A family is not always a haven. It does not always cherish and nourish. It can suck out your soul, and whistle as it spits your husk out. That’s what the father and brothers of Titli, the young protagonist in the film that bears his name, are to him: elders but not betters, people who lead by example, but into the abyss.
Kanu Behl’s debut feature is about one such family, which you haven’t seen in Bollywood before. It’s the polar opposite of the happy, shiny creatures served up by the Barjatya-Johar brand of cinema: it is a family which does eat together, and then they go out together. For a kill. Once you are done with it, you find the film is not done with you. It burrows deep, its hard edges looking for your soft spots. ‘Titli’ is brutal, its violence visceral: hard to watch, impossible to forget.
Titli (Shashank Arora) is the youngest of three brothers who live with their father in a lifeless hovel on the outskirts of the capital. Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), Pradeep aka Bawla (Amit Sial) and their father (Lalit Behl, the director’s own father) are nowhere people going rapidly nowhere, sinking lower and lower till they are stripped of their humanity.
Violence and crime are natural companions. What else can they do to hack a life unless they threaten another life? Carjacking and turning over the vehicles for ready cash is what they come to: a deadend ‘profession’ sending them spiralling towards more bloodshed, a deeply corrupt, defunct system, and individuals grifting along, to get somewhere.
Titli’s alliance with Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi), a girl acting under her own compulsions, is not forged because the family feels that he needs a bride, but because a female is a good front to ensnare innocents: who will suspect a con when a fresh-faced girl is around?
You may have seen all kinds of Delhis and Dilliwalas and ‘walis’ in the movies, but Behl’s city and its inhabitants are in a class by themselves in the way they inhabit their rabbit holes, and fill them with their rage and helplessness. They are not monsters– and this is where Behl’s insider track knowledge of the place and the people comes in– who bludgeon and curse and shout and bully to keep on top. These are characters who do what they do because they see no other way to act, even if the relentlessness and dispiritedness becomes a bit too much to take at times.
The performances are excellent: from Raghuvanshi who channels hurt and bewilderment and stoicism in the face of an overwhelming situation, to Lalit Behl, who bids fair to be the creepiest, most parasitic Hindi cinema father, to the middle brother Sial who tries to keep the peace. Newcomer Shashank Arora lives and breathes Titli, the young fellow looking desperately for a way out. And Ranvir Shorey, as the oldest sibling whose violence is the most corrosive, yet the most heart-breaking, is outstanding.
You watch, with mounting horror, your heart in your mouth. You watch, because you cannot look away. You end up feeling for Titli. You want him to break free, and fly away. He shines, and despite its darkness, so does the film. It is harrowing but imperative viewing.
Star cast of Titli: Ranvir Shorey, Shashank Arora, Amit Sial, Lalit Behl, Shivani Raghuvanshi, Prashant Singh
Director: Kanu Behl
Three and a half stars.