By Divya Sachar
Perhaps one could call Kanu Behl’s much lauded Titli a feminist film. Very much about gender, Titli questions the very idea of masculinity in Indian society. Strong performances (from a primarily amateur cast), an unsentimental portrayal of Indian poverty, an excellent screenplay and a debutante director who knows his technique, mark this film as refreshingly different from what arrives routinely in Indian cinema halls.
Titli, a young man from Delhi’s lower middle class, seeks an escape from his oppressive family and environment. But The Family – his violent brothers and a wraith like father – just won’t let go. Titli dreams of buying property in the booming real estate sector of aspirational India. In a surreal, vertiginous dream sequence he climbs up the stairs of an under construction building while the ghost of his dead grandfather – a framed photograph – keeps falling in the way. The brothers routinely resort to carjacking and when things go awry it is suggested that a woman be brought in as a front to fool unsuspecting car owners. Women are treated as commodities, and the film holds up a mirror to patriarchal India. But the women in Behl’s film are no wimps. In the midst of all the misogyny they file for divorces, fight for their rights, refuse to have sex on the first night with their husbands, and are sexually open with their lovers. Titli is married off to the shy and awkward seeming Neelu but she is adept at turning tables. The two strike a deal – Neelu will pass off her dowry Fixed Deposit to Titli while he will grant her a divorce and make sure that she ends up married to her boyfriend Prince.
But what the film is really about is masculinity. The slight framed, boyish looking Titli, with a name as effete as that, has his Dream, but both his Dream and his attempts to recover his masculinity are thwarted by his dominating family. In fact the under construction towers that the film abounds with seem phallic symbols of aspiring, masculine India. Furthermore Titli’s wife is in love with someone else and we watch as Titli is helplessly emasculated. He silently drinks a beer while Neelu uninhibitedly flirts with Prince at a party Titli chauffeurs her to. The shadow of his beer bottle constantly falls on his neck like a knife. In the end Titli does recover his masculinity, while his father obsequiously acknowledges him as the new Man Of The House. But this masculinity is different from his brothers’ violent machismo. Titli’s recovered masculinity comes with love and respect for his wife. He owes her an apology, and perhaps this is director Kanu Behl’s way of exorcising his own post-divorce ghosts.
Behl’s aesthetic strategy consists of juxtaposing contraries to create conflict. The short, thin body frame of Shashank, the actor who plays Titli, bristles and seethes with violence and rage that may seem unlikely from someone who looks so slight. The violent, wife bashing brother Vikram, played brilliantly by Ranvir Shorey, is capable of touching tenderness. Another way Behl puts together contraries to create new meanings is the scene where Tilti decides to break Neelu’s arm with her consent with a hammer. The scene plays out like their first act of making love, though the actual wedding night was a disaster. Violence, with tenderness and concern, go hand in hand. The strategy of putting together contrasts extends to the rhythm of the film too. The rhythm of frenetic activity, created either through dialogue or mis en scene in the family scenes is often punctuated by the slow, languid rhythm of the patriarch (played by Lalit Behl to silent and ghostly perfection), as he calmly dips his biscuit into his tea, even as the world seems to be falling apart in front of him. The father, as Titli says in the end, is the real villain, and Lalit Behl plays him like a cool, calm and dangerous underworld don, much like Don Corleone in The Godfather. In fact The Godfather is referred to in the end when the father is lit up like Marlon Brando in Coppola’s film, with his eyes obscured by shadow to make him look all the more sinister. Irony is further created when the father effetely offers to cook for Titli. The pitting together of contraries finds its way into the excellent sound design too. Gurbani plays on the car radio as the brothers practically murder the car dealer. And the holy azaan plays on a mosque loudspeaker when Titli and Neelu strike their Faustian bargain, creating delicious irony.
The film also employs doubles to make its points. In terms of violence and misogyny, Titli is no different from his brothers and is in effect, a watered down version of his own brothers. Two birthday scenes witnessed by Titli, set in opposing economic milieux work as doubles too. The first one has the elder brother Vikram holding his little daughter while his wife wants a divorce. The other one is with Neelu’s boyfriend Prince holding his own little daughter while celebrating his birthday. Prince is living the dream Titli wants to. While the former scene is set in squalor and erupts with violence, the latter is as picture perfect as an advertisement. But while there is overt physical ugliness and violence in the former, in the latter, ugliness is embedded within, in Prince’s betrayal of both Neelu as well as his own wife.
Contrasts and doubles find themselves in the visual design as well. The crumbling structure that Titli and his family inhabit is lit gloomily, signifying Titli’s claustrophobic entrapment, but he finds himself enmeshed even in the large spaces of the mall and parking lot where he aspires to buy property. Towards the end, in a large under-construction room, the construction rods rise up and are reflected on the gleaming floor, in effect creating a cage around Titli. The oppression and loss of freedom is not just restricted to the dingy house. And once Titli realises this, he literally vomits out his transformation.
In the end, both Neelu and Titli ‘come of age’ and all seems well for a moment. But Neelu has a permanent fracture. The violence has been done and there will be consequences. The ghosts of the family still remain, much like the dead grandfather’s framed photograph that keeps making its presence felt. You can run from everyone but yourself. The gritty, grainy Super 16 film images create the right atmosphere for the seedy underbelly of Delhi, and the editing is taut and flawless.
This review was first published on the website takhty.in