Titli, co-written and directed by Kanu Behl, is a hard film to shake off. I’ve watched it thrice now since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May last year, and it still manages to get under my skin. It’s not just the brutality that always and inevitably affects me, but also the haunting performances of its cast, and the fascinating portrait of a family raised amidst a tradition of violence and female subjugation.

 
Shashank Arora is Titli, the youngest of three brothers, living together with their father in a small, cramped home near a sewer in one of East Delhi’s squalid neighborhoods. Titli has been plotting to break away from the family and ditch the life of crime and violence they’re so deeply entrenched in. Oldest brother Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) is hotheaded and prone to cruel outbursts. Middle brother Bawla (Amit Sial) has a kinder manner, but is fiercely loyal to Vikram. Armed with a hammer, and little by way of conscience or pity, the two brothers routinely hijack cars on the highway, and often recruit the youngest to assist them in their ‘job’.
 
When they learn of Titli’s plan to flee the nest, the brothers get him married, hopeful that a wife will ground him, and optimistic that she could be a worthy accomplice in their work. But Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi) has an agenda of her own, and Titli makes a deal with her that could help them both get what they want.
 
Behl and co-writer Sharat Katariya’s sharply observed screenplay shines a light on an endemically cynical world. Everyone here is corrupt or lying, and hope is in short supply. The beauty of the script is that none of this feels manufactured or fake; you can smell the rank desperation in the air.
 
It’s also a meticulously detailed film, and Bahl urges viewers to look and listen for themselves, and not merely wait to be spoon-fed. From Bawla’s sexual orientation to their father’s own violent past, Behl asks you to read between the lines, never overstressing or simplifying the facts.
 
Titli unravels briskly, and it’s riveting from start to finish. Much credit for that must go to a fine ensemble of actors who really sink their teeth into these parts. Ranvir Shorey leads the way with a terrifying, terrific performance that doesn’t miss a beat. His Vikram is the kind of guy you’ll hope you never have to encounter.
 
Watching the film earlier this week, a whole year after I’d last watched it, the violence still felt stomach churning, and I still came away impressed by the unexpected moments of humor that Behl had managed to sneak into this intense drama. Titli is relentlessly grim and yet unmistakably powerful and moving. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea – it’s especially not for the squeamish – but it’s an unflinching study of family in the way that the movies rarely provide.
 
I’m going with four out of five for Titli. Brace yourself, you’ll be rewarded.

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