Kanu Behl’s Titli released few days ago. But we go busy with Mumbai Film Festival, and so haven’t been able to post anything on the absolutely brilliant debut feature of Kanu. The film premiered at Cannes last year.
Here’s Karan Singh Tyagi on Titli.
Delhi has always struck me as a suffocating city. It has no harbor, it’s main river lies dangerously polluted, it boils in summer and it freezes in winter. To an outsider it is also a distrusting city; the city has watched me without interest many times – suggestive of some harshness in the people.
I experienced this same feeling visiting Delhi last week. At the airport, I placed my backpack in the dedicated common section in the restroom for cabin-bags. The restroom attendant immediately turned around and gave me a mocking smile, as if poking fun at my naivety and suggesting what a fool I was to blindly trust the safety of my bag in that common enclosure.
I had arranged for a private cab to take me to the city. I had not even settled in the cab when the driver started telling me that he was an expert in beating the parking system – stationing the car a few kilometers away and waiting for the phone call from the passenger to drive to the pick-up spot. We passed a signpost to Dadri. I was naturally reminded of the lynching incident, and expressed shock at what had taken place. Pat came the reply from the cab driver, “U.P. Sarkar itne paise deti hai ki ye log khud hi kar lete hain ye sab drama. Do aur hindu bhi mare, unhe to kuch nahin mila.”
There seemed something savage and gluttonous in the manner in which he shifted the discourse from a humane level to a transactional level. I was left wondering where these thoughts had come from, and what is the prism through which he was viewing the world, looking past empathy to power and money.
As we advanced, garbage was being burnt on an open spot along the NH-58 highway. White smoke was rising from the burning trash.
It reminded me of Kanu Behl’s “Titli”, a film that burns with an intensity not matched on screen in a long time. It smells of hazy smoke that rises from burnt trash in the dusty by-lanes of Delhi. The film internalizes my growing feelings about Delhi (and this country) and spits out something dangerous, something macabre, even.
On the surface, the movie is about Titli’s (Shashank Arora’s) attempts along with his wife (Shivani Raghuvanshi) to escape his family that engages in violent carjacking. But, underneath the film holds up a brutal mirror that shows an unflattering reflection of our hypocrisy, patriarchy, mistrust, rage and sorrow. What spoke to me the most was how brilliantly it handles the subject of patriarchy.
“Titli” places the four male protagonists along a continuum of misogyny, ranging from the father (Lalit Behl) who is extremely hegemonic to Titli who is consciously trying to find a sense of agency. Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Bavla (Amit Sial) occupy spots in the middle. Each male protagonist has much to tell us about who we are.
The father is so deeply entrenched in patriarchy that he doesn’t even realize it; his Zen-like presence in a world where violence happens around him every day is devilish. Vikram, supportive of entrenched patriarchy, knowingly and on occasions unknowingly, finds rhetorical ways to contort his patriarchal gaze into expressions of compassion and sadness. See him in scenes where he is dealing with his divorce or where he is thrashing Titli while simultaneously crying and imploring: “Parivar vale narak lagte hain tujhe?” – his is a world of wretched and labile emotions in a patriarchal universe.
Bavla’s position on this continuum is the most unique that while on one hand he displays gay leanings, on the other hand he is an unobtrusive participant in the terror perpetrated by his father and brother. In contrast, Titli is trying to actively seize control of his life, but he soon finds himself engaged in praxis of futility as he discovers that morality and conscience is the price for freedom.
Viewed from a certain perspective, the film is also a peerless portrayal of our hypocrisy – our classic ability to extricate a problem from its context and deal with it symbolically. The movie spends an excessive amount of time showing the male characters brushing their teeth and clearing their throat, as if these acts of personal hygiene allow the male leads to purge their sins and soul, thus making them cleaner humans. The symbolism should not be bewildering as this is happening in a country where millions gather at the ghats of the Sangam every year to purge themselves of all sins by taking a dip in the waters.
Symbolism aside, where the movie soars is in its representation of the construct of the family in India. It deftly depicts how an Indian family can be something of an unforgiving structure for many – one which dedicates itself to the art of the self-inflicted wound (there is also a gut-wrenching scene in the movie that involves a literal depiction of a self-inflicted wound), and which, knowingly or unknowingly, is committed to acts of cruelty against its own kind rather too often.
The portrait of India that emerges from this examination shows a country that is broken, in a fundamental, probably irreparable way. But, to completely mangle Wright Thompson’s beautiful lines on India, “Titli” is both the riddle and the solution. One must understand today’s India to understand “Titli”, but one must understand “Titli” to understand today’s India. They created each other. They are the same.
(The writer, currently based in Mumbai, is a graduate of the L.L.M. program at Harvard Law School. You can find him on twitter here: @karanstyagi)