Kanu Behl’s brutally honest and honestly brutal debut features a family from a Delhi suburb that appears to have escaped from the set of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder movie. On the rare occasions that the unnamed father (Lalit Behl) open his mouth, he speaks in guttural tones, and casually remarks that he conquered his abusive streak by visiting the Vaishnodevi shrine. The elder son Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) has the temperament of a volcano and the fists of a street ruffian. The middle son Bawla (Amit Sial) is the docile shadow of his older brother.
The youngest son Titli (Shashank Arora) is planning his exit by conducting brutal car-jacking incidents on those roads of the capital where aspiration travels. There’s a fifth person in the hovel, a dead grandfather whose photograph is both talisman and warning. When Titli finally erupts, the inanimate picture in the frame is one of the targets.
Women do enter this ultra-violent, morose and all-male world, but only to leave. (In the film, Titli smiles exactly once – we counted.) The mother is dead and Vikram’s battered wife has fled with their daughter. When Titli is married against his will to Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi), it is strictly for business. Marriage is yet another transaction in a world that measures the worth of human emotions in rupee notes. Money gets Titli into trouble, money will help him escape, and money finds him redemption in the end.
Like everybody else in the film who swears by the opportunism that working-class life engenders, Neelu has her own gameplan. She meets Titli soon after he has been beaten within an inch of his life first by the police and then Vikram. Nobody notices his bruises, and her family seems eager to get rid of her. The eyes of the young couple lock for a few seconds in a mix of empathy and terror, and their wary dance around each other provides the movie with its emotional core.
Behl, who has previously written Love Sex aur Dhoka for Dibakar Banerjee (who co-produced Titli) and co-writer Sharat Katariya unflinchingly investigate the violence that has locked the family into a chokehold. Titli doesn’t play the tics of its characters for black humour. The unrelenting harshness, some of its physical, some economic, and some emotional, is set against the backdrop of a capital city expanding awkwardly and inequitably into the hinterland.
Shooting on super16mm film stock and flooding the frames with the heat and dust that is typical of these parts of Delhi, cinematographer Siddharth Diwan creates a vivid contrast between the darkness in the souls of the characters and the false promises of the boomtown they inhabit. The parking lot that Titli is eyeing is in one of several under-construction monoliths that dot the landscape. They are maddeningly within and out of reach, and in Titli’s world, the only way to fulfil his dream is by crushing somebody else’s.
The writers have smartly fashioned their vision of suburban savagery like a thriller. Surprises are dealt out at regular turns, and every character turns out to be shuffling a deck of cards. The manner in which the transactional approach to life cuts across classes is sharply observed, and a police officer who puts the screws on Titli and his brothers is one of many characters who illustrate the movie’s opinion that economic progress has a completely different meaning in this part of the capital.
Of all the brutalised souls struggling to make sense of it all, Vikram is the least complicated and the most sympathetic. Played with harrowing brilliance by Ranvir Shorey, Vikram is an old-fashioned patriarch who resists change because he knows no other way. When Neelu’s entry into the household subtly shakes the existing power relations, this young patriarch becomes less of a homicidal maniac and more like the abused first son that his grandfather and father created him to be.
The screenplay delivers its shocks with subtlety. Much is left unsaid, and the circumstances that might have created this gallery of all-too-familiar misfits are left to the imagination. Some of the hints are aural: the father, Vikram and Titli have a peculiar way of clearing their throats, which is a way of suggesting how behaviours are passed on through the generations.
Amit Sial is also very effective as the loyal middle brother who is overwhelmed by Vikram. The rawness of the leads shows up on occasion, and Shashank Arora’s glum visage makes him a difficult leading man. But both he and Raghuvanshi come alive in their scenes with each other, and they beautifully convey the tensions of their forced coupling.
Popular Hindi cinema has been darkening its frames over the past decade and daring to introduce family members who are closer to reality than fantasy. Between Dev.D’s self-centred anti-hero and Udaan’s alcoholic and ferocious father, there have been a host of complicated and damaged men trying to shake off the burden of social appearances and confront their inner demons. Many of these have been middle-class characters. By locating its twisted dynamics in a working-class living room, it might appear that Titli is taking the easy way out. This is how the other half lives, the movie seems to be saying at some points, and one can expect little else from such a coarse, profanity-spewing bunch.
Stripped of its class dimensions, however, the movie has a raw power and imagination. Behl and Katariya wash off the gloss, dishonesty and sentimentality that have clung to depictions of the Indian family and reveal a face that is ugly but also commonplace. Above all else, Titli is a horror movie.