Kanu Behl’s Titli is one of Bollywood’s best directorial debuts
Sample this: A lanky young chap takes his newly-wed bride out for a test drive in a car he plans to buy. After running a traffic signal (much to the protest of the showroom representative sitting in the backseat), he drives into a deserted construction area where his older brothers are waiting. The brothers pull the brand rep out of the car and smash his head with a hammer. They bring the body back into the car. The young bride, traumatized and hysterical, pees in her denims, sobbing uncontrollably. If you thought Anurag Kashyap is the poster boy of gritty realism, think again.
Kanu Behl’s Titli (the Hindi word for “butterfly”) is the story of three brothers who are carjackers by night, trying to eke out a satisfactory livelihood for themselves. They live in a cramped dilapidated colony on the outskirts of Delhi, have broken marriages, secret lovers, crushed dreams and a never ending pursuit for more money. The patriarch, a conniving vegetable of a human being (played to the hilt by the director’s father, Lalit Behl) is perpetually unaffected by the continuous cacophony of the household dominated by the hot-headed older brother, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey). The second brother, Bawla (Amit Sial), acts as the constant mediator who would do anything to facilitate Vikram’s requirements without asking a single question. The youngest, Titli (Shashank Arora), dreams of running away from the clutches of this madness but falters constantly. He is married off to the firebrand Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi) who refuses to consummate the marriage and strikes a cocky deal with her new husband to keep spending time with her married lover, Prince, in return for a few lakhs. But Prince has other plans. And when Vikram’s wife files for divorce and demands a hefty alimony, he starts sniffing around for Neelu’s money too. So, who wins? Does Titli finally free himself from his dysfunctional family? Does Neelu go away with her Prince Charming? Does Vikram and Bawla meet a devastating end?
Produced by Dibakar Banerjee and YRF, Titli is an honest study of the dog-eat-dog culture the world is propagating. Everyone is in hot pursuit of more money, their aspirations and dreams bubbling like a manic drug in their veins. This is not escapist cinema – the film drags you into the grime and claustrophobic dump the family lives in and makes the first-hand experience with suffocating poverty and lack of opportunity as real as it gets. You become a part of their lives, from their disgusting phlegm-drawing, paste-spitting, almost-OCD obsession with dental hygiene to the wrestling match between the young couple on their wedding night. Reality is uncomfortable and that is exactly what Kanu Behl wanted to achieve with this film. Intelligently, he is also able to differentiate between aspiration and greed – even though their acts are criminal, you sympathise with the family. Their one-minded focus makes the characters ignore the finer things in life like family and love, but then again, what good is romance when you come home to a dingy shithole sans walls sans privacy? And quite correctly, the not-so-fortunate also don’t worry their heads about questions of morality and societal norms – Bawla’s homosexuality is not something anyone worries about. Does that make them progressive? Or is morality not an obsession of the hungry? Neither do you feel like judging young Titli for taking his new wife to an empty apartment, where she has sex with her lover in the bedroom, while he waits in the living room for them to get done. But, much like a butterfly’s journey through life, Titli cocoons, grows up, changes, makes his own decisions and tries to distance himself from his family. When he plans to hammer his wife’s hand so that Vikram can’t force her to sign on her fixed deposit papers, Titli also pulls out a vial of an anaesthetic. “Tujhe dard nahi hona chahiye na (You shouldn’t feel any pain)” He says. When he finally faces his father in one of the film’s most significant scenes, he shrugs off the mantle of being the man of the house and tells him “aap suar ho (You are the pig)” and walks out. There is hope in this world for those who want to make a difference and they deserve second chances, the film says.
The film’s production design is one of the highlights, ably captured by the deft cinematography. The long and top shots of the vast construction sites promise development but also an impending sense of doom. The dingy alleys and cramped matchbox houses of mushrooming lower-middle-class settlements have been recreated so perfectly that you can almost smell the stench from the open drains and hear the ceiling fans whirring in the apartment above. The film’s sound design is another winner, with snatches of radio shows, TV soaps and kitschy potboilers running in the background.
It is always satisfying to watch an ensemble cast perform so well. Not one actor was askew, delivering the kind of wholesome punch the film needed. Ranvir Shorey delivers his career’s best performance as the foul-tempered Vikram, oscillating between maniacal anger and spurts of calculative strategy-building. But you realize his acting prowess in the scenes with his daughter and his wife (also when she serves him the divorce papers) when the hardened carjacker allows you see the longing and pain that hides beneath the surface. Forever struggling in this industry, Shorey is one of India’s acting gems today and I wish the man was given his due. Amit Sial shines as Bawla, in a wonderfully understated delivery. He peppers his performance with nuanced details which make his character both pathetic and lovable. It is also heartening to see a gay character being treated as matter-of-factly as he should be, without caricaturizing him or playing along with stereotypes. Sial’s Bawla does not allow himself to be defined by his sexuality (even though he crumbles when he is left heartbroken) but by effectively playing his part in the family’s collective dream. And what a crackling debut for Shashank Arora and Shivani Raghuvanshi. Kudos to the casting team for getting actors with the right kind of physicality the roles demand. Both the actors dive into their roles with zero inhibition, delivering characters that are believable and relatable. While the two of them might not be conventionally good-looking, they are talents that need to be honed by our indie film-makers because the industry is thankfully changing and are ready for actors like these two.
Kanu Behl has a fresh, honest language of cinema. He differs from Anurag Kashyap’s obsession with quirk or Dibakar Banerjee’s (his mentor) stylised gritty. The reality is disgusting, and unlike any film-maker in the industry today, Behl wants to tell it like it is. He does not want to crack a joke to diffuse the moment. He wants to let it bog down upon you, suffocate you, disturb you. Gripping storytelling and a solid control on his craft, my money is on Behl.