Titli is an engaging watch about escape and transformation

Titli, Kanu Behl's directorial debut opens in theatres this weekend. The indie film circuit has been abuzz with high praise for the film which has also been received well in international film festivals, including at Cannes. The film featuring an ensemble caste focuses on the titular character's attempts to escape from the oppressive grip of his family.

Titli is about a dysfunctional family of three brothers and their father with Shashank Arora playing the role of Titli, the youngest brother. The eldest brother, Vikram, played brilliantly by Ranvir Shorey, has assumed the role of the patriarch with the father staying in the background, sometimes prodding the brothers into activity. The brothers perform their business of carjacking armed with a hammer with Titli as an unwilling accomplice.

The Delhi milieu has featured in many Hindi films in recent years with “Delhi-comedy” having become a sub-genre. Titli is a film which also has Delhi or more accurately the national capital region as a character in the film. The family inhabits an unnamed, remote corner of Delhi, a place whose address Titli struggles to dictate when asked by a car salesman. In its introduction, the dysfunction in the family is laid bare with the help of a brawl that Vikram gets into, with his estranged wife watching.

Ranvir Shorey is in sublime form as Vikram with his easily worn rage and his attempts to instill a sense of normality in this family. When his younger brother suggests they get Titli married as a measure to control him and to get a female accomplice for their crimes, Vikram’s response is “Ghar ki auraton se kaam karwayenge?”. This after a sequence where Vikram is broken because Titli has been caught trying to escape the clutches of this “family” by trying for another line of work. This film will clearly rate as one of Shorey’s best performances till date.

Titli marries Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi) who has her own reasons for agreeing to this incongruous match. Shivani plays Neelu with aplomb and the ease with which she portrays a scheming, defiant and yet vulnerable bride is a revelation. On their wedding night, Titli tries to consummate the marriage by force and Neelu fights back successfully. This attempt by Titli to subjugate his wife and her defiance establishes a sense of equality between the two henceforth. They strike a deal to help each other out with Titli telling her in a moment of honesty that getting the rights to a parking lot was his dream, just like her dream was to be united with her lover, Prince.

The life of easy violence and crime is internalised by the family. It is taken as normal except murder is considered beyond their self-imposed limits. There is no attempt to romanticise Delhi or the situation which the characters find themselves in. In the first sequence in the film, Titli walks away from an under construction building and through the city with its modern roads and flyovers and then slowly descends to his own street with the matchbox homes and the daily struggle in his house.

The family with all its pretences and machinations is also presented matter-of-factly. There are no characters or equations which can give hope to either Titli or the viewer. Vikram’s wife has separated and he works as a guard at a mall. Baawla’s relationship with a younger guy gets hinted at with the viewer left to draw his or her conclusions. The father (played by Lalit Behl) only interjects rarely in the constant arguments that take place between the brothers and shifts allegiance in the blink of an eye when he realises that control over the situation has now shifted to Titli.

Shashank Arora underwent an odd and rigorous audition process to portray the role of Titli. It is hard to imagine that he is a newcomer to films. He acts as Titli in all its transformative struggle superbly. From cowering in front of his elder brother, Vikram to getting into bitter arguments with Neelu to letting his silences convey what is needed, Arora is excellent.

Kanu Behl, the director seems in complete command throughout the film. He has chosen to be blunt in depicting this story and it works. The arguments and how they escalate into violent situations have a very realistic touch to them. This work presents a rare understanding of the transition our urban society is going through these days. The use of the urban dystopia as a character highlights the class of this film. With its documentary film like texture, you feel like a part of the action. 

Titli is a film about escape and transformation as we see Titli finally manage to grow out of the shadows of his oppressive family and we also see the relationship between him and Neelu transform into one where they finally accept each other. It is a brilliant debut for Behl. The film is blessed with superb cinematography (Siddharth Diwan) and a  graceful background score that is the only thing that softens the deliberate rough edges of the film. With the constraints that they operate in, Indian indie films have proven time and again that they are a force to reckon with and Titli is a welcome addition to this list.

Twitter: @bhayankur

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