The rising profile of Indian indies on the international scene receives another boost with Kanu Behl’s grittily impressive noir debut, “Titli.” Set within the claustrophobic confines of a criminal family in a downtrodden section of Delhi, the film plunges into this pitiless milieu with headstrong assurance, presenting a paternalistic world where corruption seeps into people’s pores and women need backbones of steel to survive. Behl coaxes standout perfs from the largely non-pro cast and captures the volatility of a society where violence lies uneasily just below the surface, making for a strong fest item that deserves active VOD promotion.
If the recent horrific rapes reported from India have taken much of the globe by surprise, “Titli” seems to be saying, “Look, let me show you where this comes from.” Behl and co-scripter Sharat Katariya make no apologies; nor do they create one-dimensional monsters: They depict a dog-eat-dog culture where feelings of powerlessness engender acts of terrible cruelty. Part of this stewing anger comes from the increasingly independent power of women, creating a backlash and crushing wives unable to maintain their precarious control.
The name Titli translates as “butterfly,” an apt moniker for a character (Shashank Arora) who undergoes a troubling transformation. He’s the youngest of three brothers, living together with their father (Lalit Behl, the helmer’s dad) in a cramped, dingy home off one of Delhi’s countless unpaved streets. Titli dreams of escaping and buying the concession for a newly constructed parking garage, but he’s about $500 short. Once his family is introduced, it’s apparent why Titli is so anxious to get out: Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) is a belligerent tyrant who’s driven his wife to file for divorce, and middle brother Baawla (Amit Sial), through his calm demeanor, enables Vikram’s expansive ruthlessness and their father’s silent control.
Titli isn’t an enthusiastic participant in his brothers’ small-time yet brutal capers, so Baawla proposes they find him a wife whom they can control and who, in turn, can control him. However, Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi) turns out to be far less pliant than anyone expected. Deeply unhappy with the betrothal, she fights off Titli’s attempts to consummate the relationship on their wedding night (shot in intense closeups attesting to the thesps’ talent), proving herself far more than the silent, weepy bride she first appeared. When she gets the full measure of her in-laws’ criminality, she flees, but then makes a bargain: She’ll stay until her lover, Prince (Prashant Singh), gets his divorce, and in return will give Titli the money he needs to buy his way out of the family’s grasp.
The plot is full of double-crosses, crooked cops and glimpses into a system so endemically corrupt that escape is a fool’s dream. Simmering aggression explodes in sadistic bursts that serve as outlets for thwarted attempts at some kind of control, whether over people or situations. The real fascination in “Titli” lies in the characters, fully rounded personalities cleverly constructed to reveal depth without the need for full, descriptive backstories; for example, Baawla’s sexual relationship with a younger man is never directly addressed, but its inclusion adds additional layers to the family’s dense psychological profile. Calmly observing it all is the father, at a glance a passive bystander, but really the controlling force — his sons didn’t get this way on their own. The father’s own father, in a photograph, watches passively, his recurrent image further acknowledgment of the lineage of dysfunctionality.
As for Titli, he initially tries to break free of this hereditary disposition toward violence, but the system won’t let him off that easily. Neelu is particularly fascinating, confident that if she plays her cards right, she can come out on top. To be with Prince, she’ll accept some humiliation, yet only to a point: Raghuvanshi expertly plays with the different facets of Neelu’s character, from truculent wife to flirtatious lover, and it’s a testament to the actress’ innate skills (along with the director’s talents) that she achieves so much in her first thesping job.
The noirish milieu — working-class cut-throats, aspirational proles, amoral businessmen — is the stock-in-trade of producer Dibakar Banerjee, whose own directorial efforts (“Khosla’s Nest,” “Shanghai”) similarly reveal the flip side of the Indian economic miracle (Behl is co-writer of Banerjee’s “LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhokha”). Delhi is presented as a faceless metropolis where rampant construction of generically gleaming high-rises coexists with squalid forgotten corners.
The decision to shoot on Super 16 was inspired, as Siddharth Diwan’s grainy visuals hark back to a 1970s crime vibe and provide emotional texture to the lensing (however, the occasional use of slo-mo is unnecessary). Sets by Parul Sondh, especially the constricted spaces of the brothers’ home and their contrast to the outside, are also praiseworthy. French and English subtitles on the print viewed differ wildly in style, but not content.