Titli (“Butterfly“) is a film that is much easier to appreciate than it is to enjoy. Though well-made, the story’s grim tone and visceral elements make it hard to watch.
The title character, Titli (Shashank Arora), is the youngest son in a family of thieves. He provides distractions so that his older brothers — Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Baawla (Amit Sial) — can beat up drivers and steal their cars. Their TV-obsessed father (Lalit Behl) is disreputable, too.
Vikram is the most dangerous of the lot. Those used to watching Shorey play comic roles will find his sinister turn in Titli shocking. Vikram’s own father and brothers are too scared to stand up to him. The only reason his ex-wife was able to escape is that she has enough evidence of Vikram’s spousal abuse to send him to jail for a long time.
With the family in dire financial straits — thanks to Titli losing all their money in a poorly planned escape attempt — they decide to add a woman to their bandit gang in order to make heists easier. They do so by marrying Titli to a young woman named Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi).
As scared as Neelu looks when her parents arrange the match with Titli, she has no idea what horrors await. The film’s most violent scene involves the brothers staging a carjacking while Neelu and Titli are on a test drive. She sees her new in-laws as the monsters they are when Vikram and Bawla beat the car salesman with a hammer and leave him for dead.
Not only is Titli at times graphically violent, but director Kanu Behl seems to revel in personal hygiene and bodily functions. Someone in Titli’s family is always brushing his teeth, face covered in foam, drool spilling from his mouth. The noises Vikram makes when clearing his throat are revolting. Titli vomits for what feels like forever.
The whole atmosphere of the family’s small corner of India seems grimy, with a translucent, yellow layer of smog permanently obscuring the view. Their apartment is crowded and tiny. One can’t even go outside to escape, because people are always around, selling something or playing a game in the street. There’s so little privacy, it feels like a prison.
That lack of privacy leaves Titli nowhere to plan his escape. Then again, Titli is as ordinary a guy as they come, so how good of a plan could he concoct even under the best of circumstances?
Shashank Arora is a miracle of casting. As Titli, his default expression is that of someone smelling something foul. There’s a blankness in his eyes. While Titli’s desire to escape his life of crime indicates a moral superiority over his brothers, he’s not a good guy. He was raised in the same environment, so he’s just as capable of violence and deceit as Vikram and Baawla.
As Neelu, Raghuvanshi acts as the outsider, as horrified by the conduct of Titli’s family as the audience is. Still, she gives Neelu strength to endure an unbearable situation. A scene in which Neelu and Titli negotiate the terms of their future is the film’s highlight.
Behl is a talented director and storyteller. Titli is engrossing, but in a “can’t look away” sense rather than one of hopeful anticipation. I admire the craft that went into making Titli. I just hope I never have to watch it again.