2015 was a good year for midstream cinema, with several releases that combined the realism of arthouse films with the crowd-pleasing aspect of the average putative blockbuster. Movies with believable plots, characters and narrative styles all emerged over the year alongside sequels and mass entertainers. A critique of family values and morals was one of the midstream’s recurrent themes, which is not surprising given the largely middle-class backgrounds of the directors. On our list of the best releases of 2015 are some of these titles, at least one outright entertainer and two films that didn’t attempt to mollycoddle watchers with simplistic stories and quick-fix solutions.
The year’s best film is the very antithesis of audience-friendly. Kanu Behl’s Titli is an unrelentingly dark and uncompromising study of domestic hell. Behl’s debut, co-written with Sharat Katariya, is set on the fringes of the national capital in a family of car-jackers. As the titular protagonist tries to escape the family trade and a forced marriage, he finds an unlikely partner in his bride Neelu, whose own secrets intertwine with his ambitions. Behl, who wrote Love Sex aur Dhoka for director Dibakar Banerjee, dispenses with the easy sentimentality that often cobbles similar attempts to explore violence within the family. The mostly silent yet malevolent father represents the systemic abuse that has made a monster out of Titli’s eldest brother Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), while Titli’s transaction-based relationship with Neelu is a grim comment on the new economic order that holds out false promise of economic progress and social mobility. There’s grim beauty to the movie’s refusal to take the easy way out, best expressed in the sequence in which Titli comes up with a way to get Neelu to avoid signing over her fixed deposit account to Vikram: he will break her hand.
The sequence is set in a service lane, one of thousands in Delhi, that, like so much else about Titli, is based on Behl’s memories and experiences of growing up in the city. “I had memories from my days in the Bengali Market area of a service lane where I came really close to being molested a couple of times as an older boy,” he said.
But the lane in which Titli takes a hammer to Neelu’s wrist is a fake one. “We weren’t getting a service lane, so we created one near Sangam Vihar – the wall behind the characters is a false one, the bricks, the dumpster, the water tanker and the trash have all been added,” the filmmaker said.
The sequence was shot in the middle of the production. A decision by Behl and cinematographer Siddharth Diwan to suggest, rather than show, the actual smashing of the hand was made early on. Previous scenes of violence between Titli (played by Shashank Arora) and Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi) had already been canned by then, including one particularly nerve-wracking moment in which Titli grabs Neelu’s neck. “We had already travelled that journey, and the characters were close enough to arrive at this scene with the right energy and emotion,” Behl said. “It panned out well in the end. Shashank and Shivani are very different as actors – she does her best early on while he is more studied and takes many takes to get to his best. We took our time, and we finished the shoot in about eight hours.”
‘Titli’ clip courtesy Yash Raj Films.