CHARMING COMING-OF-AGE DRAMA
*This review contains spoilers
There are seminal moments in relatively ordinary films which stick in the mind for years. There's one such in Rituparno Ghosh's Titli, his most unusually light and bubbly, coming-of-age story appropriately shot in the misty hills and tea estates of North Bengal. Urmila (Aparna Sen) and her daughter Tilottama a.k.a. Titli (Konkona Sen Sharma, more on her performance later) are travelling to Bagdogra airport to pick up her father. Film-crazed teenager Titli draws the mother into a conversation about movies and stars and Urmila recalls how she once had a man with dark glasses sitting next to her on a flight but didn't recognise him as Dilip Kumar, and her obsession with Rajesh Khanna like every other woman of her generation.
The next instant, Titli gives the driver a tape to play and Kishore Kumar's voice reverberates through the hills singing "Mere sapno ki rani kab aayegi tu" as the car winds through a lush landscape which includes the blue toy train Sharmila Tagore once sat in all those years ago as Khanna wooed her with this song. It's a moment that fills up your heart with tenderness and makes you embrace this charming film wholeheartedly.
It also sets up the rest of the drama perfectly. While the song is still playing faintly in the background, their car is stopped by a hitchhiker who needs to rush to the airport. He's no ordinary hitchhiker though, but film star Rohit Roy (Mithun Chakraborty), the subject of Titli's fantasies (her bedroom walls are adorned by his photographs) and the one she fervently hopes to marry someday, notwithstanding that he's old enough to be her father.
When Rohit and Urmila see each other, there's a moment of hesitation in both eyes. Urmila puts on her dark glasses and Rohit turns his attention to Titli who's watching him agape––she can't believe her good fortune and thinks praying at the right monasteries has actually paid off. At one point, Titli gets down to buy cigarettes for her hero at the local market and Rohit and Urmila have their private moment together.
It's not really a big secret (you've already seen it in their eyes)––they were once lovers but couldn't marry due to Rohit's financial difficulties. He has remained single for all these years and is now a major movie star. Urmila married Titli's father, a genial enough man, but clearly there's no passion in their relationship. Titli overhears their conversation and suddenly the chirpy teenager transforms into an angry, confused, hurt girl who cannot imagine why her mother never told her about her past with Rohit.
She remains silent for the rest of the journey fuming in the front seat and continues her diffident posture at a restaurant where the four of them (including Titli's father, Dipankar Ray) pass the time as Rohit waits for his flight to be announced. Gradually, Titli reconciles to the revelation, first accusing her mother of holding a torch for Rohit after all these years, then silenced by the mother's argument that it was perhaps Titli who kept Rohit alive in her life because his face was all over the house and her daughter talked of him incessantly.
But she's a mature woman and cautions Titli against turning this into a melodramatic situation and viewing her mother as a rival. Later, when Rohit sends Urmila a letter announcing his wedding, she shares a moment of weakness with her daughter who seems to have grown up overnight.
Titli is essentially the child-woman's film and a fanboy homage to the movies, the pangs of growing up and falling in love for the first time (like Titli most of us had our first crush on a film star). Konkona Sen Sharma, in one of her early film roles, is pitch-perfect as the impetuous teenager, constantly chewing gum, fidgety and fickle, but refreshingly innocent.
The whose situation between Urmila and Rohit seems to have been contrived only to facilitate Titli's metamorphosis and the surreal, misty surroundings are perfectly in sync with the dreamy narrative. That lilting, haunting melody, "Megh piyoner" which plays thrice through the course of the film punctuates the action beautifully, and is complemented by a similar verse from Kalidasa's Meghdoot which Urmila recites more than once, about a lover asking the clouds to carry a message to his beloved. The subliminal presence of Buddhist monasteries and chanting on the soundtrack completes the picture of serenity.
Both Aparna Sen and Mithun Chakraborty dazzle in their supporting roles and the chemistry between the three characters and Ghosh's imaginative dialogues and intuition with building situations elevates this simple story into a poignant film. Love that moment when Titli looks at her mother in all seriousness and wonders if the good looks in the family are waning from generation to generation. We don't know about looks, but the talent certainly isn't!