Kanu Behl’s film Titli is an impressive debut that is far from what one might expect from the Indian cinema – this is a description that is too often used as problematically dismissive of the nation’s wider, rich cinematic heritage, but here I mean that it is that its influences seem to come from elsewhere. The film is particularly reminiscient of Italian neorealism (especially the later grittier, more violent interpretations such as early Pasolini) and the films of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi – of complex, impossible moral situations between a series of intermingled characters all of whom have conflicting priorities and crises, yet these come together in a film very concerned particularly with the state of India in the modern world, which the film expresses narratively and visually.
The titular Titli (Shashank Arora) is the youngest of three brothers in a violent, criminal gender-inverse Cinderella tale; desperate to escape the oppressive family he’s been raised into, particularly the psychopathic violent tendencies of his eldest brother Vikram (played with striking menace by Ranvir Shorey) and his enabling mediator middle brother Baawla(Amit Sial) as well as their widower father. Behl shows a great grasp of filmmaking by supporting Titli’s experience and the family dynamics visually – scenes in the household are tightly constricted and claustrophobic, with underlying currents of violence and terror building to pressure points where they explode out in shocking moments. Particularly effective is the continual framing of the father – mostly wordless, but continually just in frame, through doorways and windows in the background with silent complicity overseeing Vikram’s tyrannical dominion – alternatively emasculated and empowered by this, it means later scenes with him are of particular interest. Vikram is the film’s most fascinating character – irredeemable, but not one-dimensional, his impotence at controlling his family and espousing traditional forms of masculinity drive him to his continual outbursts. Tellingly, however, are his silent responses to two of the most affronting experiences toward him – his battered wife filing for divorce, and the unspoken understanding that Baawla is engaged in a homosexual relationship – which best express Vikram’s sense of masculinity against a rapidly changing contemporary India, and the unconquerable frustration and devastation this brings him.
When Titli is caught in a scheme to escape the family, the brothers arrange a marriage with Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi) as means of further supporting the family and keeping a proverbial ball and chain around him. Although an independent and determined woman, she is horrified at her first insight into the brothers’ activities, where a car salesman is gruesomely murdered in front of her as part of a heist. Titli and Neelu don’t get along (in one of the most memorable and uncomfortable scenes in the film, she refuses to give in to Titli’ aggressive attempts at seduction on their wedding night) but eventually come to an understanding – Neelu has a rich (albeit married) lover who she plans to marry. If Titli can protect her until her lover’s divorce comes through, she will give him the money he needs to escape. Though at the same time, Titli begins to realise his own violent tendencies and barely suppressed rage, and at times is indistinguishable from his brother. This thematic thread is one we saw tackled unsuccessfully at the Festival already with Aoyama’s Backwater, and it’s more convincing here through Arora’s performance, even if it problematically gets forgotten toward the end.
From here the plot gets increasingly complicated in the Farhadi-esque tableaux of moral complexity and characters. Minor characters, fully formed and realised, become essential to the film – Vikram’s battered ex-wife and daughter, Neelu’s wealthy lover Prince, all with personal needs and demands in an India that Behl seems to present as not as concerned so much with caste as capital. Though this distinction may be negligible, it’s crucial to understanding a new India – money, rather than birth right, seems to be the key to Titli’s future, as his dream throughout the film is to invest in a mall parking lot, with all the associations that brings – generic, global capitalism.
Contrasted with the constricted, domestic hell of Titli’s home is the expansive city, with shots of characters on scooters moving freely, of an illusory freedom. It’s an important visual clue that in almost every establishing shot, massive construction work is unfolding. Scaffolding, parking lots and gigantic, developing skyscrapers (and it’s no coincidence that Neelu’s lover Prince is a developer of Western-style luxury apartments) constantly suggest an India In Flux (why this film wasn’t programmed in that strand for MIFF is anyone’s guess) – multi-million dollar developments and the promises they entail, with the clear irony that it won’t have any impact on the lives of regular citizens like Titli’s family, with no means of approaching or benefitting from this new India without the capital that only crime can bring.
There are plenty of other things to talk about that the film is interested in, if occasionally unsubtly (corruption at all levels of public service, etc) and it’s a rich film, if every now and then a little obvious in symbolism– Titli, Vikram and their father all cough in the mirror while brushing their teeth, bringing the aforementioned themes of shared characteristics to the forefront, and Titli’s name translates as ‘Butterfly’, a metaphor for his character which is just barely subverted enough to not completely come across as corny. But the film excels in the more subtle and rich moments of the characters and their surroundings – perfectly acted, and bursting with things to say, Titli is a gripping debut film that could mark the arrival of a significant new voice in world cinema.