TITLI / BUTTERFLY (Dir. Kanu Behl, 2014, India) – Badlands [SPOILERS]


The construction site in which empty buildings, namely shopping plazas and apartments, that has reoccured throughout so many contemporary Indian indie films could arguably be a trope now. In Titli, it is the parking lot that acts as source of neo capitalist aspiration and means of flight from a vicious New Delhi underbelly. What is it about a building under construction that haunts the urban topography of Hindie cinema? Thematically, a half constructed building connects psychologically to the idealistic dreams of an underclass striving to elevate themselves out from beneath a hopelessness that swallows them up in a screaming totality. Then it’s about striving for something much greater, the impossible perhaps, and never quite reaching that goal. Such ‘new’ buildings that represent a ‘new’ India in a constant state of rapid urban development evident in recent Indian indie films set in an urban milieu, be it Mumbai or Delhi, usually take advantage of the shot in which we see characters ‘dreaming’ in such a space about a better life. Films including Slumdog Millionaire, Peepli Live, City Lights, Kai Po Che, Dhobi Ghat and Peddlers all use the trope of the construction site as an ideological metonym for the way in which materialistic dreams take on a strange festishization that can inevitably lead to the fatal imprisonment of such fickle aspirations.

Titli starts with such a proposition with the main character dreaming of a parking lot that he has been promised if he can come up with the money. Titli, the youngest of three brothers, lives in a dysfunctional family. Vikram, the oldest brother, and the most violent of three, coerces his brothers including a reluctant Titli into committing small robberies, perpetrated with a casual, indiscriminate brutality against ordinary Delhi folk. Vikram’s (played with a terrifying brilliance by Ranvir Shorey) rage, fuelled by his estranged marriage and uneasy relationship with his father, is manifested in his refusal to accept an alternate to crime. Director Kanu Behl borrows a familiar convention from the Hindi melodrama, the family, but subverts traditional intentions by excluding the mother. This leads to an unconventional family setup in which traditionally the mother as a source of vitality and stability has given way to the father who in this case symbolizes a new social apathy, leading to an alienation that eventually destroys the very notion of family. The hidden suggestion that the family unit cannot truly function without the mother figure is one that resonates with the Hindi melodrama schematic since it is the mother who typically fills the gap when the father reaches a defeatist position. Behl asks the question: what happens to the Indian family if the mother is taken out of the equation? In this case, such a question is complicated by Behl’s refusal to delve into the past of the father, preferring to take an ambiguous position that works pointedly to express the animosity between the father and his three sons, a theme articulated by a continual silent exchanges of looks in the confines of the house, conveying an unspoken hurt that gives the film an expressly tragic tone.

The absence of a woman in the lives of these four men is resolved by marrying off Titli to Neelu, a young girl who is secretly in love with an older man. It’s not long before Titli and Neelu form a secret alliance; she promises to sign over her dowry as long as Titli ensures Neelu is united with her lover, Prince. All of this happens under the eyes of Vikram, and although Titli never succeeds in reaching his original goal of the parking lot, he does manage to escape the family, eventually returning to Neelu. Behl seems to be citing neorealist narrative ideas here, as the primary narrative goal becomes merely a way of advancing the storyline, while what rises to the surface is the emotional connection Titli makes with Neelu. In essence, the family he never had becomes symbolized in Neelu’s naivety and fragility while Titli’s social aspirations remain unapologetically on a plateau of false dreams. Before Titli can dream, he needs to be human. This seems like a mawkish inference but it defines (thematically) the quintessence of neorealist cinema (perhaps social realism would a more appropriate means of categorising the cinematic influences and approaches) and also the Hindi melodrama form. If we read Titli as partly inspired by neorealist themes then much of what is key to neorealism, the casting, is also central to Behl’s portrayal of the New Delhi underclass. It is Shahshank Arora’s vacuously unreadable face that demarcates Titli, bearing the painful disillusionments of a Delhi youth underclass and the final shot of Neelu and Titli on the scooter seems to sum the essential arbitrary trajectory of their insignificant, anonymous lives.

Titli premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is scheduled for a release in India later this year. It is worth noting this is yet another superb directorial debut, fluently mixing genres such as noir with social realism. Titli is also the first of a 3-picture deal between Yash Raj (a major Indian film studio) and director turned producer Dibakar Banerjee (a leading Indian filmmaker).


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