Titli: A dark, disturbing tale from Delhi’s underbelly

It's that look in newcomer Shashank Arora's eyes - dry and dead - in the first few frames of the film that sums up Titli, the lead character he plays in Kanu Behl's relentlessly downbeat, violent yet disturbingly persuasive portrayal of patriarchy. There's not a speck of hope that lurks in there but an urgent desperation to escape the suffocating world he is confined in. Getting the ownership of a car park in an upcoming mall near Delhi is the way out for him to become his own man than get stuck with three other good-for-nothing men in his life - two elder brothers and a father - who live by carjacking when not doing some odd jobs.

Titli's family is beyond dysfunctional. It's a weird and warped family of rough hewn, unwashed men, the kind that you don't normally find in Hindi cinema. But does that mean it doesn't exist? It does. And has its own fascinating relationship dynamics at play. The ineffectual daddy has been shoved to the background with brother Vikram taking over as the patriarch. The mother is dead. We know that for long she has been at the receiving end of her husband's abuse. It's an unspoken family legacy of sorts, passed on from one generation to the next, much like the morning ritual of brushing teeth, rinsing and gargling in a certain characteristic way. Vikram’s wife too has separated from him, taking their little daughter away. All that is there to this world is an overwhelming maleness and latent aggression that comes forth with an alarming, unbridled ferocity at the slightest provocation. The trigger could well be something as inane as a stranger talking to the "ladies" than directly addressing the man in a conversation.

Ranvir Shorey, as the big brother Vikram, personifies patriarchy at its most complex with his inner violence standing in contrast to the tears of vulnerability that well up when divorce papers get sent his way. Are men also the victims of the patriarchy they perpetuate and whose values they have to constantly live up to? Worth a thought. Amit Sial as the mediator "middle" brother Bawla may not have the show stealing moments but is impactful in his quietude. His casual, throwaway sexism - the talk of laundiya (girl) and dhanda (business) - is more chilling and scary than even that of Vikram. As are Titli's own volatile moments that make you fear the worst, that he is dangerously close to becoming that which he is actually trying to escape. Is there no getting away then?

Behl gives us a broad picture of the male universe instead of the details - the hows and whys are for the audience to figure - and often one is left with a lot of questions unanswered. But he scores big with the portrayal of women. Any good film about patriarchy has got to be about women and the film's finest characters are two such ladies. They are the victims and yet not quite wallowing in victimhood. They have their own modes and ways out of the injustices meted out to them. There is Titli's bride Neelu who may have been forced into a marriage but will resist sex with her husband. Shivani Raghuvanshi is brilliantly assertive, be it arguing with a car salesman, announcing to Titli that she has a lover: " Prince love hain mere (Prince is the love of my life)", or getting cosy with Prince right under Titli's nose. She conveniently makes a business deal of a marriage she never wanted to get into, she and Titli trading in their own ambitions and escape routes. Prince may not be a solution to her problems, In fact, he could well be more exploitative than she thinks, but he is a tool, her mode of resistance if not entirely the way out. And you know that she will keep finding such ways and means in life. Then there is Sangeeta (played with a gritty dignity by Sarita Sharma), the wife of Vikram, who too is blasé about having found another man "friend" and is admirably cold and unmoved about helping a family that made her own life miserable.

The film goes beyond the India Gate-Punjabi cliches that Hindi cinema so easily boxes the Capital in. Titli shows the underbelly of Delhi you would have perhaps seen in a Ravish Ki Report (Ravish Kumar of NDTV). It's the Delhi of outliers, the Delhi that throbs with life on the margins of reality and on the fringes of filmmakers' imagination. The narrow, grimy lanes of East Delhi (Mandawali more specifically) come alive with an ominously real touch. Are we made who we are by the surroundings we live in? The constricting physical space does become a sign of the closed minds of the people who inhabit it. Through the film you can feel the claustrophobia of the world that Titli is set in and it's a feeling that lingers on, long after you have left the theatre.

No family is quite happy in Behl's imagination. Least of all the overtly happy one - that of Prince. You know that all the loving is built on a foundation of lies and delusions. Despite that the film does try and leave us on a note of change. Titli talks to Neelu about starting all over again in their relationship and rebuilding their family from the scratch. A talk that comes loaded as much with hope as it does with scepticism. There can be no clean ends and closures in the world of Titli.

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Printable version | Nov 25, 2020 11:18:01 PM |

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