2 November 2015

Sunny Side Down

My Mirror column yesterday:

Kanu Behl's superb 'Titli' marks the debut of a filmmaker who is unflinching in a way we rarely see.

There's a moment in Titli when a gun emerges from a mithai ka dabba, and one is accosted by the thought that there could be no better way to conceal a weapon. That standard-issue yellow-and-red cardboard box, so familiar and so familial a constituent of North Indian life that it could never be an object of suspicion, seems to me to function as a perfect metonym for what the film is doing at every level -- toying with our expectations, constantly and without prelude. 

First, the name. Titli means butterfly, a word whose automatic association with gardens and spring and flowers in bloom conjures up a natural idyll -- an imagined paradise which couldn't be further removed from the grim urban underbelly the film in fact inhabits (there is more than one reference to feeling caught in a narak, hell). The Hindi word, moreover, is a feminine noun, with a particularly bouncy, childlike quality, and there is something sweetly incongruous about naming a young man that. It is also protean -- with a name like Titli, you think, how bad can he be? And that question does, in some ways, animate our watching of the film, down to the very end. 

Then there are the characters: Kanu Behl's exemplary cast of lower middle class Delhi folk might lull us, in the first few moments, into believing that what we have here is another of those colourful, dysfunctional, lower middle class North Indian families that the Hindi film industry is fast turning into some sort of budget comic formula. But you learn fairly soon that this is no mild, easily digestible form of dysfunction, no collection of quirks that might be milked for wry humour or even affectionate laughter. This is the great Indian family turned inside out, revealing not just the ugly seams but the stuffing. 

Titli (Shashank Arora in a remarkable debut role) lives with his father and two elder brothers in a depressing little gali house "past the Mother Dairy, behind the nala", somewhere Jamna-paar (meaning in one of the Delhi colonies that lie beyond the Yamuna, in the direction of Noida). The interior has a sense of unrelieved gloom, a burnt-out quality that also has something to do with the lack of female presence. The mother is long-dead. Only the eldest brother Vikram (Ranvir Shorey in a stunning performance that gave me goosebumps) is married. But his wife Sangeeta (incredibly effective in her couple of scenes) has already left the house with their little daughter Shilpi. During the course of the film, another woman is persuaded to enter the space as a new bride. Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi, superb) comes with a dining table as dowry, gesturing both to the yearning for family togetherness and the gaping hole that sits in its place. 

What Behl's film does most powerfully is to charge the banality of lower middle class life with the shock of violence. The brothers refer to the car-jackings they do as "kaam" (work), wrapping the blood and gore of it in a coat of chilling everydayness. So comfortably do they adopt the skin of "normal" domesticity that we are surprised every time. But Titli can surprise us even in reverse - the hand-breaking scene might be the most tender act of violence I've ever seen. 

Behl and Sharat Kataria's screenplay seems to me to distil the world into two categories of people. Some, for whom the status quo is working well, have no desire to rock the boat: The corrupt policeman, the smarmy builder. As Prince says to placate Titli, "Jo jaise chal raha hai, woh chalne do". So those who hold the reins of power are loath to let them go, while others are caught in a criss-crossing web they can barely see. Titli seems the only one who can see it clearly, this cycle of poverty and violence, brutality and despair -- and his desperate bid to escape from its clutches forms the film's narrative core. 

The unwavering focus of Titli's desire is a parking lot in a new mall, which he hopes will be a permanent source of income, a way out of criminality. The half-built mall in which the film opens sets the tone for the film's other theme -- money. Titli's is a world in which money seems to come so easily to some, and so very tortuously to others. Some people print five-hundred-rupee wedding cards, while others must scrounge for years together to save three lakhs. 

Director Kanu Behl has worked with Dibakar Banerjee on Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (OLLO) and Love Sex aur Dhokha (which he co-wrote with Banerjee). Titli seems in conversation with Banerjee's oeuvre in interesting ways. This Delhi-under-construction, with its dreams dominated by real estate, has much in common with the world of Banerjee's own debut, Khosla ka Ghosla. But of course, instead of that film's gentle middle class protagonists - "decent people" who only get sucked into criminality because the evil guy screws them over -- what we have here is closer to OLLO's view of the world: "gentry jo boltein English hai, kartein desi". In fact, the gentry in Titli, such as it is, is one step up from even OLLO: they order sherwanis in one breath while doling out murder contracts in the next. Here it is the poor who are sucked into criminality, the poor for whom even escape involves betrayal. It is not a sunny view -- but the shadows do contain the possibility of redemption.

Published in Mumbai Mirror

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