Review: Kanu Behl’s Titli

There’s a world of difference between red and maroon.

You might not expect him to know that distinction, but Vikram does. A security guard at a mall who moonlights as a carjacker, Vikram is furious at that very fact: that you think he doesn’t know better. In one of the finest performances I’ve seen this year, Ranvir Shorey is spectacular as the elder brother in Kanu Behl’s Titli, the story of a dysfunctional family of bottom-dwellers. It is a performance of rage and nuance, of unexpected tenderness and misplaced nobility, and bloodthirsty cynicism. Shorey nails it, and it’s hard to take your eyes off Vikram.

Behl’s film, however, is not about Vikram. It is about the youngest of three brothers, Titli, a kid scrounging up to buy a parking-space in a shopping mall, looking to some kind of future away from the hellhole where he lives. As setups go, it’s super, and Behl — shooting on 16mm film — gives us a sparsely coloured, visually impoverished movie.

titli1Behl has the look right and his ensemble is impressive, but the film itself suffers from too much navel-gazing. Too much time is devoted to purposely phlegmatic meditations and too little on fleshing out actual characters, showing us how they tick. We are pointed to characters and their contradictions but — save for Shorey’s Vikram and Shivani Raghuvanshi’s fabulously acted Neelu — they are not explored beyond their helplessness. There is no acuteness; all we really know about them is that they are all miserable. And the narrative, almost sadistically, impels us to suffer along with them.

For a film that takes pains to looks realistic, it hinges on too feeble a plot, a raise-money-in-limited-time wheeze that could have been done in many ways, like in Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels fashion or, given producer Dibakar Banerjee’s work, like in his resoundingly magical Khosla Ka Ghosla. Titli does very boldly to eschew both comedy and style for a more arid approach, but the narrative rationale is flimsy: What, for instance, is happening to the money from all the carjacked cars?

Shashank Arora, who plays Titli, does so with the right kind of world-weariness and has enough hunger and desperation in his eyes — and, it must be said, on his frame — but his Titliness isn’t given enough rein. He goes through the film wearing the same expression of bewildered blankness, and while that inert nothingness is becoming fashionably confused with top-notch acting in Hindi cinema these days, it doesn’t help flesh out the character. He does erupt for one moment of white-hot rage later in the film but it, appearing so abruptly, serves more to derail the film than anything else.

Arora isn’t a bad actor and wears his inscrutability consistently, but a film like this needs a preternatural talent tugging it along, someone meteoric and jawdropping, like a Gael Garcia Bernal maybe. Or, in the absence of that, Shorey in the lead role. Now that would have been a helluva movie.

It’s a pity because this is a fine, thoughtfully crafted film. Siddharth Dewan’s cinematography is voyeuristically intrusive, with some strikingly poignant compositions highlighting the film’s authentic art-direction. There is a moment, for example, when Titli is on a horse, being led to his marriage. The horse looks as unwilling as Titli, as the green frame shows us the horse, Titli and the disinterested child made to sit in front of him on the saddle, passing in front of a storefront sign for Seth Medicos. In this world even a baaraat is not allowed the grandeur of escape.

Yet despite these deft visual nuances — the dotted bandaid-knockoff on Vikram’s hand, the bypass-surgery scar on Titli’s father’s chest, the way said father (Lalit Behl, the director’s own father) scoops his sabzi into the roti — the film begins to feel indulgent as it keeps showing them off. Pauses between conversation seem reasonable in isolation, and are well-written, but when stacked one atop another as they are in this film, they begin to feel tediously long.

Nihilism and bleakness lend themselves well to cinema, but there needs to be something compelling for the audience: Titli errs on the side of the comatose. In its admirable refusal to steer clear of style — or, indeed, obvious entertainment tropes — it is often too bland and, by the end, too long. Fleabitten characters aren’t the problem at all; just last year, Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly was made up of even more unsavoury characters, but it was impossible to look away from the screen. Titli offers up dry nakedness as if that is enough to impress. In many a scene it is — and, don’t get me wrong, this is a stirringly solid directorial debut — but in many a scene it feels too intentionally underdone.

There is a scene, for example, where an arm is broken. It is a strongly scripted moment but, while intending to shock us, the film looks away too easily. It starts off with searing intensity, hits peak when there is an alarmingly casual plea to stop the breaking, and then peters off into not merely a tame hammer-wound but, alas, a scene that loses its momentum. The actors work the scene sincerely but it could have been so much more. Instead, Behl chooses not to look away when a character throws up in a sickeningly long scene, so long it feels gratuitous.

Because there’s a difference between showing the retching and the wretched.

Rating: 3 stars


First published Rediff, October 30, 2015


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  1. ankit

    titli jis tarah se start hoti hai lgta hai ki yar ye kaise log hai aur seriously darr sa lgne lgta hai ,opening scene ho ya hathode se marne vala scene ,1st half bhut accha hai,kahani main teen bhai ,ek baap,aur ek ldki neelu pe focus hai ,1st half acchi speed se nikal jata haiaur sahi meummed jagti hai ki ab kuch hone wala hai,honestly kahu to 1st half bhi bhut improve ho skta tha ,aisa lgta hai ki director realistic mastery dikhane ke chakkar me kahani ko age bdhana hi nhi chahta kyoki main gasht ke kuch aur scene dekhna chahta tha na ki ghar ki kahani(centre point family hai par phir bhi 1-2 scene aur ban skte the bjay ye dikhane ke ki ve log kulla kaise karte hai) hame character ki life btane me director kamyab hua hai ,par jab 2nd half shuru hota hai lgta hai ki ab kuch bhut hi interesing hoga but film to mano age bdhti hi nhi hai ,ha ye baat khni hogi ki scenes boring to nhi hain but puri film me aisa lgta hai ki character established hi ho rhe hai aur jo buri baat ye hai ki scenes interes jgate hai ki agla scene dhamakedar but agla scene fir vhi ummed jgata hai ,aur ending bhut hi orddinry hai ,ho skta hai mujhe ye isliye lga bcoz i was expecting a thriller just like (ugly) and this is a drama,haa ek baat khni hogi ki ye sab baatein film dekhte samay kam mhsus hui kyki ek baat jo kaafi acchi h wo ki ye kafi haunting hai,ye ek badi hi acchi film hai but end main apko lgta hai ki yar bhut kuch aur ho skta tha ,perfomences bhut hi shaandar hai specially ranvir shorey

  2. Zoeb

    Dear Raja,
    There is a reason why Behl chose to focus more on the ‘throwing up’ scene and instead cut away from the hand-breaking scene. And I will answer that in reverse order.

    I remember you love ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and in particular the scene in which Mr Blonde lunges at the helpless cop after a little dance and Tarantino cuts away, only letting us hear the sound of the cries of pain. You yourself described the impact of that moment- the fact that the audience is left to guess the horror. The same is the case with ‘Titli’. The audience flinches visibly- from how matter-of-factly it feels- and yet how poignant it is- the way Titli asks Neelu if she can feel the pain or not. The impact is beautifully restrained, muted, yet quietly devastating. If Behl had lingered exploitatively on the act itself, it would have ruined the silent punch of the scene.

    On the other hand, that throwing up scene is perhaps the most crucial scene in the film. In my view, it reflects the final cathartic moment of realization for Titli, he starts to realize how he has been transformed into the same sordid evil that he was trying so hard to escape from. Or he has become something worse- something insidious and traitorous because he ends up betraying his wife, his family only for his dreams while they only did their dirty work for the sake of family and love.

    In the end, he coughs up all the filth that has come inside him due to his selfish intentions. Essentially, his achieved dream makes him feel disgusted with himself. It is a very powerful scene and I am glad that Behl does not shy away from the same.

    Hope you understand what I am trying to say.
    Also, a movie this bold, bleak, brilliant and so darn unconventional deserves at least four stars in my book. And by the way, I love ‘Ugly’

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