During one of the early scenes in Kanu Behl’s Titli, we see the eponymous Titli (Shashank Arora), the youngest member of a family that makes a living from carjacking, sitting in the backseat of a bike, intently looking back at a shopping mall undergoing construction. Titli wants to buy a parking lot in that mall. That scene, unfolding from Titli’s point of view, presumably shot from a hand held camera on a moving vehicle, shows the mall unsteadily lurching, and it’s only fitting because dreams and wants in Titli are seldom constant — they are forever changing forms and meaning.
The ultimate ambition of the film’s two characters, Titli and his wife, Neelu (Shivani Raguvanshi), is to escape. Titli wants to abandon his family; Neelu wants to escape Titli and, by that extension, his household. But Titli is less about escaping, more about retaining, things you can never leave behind, that always follow and haunt you. These questions lurk throughout the film: What does it really mean to run away? What happens when the person wanting to break free is only a shadow of someone who indeed ends up breaking free? What’s a greater defeat — being humiliated by your tormentor or becoming that tormentor?
These are, indeed, loaded questions, and lesser films often get burdened under the weight of their Big Ideas, but Titli is considerably smarter. Behl and Sharat Katariya, Titli’s co-screenwriter, want us to primarily look at their film’s world and the characters it shelters or, rather, packs. Titli’s elder brothers, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Bawla (Amit Sial), share a bedroom with their dad (Lalit Behl, played by the director’s real-life father); the washbasin in this hovel almost touches the dining table; most of the walking space is hijacked by myriad old, dusty cartons that are piled on top of each other. Titli’s family, as a result, doesn’t live together as much as it encroaches on each other’s space, forever squashing individual aspirations in lieu of collective gains.
It’s in this meager space that Titli has grown up watching a husband beating his wife, an elder brother shaming his younger ones, brothers (and presumably father) roughing up strangers. It’s this family that has forbidden Titli to grow up, kept him perpetually stranded between being a boy and a man. It’s this family that has systematically destroyed its members.
“Bhenchod, parivaar waale narak lagte hain tujhe?” Vikram shouts at Titli early in the movie, when he finds out that the latter is orchestrating a stealthy escape. This is probably the only question asked in the film — one that doesn’t have an answer, because, as Titli mockingly seems to suggest, the Family is the answer; that living together will magically solve all the problems. But if the film’s world is filled with suffocation and violence, both physical and psychological, its characters also cling onto their desires: of getting a haircut in a swanky mall, upgrading from a scooter to a bike, finding and making love. And, quite unsurprisingly, love is seldom spoken about in this family, which consists entirely of men, for possibly, it’s too effeminate a feeling. Love or, more appropriately, compassion, however, does sneak up to these members and take them by surprise. When Vikram is thrashing Titli, Bawla comes in between to protect his younger brother, sending him off to a different room. Later, when Vikram slaps Bawla, he’s taken aback by this sudden assault and insult, but soon comes back to his elder brother with a glass of water. Vikram’s on the verge of tears when his wife, accompanied by a lawyer, presents him the divorce papers; when Bawla, who’s hinted to be gay, is coming to terms with his heartbreak, he steps outside the house and can’t help his tears.
Behl, much like the members of the family that he so skillfully directs, is a keeper of secrets. He, at often times, conceals vital facts about his characters and their mindscapes, making us ponder about their actions and decisions. But this flair doesn’t always work in his favour. Two crucial plot points in the film, for example, Titli intentionally driving a stolen car, which also seats Bawla, towards a police barricade and Neelu agreeing to pay a huge sum to Titli to stay in his house for a few months (when her life after the divorce is possibly going to remain as murky), appear unconvincing and hurried. These are, however, not “plot holes”; people often behave out of reason when they have been exasperated for long, or keep their plans to themselves, but these sudden and hefty diversions in the story should have materialised through more craft.
These slip-ups are surprising because other significant details in the film emerge naturally, Titli’s chilling transformation, for instance. At one point, Vikram is shown brushing his teeth in a peculiar fashion, making loud, repeated noise in the process, as if performing a particularly strenuous exercise. Later, when Titli gradually begins breaking into threats and violence without overt provocation, we see him brushing his teeth and notice that it’s accompanied by similar vocal inflections — in fact, had we just heard Titli near the washbasin, we would have mistaken him for Vikram, and that’s the point: Titli has become Vikram; he’s embodied his nightmare. And towards the end of the film, we see their father brush his teeth, and we understand what Titli is really up against.
Titli is, by all means, a confident debut, but its other achievements are more significant. To begin with, the film is a great, and a much needed, counterpoint to something that makes Indians smug by default: the Great Indian Family. Behl takes that same family and shows us its flaws and scars, posing uncomfortable questions about sharing life with ones you don’t respect or love. And why not, because families don’t consist of ideas; they are sustained by people, who, irrespective of their age and solemnity, are liable to disappoint. This is precisely where Titli soars, because, above all, it’s a film about failures. The kind of failures we don’t talk about or acknowledge, pretend that they don’t exist — the failures of fathers and brothers, of husbands and brothers-in-law, who end up betraying, at times damaging, the ones they were supposed to protect and love, of people forced to live a marital and familial life, when they were fundamentally unfit for it. These realities aren’t pleasant or heartwarming, but someone needs to bring them out, because the stories that don’t get told are the ones that don’t exist.
Tanul Thakur is a Mumbai-based writer and film critic