You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Titli’

Kanu Behl makes a grittily impressive debut with this well-acted tale of a crime family in Delhi.

Shashank Arora, Shivani Raghuvanshi, Ranvir Shorey, Amit Sial, Lalit Behl, Prashant Singh. (Hindi dialogue)

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.

Film Review: 'Titli'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 20, 2014. Running time: 127 MIN.

Production: (India) A Yash Raj Films presentation of a DBP Prod. (US Sales: XYZ Films, L.A.; International sales: WestEnd Films, London.) Produced by Dibakar Banerjee. Executive producer, Smriti Jain.

Crew: Directed by Kanu Behl. Screenplay, Sharat Katariya, Behl. Camera (color, Super 16), Siddharth Diwan; editor, Namrata Rao; music, Karan Gour; production designer, Parul Sondh; costume designer, Fabeha Khan; sound, Pritam Das; action director, Parvez Fazil Khan; assistant director, Namrata Majumdar; casting, Atul Mongia.

With: Shashank Arora, Shivani Raghuvanshi, Ranvir Shorey, Amit Sial, Lalit Behl, Prashant Singh. (Hindi dialogue)

More Film

  • Matt Smith, Thomasin McKenzie Circle Edgar

    Matt Smith, 'Leave No Trace' Star Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie Circle Edgar Wright Movie

    Matt Smith and “Leave No Trace” star Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie are in negotiations to join Edgar Wright’s next film, “Last Night in Soho,” sources tell Variety. Details are vague about the psychological horror movie, other than it being set in London’s Soho district. Anya Taylor Joy is also in the cast. Production is expected to [...]

  • Vice Media

    Vice Media Taps Joe Simon as Chief Technology Officer (EXCLUSIVE)

    Joe Simon has been tapped as chief technology officer at Vice Media. The newly created role will include oversight of data analytics, engineering, information technology, media operations, media technology, post production, and systems management. Prior to Vice, Simon spent three years as Encompass Digital Media’s chief operating officer. Previously he held the chief technology officer [...]

  • Michael B Jordan denzel washington

    Michael B. Jordan to Star in Denzel Washington's 'Journal for Jordan'

    Michael B. Jordan is in talks to star in Sony’s “Journal for Jordan,” a drama that will be directed by Denzel Washington. The movie, penned by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Virgil Williams, is based on the true story of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Dana Canedy’s love affair with First Sergeant Charles Monroe King. King kept a journal [...]

  • Sylvester Stallone

    Sylvester Stallone's Superhero Drama 'Samaritan' Lands at MGM

    MGM is developing the superhero drama “Samaritan” with Sylvester Stallone attached to star and produce through his Balboa Productions. The studio has acquired Bragi F. Schut’s script, which centers on a boy learning that a missing superhero, who vanished 20 years earlier after a battle, may still be alive. MGM will develop “Samaritan” with Stallone [...]

  • Kendrick Lamar

    Oscars: Kendrick Lamar and SZA Will Not Perform 'Black Panther' Song (EXCLUSIVE)

    Despite the Academy’s efforts to secure Kendrick Lamar and SZA for a performance of the Oscar-nominated song “All the Stars” from “Black Panther” on the upcoming Oscars telecast, the duo will not be a part of the show, Variety has learned. The reason, according to a source close to the situation, is logistics and timing. [...]

  • Oscars Spa Treatments

    Area Spas Offer Red Carpet Treatments in Time for Oscars

    From a shopping session with a celebrity stylist to a covert airport pickup, these hotels and spas are offering even more curated packages for the ultimate VIP Oscar experience. For the Jetsetter Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills’ Doheny Suite Experience package allows travelers to evade the paparazzi with an underground or curbside [...]

  • Rocketman

    See Taron Egerton Transform Into Elton John in New ‘Rocketman’ Trailer

    A new trailer for “Rocketman,” the Elton John “fantasy musical” in theaters May 31, was released today. As the singer, actor Taron Egerton (“Eddie the Eagle”) performs “Tiny Dancer” and is seen honing his talent at home, rising to fame and grappling with the pitfalls that superstardom can bring. The film also stars Jamie Bell (as John’s [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content