No one told you life is eventually about where you are on the economic development cycle. That if you’ve ridden the cycle and find yourself somewhere at the top of the curve, you’ve got a good life. You’re pretty much insulated from what happens to the population that’s swimming at the bottom of the curve, struggling to remain afloat. (And no, travelling in a local train or public transport bus does not count.) You reach home in the evening, secure in the thought there’s some sense of security for you – be it the watchman who, from the bottom of the curve, salutes you, your apartment or house that keeps you away from the madness that you just stepped away from, as you travelled to reach its warmth. If you’re really lucky, you’ve got folks waiting for you, and all is well with the world. You truly are at the top of the curve. If you’re getting up to protest because this makes you uncomfortable or indignant, “Titli” will make you squirm.
Actually, “Titli” directed by Kanu Behl and co-produced by Dibakar Banerjee, will make you uneasy regardless of your theories – social or economic – and shake you to the core. Written by Sharat Katariya and Behl himself, this is a frightening window to a life that you know exists, but prefer to speed past to reach your comfort zone. Here, Kanu Bahl doesn’t give you that choice, as he rudely pushes you into the world of three brothers – the eldest, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), the youngest, Titli (Shashank Arora), and in the middle, Pradeep a.ka. Bawla (Amit Sial). They live in Delhi in a small gully, “next to a gutter”, their house a claustrophobic space of daily struggle and frustrations. With them, their creepily phlegmatic father, played by Lalit Behl.
While the first two brothers have regular day jobs – Vikram is a security guard at a mall, Bawla is a gas station attendant (his job nudged out very subtly in a scene by Bahl). Titli, on the other hand, wants to own a shop in an upcoming mall, and is scrimping to get the money, unknown to his brothers. By night, the three brothers turn carjackers, resorting to assault and robbery, so they can sell the stolen car to a “garage”. But things aren’t going their way at all, and after Titli botches up a carjack and his brothers discover he’d been saving money to set up his own business, Bawla gets a brainwave that the only way to rev up the robbery business is to get Titli married. That way, they could get the girl into their business and get more innocent people into their trap. Titli has no choice and neither does the girl who seemingly acquiesces to marriage. The girl is Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi), who, as Titli discovers right on the first night of marriage, has a mind of her own; and later, that she has a Prince (Prashant Singh) Charming as well. And they discover they have one thing in common – they both want a way out of this gutter. Titli sets into a motion a plan that he hopes will provide him the pecuniary wherewithal to break free, while simultaneously releasing Neelu from the house of horrors.
From here on, each character begins to pull and twirl their own sub-plots and destinies even while pulling others into an abyss of violence and terror. Director Kanu Behl is unforgiving and unrelenting and he takes no prisoners. He spins a web of reality that forces you to be the fly on the wall. You can’t watch, but you can’t look away either. He ties you to the chair and makes you gasp as you watch a terrifying scene of carjacking in broad daylight. That scene leaves you breathless, shaken, and weirdly mesmerized. He shows how sickeningly one-sided the first night of marriage can be – for one person, the right to have his way and for the other, an unfair attempt to break into her space of dignity. He flashes his torchlight on the underbelly that could be and is present in any city, where the struggle to live life everyday manifests for many as violence and anger. He shows how hopelessly complicated relationships are, and that there’s a constant attempt to maximize benefits – financial, emotional, or physical, for oneself. He also tells you how the economic divide has fragmented our lives and also made it less safe. The scene where Titli is looking from his bus window at a man riding a bike makes you shift in unease, as does the scene where Bawla stares at sales girls in a mall during a promotional activity, that also catalyzes his brainwave for Titli’s marriage. Do you even know who’s watching you when you’re in your vehicle or shopping in a mall? What thoughts and frustrations are you kicking off, unbeknownst to you?
Grabbing you by the collar is the entire cast, each one believable and fronting their warts and shortcomings superbly. Ranvir Shorey’s is an act of coiled up anger, frustration and hurt. And whenever this package explodes, he is the cracker that shocks you with his body language, spitfire dialogue delivery and violence. Look at him in the scene where he’s signing his divorce papers – he’s a frame of hurt; or when he’s attacking a victim with a hammer, he makes you close your eyes in self-defence. Amit Sial as Bawla is first-rate, trying to be a bridge between the angry elder brother and the rebellious younger brother; and he’s amazing in the scene where he weeps over a broken relationship, nursing his broken heart all alone, also frustrated at his own preferences. Lalit Behl as the father who tacitly supports his sons’ life of crime is brilliant, even as he quickly switches sides for survival toward the end.
In her role as the tough, girl-of-her-own-mind and choices, Shivani Raghuvanshi shines through and through. In every scene she’s in, she’s also your only beacon of hope, brightness, and fighting chance in an otherwise unsalvageable situation. And in the eponymous role of Titli, Shashank Arora is a casting coup and discovery this year. With his unflinching and yet strangely unspeaking eyes, he is simply breath-taking. He flits from understanding to rage (when his plan seems to go awry) to tenderness in seconds. And when he retches his guilt in a parking lot, you feel nauseated yourself, he’s so powerful.
The background score by Karan Gour is hauntingly moving and effectively sparse. After the title score, he comes in only after the intermission, ratcheting up the tension that much more. Siddhart Dhawan’s cinematography is absolutely marvellous, keeping you in an extremely uncomfortable point of view till the very end. And the sound design by Pritam Das is a marvel. Be it the sound of the television in the background, the incessant chit-chat of neighbours, the stillness of the night or the noise pollution during the day, you’re right amongst it.
Hours after watching “Titli”, you realize something is still stalking you. And that is an unknown fear. With our society being cleaved deeply by a rapidly accelerating socio-economic divide, it’s okay to be scared. Very scared. For, just beyond the precarious safety of your residential gates could be a larva of horrors, waiting to unleash the next titli.
Watch the trailer of Titli here: