“Titli”… A sharp portrait of family traps and flights to freedom

Posted on November 4, 2015


Spoilers ahead…

Violent films usually invite us to take off our politically correct hats and indulge our inner atavists. The spurts of blood in the work of Scorsese and Tarantino are like the money shots in porn films – we get off on them. There’s a very different kind of violence in Kanu Behl’s Titli – it deadens us, makes us numb. The violence isn’t presented like highlights. It courses through the film, through the lives of its characters. Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) starts beating up a furniture delivery man because… It’s hard to pin down one pat reason as the “because.” It could be because the delivery man began talking to Vikram’s wife Sangeeta, requesting this woman to intercede in the argument he’s having with Vikram. It could be because Vikram and Sangeeta are having problems. It could be because Vikram is stuck in a cramped hellhole that he doesn’t like to be reminded of – hence his lashing out at his youngest brother Titli (Shashank Arora) when the latter says he dreams of getting out of this narak, hell. “Sab ke sab bhenchod mera khoon choos rahe ho,” Vikram snarls, dripping spittle. Their father (Lalit Behl, the director’s father) watches calmly, dipping biscuits in tea, as though these happenings were occurring on a television soap.

We learn that this is a family of carjackers – in other words, we are watching a movie whose protagonists were the villains in NH-10. Inevitably, the sympathy factor is very low. We feel for the Anushka Sharma character in NH-10 because her fears are ours. How do we begin to empathise with Vikram and Co., who take a hammer to a car salesman’s head, smashing him to a pulp? It says something about Shorey’s explosive performance that we come to care about (or at least feel something for) this horrible man. Watch him react to Sangeeta’s demand for a divorce. He would have slapped her senseless, but there’s a social worker in the room, and you can’t tell whether the tears in Vikram’s eyes are due to the loss of a wife or the loss of face. (Sangeeta returns an earring he gave her, the result of one of his carjacking outings – it’s a small moment, but it’s as if she’s throwing his life in his face.) There is the hint that Vikram did not choose to be this man. He had no choice.

It’s through Titli, the relatively peaceful one in the family, that we get a glimpse of the circumstances that made Vikram Vikram. He goes to a Ford dealership to buy a Figo. (At least, that’s what he claims.) The salesman sizes Titli up and realises this man probably cannot afford this car. I’m not familiar with Delhi’s geography, but Titli says he’s from Jamna-paar, the other side of the Yamuna, the wrong side of the tracks – and the salesman picks up on this and humiliates him, not heeding his request for a test drive. There’s more emasculation at home. Titli turns towards Neelu on their wedding night, but she pushes him away. (She’s got streaks of violence too.) Later, we discover she has a lover – named (cough, cough) Prince (Prashant Singh). Neelu dreams of a fairy-tale ending too, a redemption from the hell she’s trapped in. She makes Titli take her to Prince, and closes the bedroom door as a bemused (and, again, humiliated) Titli hangs around outside. It doesn’t take much imagination to dream up a scenario where Titli does indeed turn into a Vikram.

But Titli chooses flight. Titli is like Udaan, a reminder that family isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, but without the rah-rah anthems that made us cheer for the young protagonist. We aren’t invited to empathise with Titli. In a different kind of film, we’d take the title to mean some kind of metamorphosis, the butterfly emerging from the ugly cocoon, et cetera. But there’s no beauty in Titli’s transformation, which is preceded by a scene where he dry heaves and gets all the bile out. It’s possibly the most symbolic, cathartic instance of vomiting in cinema history – and there’s a lot of expectorating in this film, across generations, in front of a mirror speckled with grime. This is practically an invitation from the filmmaker: You are cordially invited to read meanings into this. Immutable male behaviour? Like father, like sons (and brothers)? Or are they all clearing out the earlier day’s toxins, so today becomes at least a little more bearable?

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This is an impressive debut, and the only one I can recall right now that puts up such a loveless, unlovable bunch on screen. The key aspect of Titli is its leaden numbness. It’s there on Titli’s immobile face. It’s there in the scene where the family goes to Neelu’s (Shivani Raghuvanshi) house to ask for her hand for Titli – no one seems to care that the boy and girl look the least interested in each other. It’s there in the superb (if a little show-offy) scene where Titli breaks Neelu’s hand – long story – as though hammering a nail into a broken chair. It’s there in the filmmaking too, which (intentionally) leaves us distanced, detached. Even at the end, we aren’t sure what to make of Titli, because his freedom comes at the cost of his brothers’ imprisonment, a noirish double cross he engineered. (There’s a middle brother as well: Bawla, played by Amit Sial.) We remember his friend’s words: “Bhai jaisa hi hai tu.” He’s just like his brothers. At least they are doing things for the family, making sure there’s a pineapple cake for a birthday and so forth. Titli is just thinking about himself, about the parking lot he wants to buy in a mall, which, in our films, is code for upward mobility and Shining India. Titli wants out of Jamna-paar.

Sangeeta has a terrific scene where she points out Titli’s selfishness and hypocrisy. The women in Titli suffer greatly, but the film isn’t your typical indictment of patriarchy. They take it – but only up to a point. Take Sangeeta. (I don’t know the name of the actress, but she’s excellent, like everyone else. It’s the kind of ensemble acting where you say things like “not one false note.”) When she’s had enough, she seeks out that social worker and breaks free from her marriage. She’s a kind of titli too. I laughed when I discovered she had a “friend” named Sooraj, the Prince in her life. Neelu, too, doesn’t take things lying down. When Titli is humiliated by the Ford salesman, she stands up for him – she yells at the salesman. There are a lot of interlocking layers in Titli, whose only flaw is a studied kind of artiness that keeps signalling us about how unflinching, how uncompromised all this is. But everything else is great – the detailing, the Ram ratan dhan paayo on the radio (that’s the only dhan in these impoverished lives), the polyphonic conversations and their pitch-perfect staging. I wished, at the end, that there had been some closure to the character arcs of Vikram and Bawla, but perhaps the point is that sometimes there are no clean endings. Even with Titli, we see him in flight, riding on the roads towards a new life, but who knows what will happen the next time he runs into a snarky Ford salesman?


  • titli = butterfly
  • Sab ke sab bhenchod mera khoon choos rahe ho” = You fuckers are bleeding me dry.
  • NH-10 = see here
  • Bhai jaisa hi hai tu.” = You are just like your brother.
  • Ram ratan dhan paayo = a popular bhajan; see here for translation
  • dhan = wealth

Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi