'Titli': Cannes Review

Titli Film Still - H 2014
Westend films

Titli Film Still - H 2014

An enjoyable, character-driven Indian yarn about an emotional family of criminals gets better as it goes on.

A boy from a family of car-jackers and his reluctant bride plot their escape from poverty and violence.

An unusual pairing of indie production house DBP and Bollywood distributor-exhibitor Yash Raj produces a fine Indian hybrid that can travel to art house audiences.Titli is set on the outskirts of Delhi in one of the city’s most run-down neighborhoods, where no one raises an eyebrow about living next door to a family of blood-soaked highway bandits. But the spiral of violence encounters resistance from the youngest son and a girl he’s forced to marry. This first feature directed by documaker Kanu Behl strikes a nice balance between irony and social realism. It may lack the romantic charm of The Lunchbox, but it partakes of some of the same spirit of little people struggling against their society to find happiness. It should wrangle easy festival berths and scattered sales after its bow in Cannes’ Certain Regard. 

Titli (newcomer Shashank Arora) the youngest of three brothers, is a hungry-looking youth struggling to buy into a parking garage in a new shopping center under construction. When the price goes up, he tries to manipulate his older brother Vikram (an intense, hair-trigger Ranvir Shorey) into giving him the money, pretending it's for a class in car repair. It’s a shock to discover the freres out one night hijacking a car and beating up the occupants.

For crime is the family livelihood, presumably inherited from their father (veteran Lalit Behl), who lives with them in a crumbling apartment. The mantle of authority has now passed to Vikram, so hot-headed and quick-fisted his wife has fled and is filing for divorce. The middle brother Bawla (Amit Sial) is more of a behind-the-scenes manipulator like Titli. Nice family.

PHOTOS: Nicole Kidman, Blake Lively, Zoe Saldana Hit the Red Carpet

The parking garage represents Titli’s attempt to make a break for freedom, but he’s so nervous that his plans backfire and everything goes wrong. To settle him down and find more free labor, Vikram and Bawla arrange his marriage with Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi), a lower class girl. Stil, she's suspiciously pretty for a pairing with Titli and his disreputable family. The marriage goes through but Neelu has an entirely different agenda in mind, one involving a hunky young building contractor named Prince. Somewhat amusingly, the young married couple make a devil’s bargain to help each other realize their dreams in the most manipulative, underhanded ways possible. And the deals get even shadier from there in Behl and Sharat Katariya’s well-written screenplay.

The story advances from one violent scene to another with a hammer being the dacoits’ preferred weapon and a long stick the police’s. Yet faces are bloodied and arms are broken off screen, making it easier to watch than a lot of other gangster films. As one brother ruefully notes, “We’re not into murder.” This leaves room in the script for the really bad things people to do each other, including lies, betrayal, and bartering every human relationship for money.   

With his shock of hair, prominent nose and intense stare, Titli (whose name ironically means butterfly) is a strange but ultimately good match for the stubborn, single-minded Neelu. Behl shows talent directing a largely non-pro cast, situating them carefully in the squalor of their Delhi surroundings. The family’s cramped apartment is the theater of many domestic dramas but also symbolizes the close ties that bind everyone together, like the humorous intimacy of their noisy tooth-brushing.

All the technical work is top quality. Namrata Rao's editing keeps the rhythm flowing, while sound effects and music (uncredited) are used to great effect to pump up the mood.

A Yash Raj Films presentation of a DBP production

Cast: Shashank Arora, Shivani Raghuvanshi, Ranvir Shorey, Amit Sial Bawla, Lalit Behl daddy

Director: Kanu Behl

Screenwriters: Sharat Katariya, Kanu Behl

Producer: Dibakar Banerjee

Executive producer:  Smriti Jain

Director of photography: Siddharth Diwan

Production designer: Parul Sondh

Costume designer: Fabeha Khan

Editor: Namrata Rao

Sales: Westend Films (in US: XYZ Films)

No rating, 127 minutes