Directed by: Rituparno Ghosh
Music: Debajyoti Mishra
Starring: Aparna Sen, Konkana Sen, Mithun Chakrabory,
I borrowed a set of DVDs from a friend more than a couple of months ago. Then, they sat there beside the TV and we never got around to watching any, until Thanksgiving week when suddenly, we were watching one movie after another. The urgency was also because our friends had called us for dinner that weekend, and we wanted to return the DVDs. As always, it was a mixed bag, ranging from 'watchable' to 'excellent'. Interestingly, three of the films were by Rituparno Ghosh, from whom I have come to expect a certain standard. So, sometimes I'm disappointed because he doesn't meet it. Not with Titli, though.
A small film, in its setting, though not in its vision, it's an endearing tale of a girl's coming of age, and the conflict of emotions that the age brings forth. Tilottama née Titli (Konkana Sen Sharma) is 17-years-old and completely besotted with Rohit Roy (Mithun Chakraborty), the ruling star of Bollywood.
She has posters of him all over her room; she cuts out pictures of him from magazines (carefully cutting out the heroines beside him) to paste on her bedroom wall, and fills scrapbooks with news items about him; she watches all his films several times; she writes letters to him, and is quite sure she loves him. She even confesses to her mother that she wants to marry him. Her mother, Urmila (Aparna Sen), is amused and indulgent of her crush, the two sharing a warm and very close relationship.
On their way to pick up Amar (Dipankar Dey), Titli's father, from Bagdogra airport, Urmila and Titli continue their conversation. Urmila recollects how, after marriage, she was so terrified of flying that on her first flight she kept her eyes tightly shut, not even paying heed to the person beside her. How her husband later told her that the man was Dilip Kumar. How, like other girls of her age, she had swooned over Rajesh Khanna. Mischievously, Titli hands over a cassette to the driver - and Urmila smiles as Mere sapnon ki raani kab aayegi tu fills the air.
Urmila looks out the window. There, in the distance, amidst the swirling mists and verdant tea gardens is a tiny toy train winding its way down the hills. Suddenly, the car comes to an abrupt halt. The driver, forced to stop for the man who suddenly appears out of the mist, is not very happy, but the man explains that their car had broken down, and their passenger needs a lift to the airport. Would they mind? Upon learning that the person who needs the ride is a filmstar, film-crazy Titli persuades her mother to acquiesce.
Little does she know then that it is her idol, Rohit Roy himself. For a moment, she is dumbstruck, but her mood changes to ecstasy as she furtively mutters a prayer to the Buddhist monastery.
Rohit is so unassuming and so friendly that she is soon chatting away nineteen to the dozen. Urmila warns Rohit that Titli is crazy about him but is upset at the moment because he hasn't replied to her letter. Rohit gives Titli his phone number and tells her he will speak to her any time she calls. He also invites her to his home in Bombay. Urmila points out that Titli had better record the conversation so she has proof to offer her friends.
The journey continues, with Titli chattering away. Soon, however, they are forced to stop again. The coolant has run out and the engine is overheating. When they stop, Titli, ready to do anything for her hero, offers to go buy him cigarettes. Urmila is slightly flustered at suddenly being left alone with Rohit.
But the awkwardness doesn't last long. After all, Rohit and she had been in love once. Circumstances parted them then - her family did not approve of Rohit who was then hanging around the studios looking for a break in films.
Today, she is married and the mother of a 17-year-old daughter; he is the ruling superstar of Hindi cinema. Their conversation is refreshingly natural - a little bit of nostalgia for a more innocent time, a tinge of regret for what may have been, an acceptance of what is, a recapitulation of the years that have gone by...
As Urmila recites Aaboni bari aaccho, it is evident that Rohit and she share a love for poetry and Rabinda Sangeet. Lost in their own world, neither Urmila nor Rohit are aware that Titli has not only returned, but has overheard their conversation.
The chirpy, friendly teenager is angry and confused now, and very deeply hurt. Mere sapnon ki rani gives way to John Lennon and Strawberry Fields Forever.
Are Urmila and Rohit still in love with each other? Is that why he never married? This is Titli's first heartbreak; how will she weather it? How will this affect Titli's relationship with her mother? Will it ever be the same again?
The first collaboration between director Rituparno Ghosh and Konkana Sen Sharma, Titli is a quiet film, sensitive, understated, and full of gentle humour. Relationships form the crux of the film - that between the mother and daughter, between the mother and her former lover, between a star and his awestruck fan...
The narrative, shrouded in the mists that cover the hills and vales of Duar, is at once dreamy and lyrical, the poetry and music complementing the telling of the tale. The film meanders gently through a romance, though it is not the one we expect. The ache of a first love that does not fade with time, the crush on a filmstar, the heartbreak, the sudden growing up and realising that fantasy and life are mutually exclusive... these are all emotions that viewers can empathise with.
The movie belongs to Konkana, the child-woman, who is at once childish and mature, at once hurt and willing to hurt; it is her metamorphosis that drives the film; her reaction to a truth from the past that changes relationships in the present. She plays the titular Titli with a vulnerability that makes her extremely likeable.
Aparna Sen and Mithun Chakraborty are perfect in their roles, and one wishes that one could see the latter in more of such roles - what a fantastic actor he is! He plays his character with such warmth and sincerity that one has no trouble seeing what a good man Rohit is. You empathise with his character just as much as you see the compulsions that drove him to make the choices he did, and sympathise with his unexpressed regrets.
Aparna Sen's Urmila is complex - a woman who loves poetry and Rabindra Sangeet, married to a man who can appreciate neither. Yet, Amar is a loving husband and father and she is happy. Relatively. There is a tinge of regret when she sees the appreciation in Rohit's eyes when she recites a poem by Tagore, or when Rohit completes the closing lines of the poem she is reciting. Yet, she is mature enough to brush it off, and later, is able to not only understand her daughter's emotional turmoil but also to warn her against building it up to something it is not.
The chemistry between the characters, the evolution of their relationships with, and independent of each other, the very natural dialogues, the complexity of human emotions - this is certainly one of Rituparno Ghosh's finest moments.
There are three scenes that really stand out - one where, when Urmila claims that her mother may have been beautiful, but that her grandmother was even more so, Titli is worried - she is not as beautiful as her mother. If each generation of women in their family is less beautiful than the one before, what will happen to her daughter? It is a light moment, with an underlying truth - Titli is aware that her mother is more beautiful than she is; in her teenage mind, that is another issue that she has to grapple with.
The other is when Urmila and Rohit are talking and he takes off his glasses to wipe them, and Urmila, putting out her hand for his spectacles, wipes them with her shawl and hands it right back to him. There is a slight hesitation before Rohit hands them to her, and it interesting to see the way they slip back into the comfort of an old friendship. The scene is very natural, and both Aparna Sen and Mithun Chakraborty are very much at ease here.
Another is when Titli accuses Urmila of hurting her father because she still loves Rohit. Urmila looks sternly at her and says 'You're hurt. Why do you bring your father into this? Do you want me to tell your father? Because I will, if you want me to. He will be hurt for a moment, perhaps, but it won't last. I know that because I know my husband. A lot longer than you have known your father.'
It is both a warning to her daughter not to try set her up as a rival and a quiet statement of faith - that marriage requires a lot more than love to sustain it. That fact is underlined by the scene where Urmila recites a poem from Meghasandesham by Kalidasa - and her husband falls asleep in the midst of it.
Titli is a charming little film that deals with the emotional pangs of a teenage girl who suddenly grows up, and it is to Rituparno Ghosh's credit that he did so with such great sensitivity. Right from his first film Unishe April, Ghosh has made a name for being a 'woman's director'. Clearly, very few male filmmakers have succeeded in making films from a woman's viewpoint, and exploring their motives with such clarity. Based on his own story, Titli explores a daughter's changing perspective of her mother. Suddenly, the mother is also a woman, a stunning, sexy one, at that. Yet he ensures that the narrative (and the attendant dialogues) are as natural as can be, blurring the boundaries between reel and real.
Some lovely music courtesy Debajyoti Mishra, a lovely rendition of Megh pioner bager bhetor mon karaper dista (the song appears thrice in the film), fantastic cinematography by Abhik Mukhopadhyay and the natural beauty of the hills amidst the swirling mists add to the film's 'must-watch' quotient.