta give.

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