A slow-burning, searing crime drama that shuns the conventional trappings of the genre, first-time director Kanu Behl?s Titli is a remarkably sure-footed film.
Its dark, disturbing screenplay (Kanu Behl, Sharat Kaytariya) explores Delhi-NCR?s grimy underbelly and delves into the ugly innards of a family that subsists on the margins of the city.
Titli is the story of a three-member car-jacking band of brothers who exist well outside the charmed circle of people with the wherewithal to cash in on Delhi?s chaotic and inequitable growth.
They have inherited the profession and it is beyond the two elder siblings, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Bawla (Amit Sial), to contemplate trying their hands at anything else.
However, the youngest brother Titli (newcomer Shashank Arora), thus named because his late mother yearned in vain for a daughter, dreams of escaping the family ?business?.
Right at the outset of the film, the boy is seen holding negotiations with a go-between for acquiring the parking space in the basement of an under-construction shopping mall in Meerut.
Titli?s desire to break free from his criminal family and his irate brothers? attempts to keep him in the fold only complicate their already messy lives.
As an exterior space, their ?home? reflects the state of their lives ? and minds. It is a veritable dump, an incomplete, ill-kempt structure filled with disintegrating objects haphazardly strewn around.
The brothers constantly squabble with each other, with the foul-tempered eldest one often resorting to physical force.
In their less volatile moments, and these are usually when they are in the middle of a meal, they plot and plan their next swoop. Their father, referred to simply as Daddy (Lalit Behl), watches silently from the background.
Theirs is a dysfunctional family where inter-personal connections are always under severe strain.
Vikram?s wife has walked out on him with her daughter and a divorce is on the way.
The fact that there is no woman in the family is no coincidence. In one scene, Vikram claims that ?we respect women?.
But there is no evidence to suggest that he actually does. Their mother is dead and gone. Vikram?s wife has turned her back on them.
Bawla suggests that they look for a bride for Titli, hoping that marriage would calm him down, besides adding a lady to the gang and improving its ability to snare victims.
The girl that they find for Titli, Neelu (debutante Shivani Raghuvanshi), turns out to be more than a match for the brothers despite her apparent vulnerability.
She comes with her own twisted dreams, which push Titli?s hopes of freedom in another direction.
Titli needs money for his proposed car parking business; Neelu loves a married builder and is waiting for the latter?s divorce to come through.
The two strike a deal: Titli promises to help Neelu get the man she wants in return for the money she has in her fixed-deposit account.
In the universe that these characters inhabit, there are lies, betrayal, desperation and subterfuge, but there is no room whatsoever for true love.
Titli has bursts of gut-wrenching violence. Among other things, a head is smashed and a wrist is broken. The weapon of choice: a modest household hammer.
The physical manifestations of the anger simmering under the surface is only of outward significance. These acts show how far these men can go to get what they want.
But the film?s central drama hinges mainly on the severe emotional violence that the characters unleash on each other.
They are a pack of wolves, but at one point in the film the father compares his eldest son with a pig.
Titli focusses primarily on the perpetually stressed-out siblings, who are always only a step away from destructive violence.
But just as central to the narrative are the terrible repercussions that arbitrary development has on those that are stuck at the bottom of the urban heap and are desperate to break free from the cycle of perennial privation.
The more the brothers struggle to climb out of the hole, the deeper they sink, with their ageing, emotionless father watching the descent without the slightest consternation.
Titli has a grimly real feel because Behl makes no attempt to prettify either the visuals or the language.
Co-produced by Yash Raj Films with Dibakar Banerjee Productions, the film?s theme, if not style, carries the latter?s imprint. However, YRF?s stamp is nowhere to be seen in the look and feel of Titli.
Behl?s is a strikingly original voice. It is aided by wonderfully apt casting and suitably grimy settings.
Suddharth Diwan?s camerawork (unobtrusive, unembellished, direct) and the editing (Namrata Rao), too, help the story hit home with unalloyed force.
Ranvir Shorey projects the malevolence of the venal Vikram to perfection, while Shashank Arora shifts back and forth between vulnerability and resolve to great effect.
The real find of Titli is Shivani Raghuvanshi. In a male-dominated cast, she provides the spark that injects a degree of tangible humanity into the dystopian drama.
Even when she is at the receiving end of grave threats and attacks, her visage reflects serene firmness.
In a film in which nobody smiles, Raghuvanshi?s character embodies the sole ray of hope and the debutante makes no false moves.
The same is true of the film as a whole. Titli is an unflinching, insightful chronicle of our times. Do not miss it.