At one point in Kanu Behl’s Agra, two characters are having sex. This is not the usual aestheticised, neatly-edited version we’re used to seeing in films, but a more torrid affair. Against these visuals, 24-year-old Guru (Mohit Agarwal) and his much-older paramour Priti (Priyanka Bose) talk about their hopes and dreams. The softness of the dialogue offers a sharp contrast to unflinching visuals of the scene. This is Agra in a nutshell: Grimy and even repulsive on the surface, but tender at its core.
Directed by Kanu Behl, Agra has been in the making for nearly six years. Shot over the summer in 2019 near Agra’s Defence cantonment area, the film also sees Nineties’ star Rahul Roy in a comeback role. The film follows Guru on the edges of sanity while battling extreme loneliness and sexual repression. Living with his mother (Vibha Chibber), Daddy (Roy) and Daddy’s mistress (Sonal Jha) in a dilapidated house, Guru’s brittle senses are further assaulted by the daily squabbles for space. His mother wants to open a dental clinic on the first floor of the house, where Daddy and his mistress live. Guru wants a room of his own where he can live with a future partner without having to share a room with his mother. Desperately seeking a ‘real’ connection with someone, Guru meets Priti – an older, polio-stricken woman running an Internet cafe. Behl describes Agra as a “reverse coming-of-age” story of a boy coming to terms with the delusion and transactionality most ‘normal’ folk live with, thereby making him a part of civil society.
Trying to find Indian producing partners for over two years after winning the Cinemas Du Monde CNC subsidy grant from France, Behl found his partners in Yoodlee Films, known for backing offbeat projects like Ajji (2013), Hamid (2018) and Axone (2020). After Titli (2014) and Binnu Ka Sapna (2018), Agra cements Behl’s individualistic voice and style. While the unnerving sound design recreates the white noise inside the head of his male protagonist, the hawk-like focus on the Indian family cohabitating in claustrophobic homes showcases how Behl excels at capturing the desperation and angry restlessness that underpin toxic Indian masculinity. He delves head-on into uglier aspects of the human condition and depicts them at their most raw without judgement.
Ahead of its premiere at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes Film Festival, Behl spoke about the visual metaphors in the film, the prestige and the baggage of making a ‘festival film’ and using Nineties' songs to build atmosphere.
Edited excerpts from the conversation:
There’s so much thematic overlap in Titli, Binnu and Agra. It’s almost like a trilogy of sorts. Do you look at them like that?
Not really, I look at them as three entire different pieces. If one were to really look at them closely, then Titli and Binnu are set in a similar class. Agra, I think, is set two notches above. But if one were to really look at the narrative core, they’re three different films. Titli was about circularity, where ghosts of one generation get passed onto the next. Binnu was about anger. Agra is about sexual repression and desire. It's about desire and transactionality merged with the physical spaces we inhabit, and how the physical spaces, in turn, affect our sexual lives.
What fascinates you about the decay in the North Indian family set-up?
The whirlpools that the people in Agra are going through are completely different from what the family in Titli is going through. It just so happens to be that the best way to depict anything is to do it in a family setting. Agra delves into what the characters are feeling, and the time-space we’re living in, which is entirely different from Titli. Also, the relationships within the family become this microcosm for the larger world.
Even though 3 films can’t be called an oeuvre, you've established a style, a grimy aesthetic. I think after Agra it’s possible to look at a scene and call it Kanu Behl-esque.
Sorry to interrupt you, but this style and aesthetic is going to be broken with Despatch (Behl’s next film starring Manoj Bajpayee).
In all three films, you tend to maximise the theorem that the more specific and controlled your setting, the more possible it is for the films to answer bigger questions around our society and human condition as a whole.
I completely agree. I think I’m interested in diving as deeply as possible to the base complexities of the characters I’m dealing with. The effort usually is to do a character piece. The more controlled your environment is, your characters represent a larger theme. If while throwing a stone into a pond you’re focused, the ripples caused by it tend to be bigger. The more controlled the setting of a story, the less dissonance the audience feels and therefore the more important the collective experience becomes.
I find your gaze towards the Indian male almost like you’re approaching a subject in a laboratory. Is that a fair assessment?
(laughs) I wouldn’t want to other the character by referring to them as ‘them’. I think the attempt is to first understand myself as an individual, and what am I feeling, or what I have felt in the past. And asking myself why I felt that. I try and get as close to a lived experience as possible. There’s a solid faith that ‘me’ is a part of a larger ‘us’ – and if I’m feeling something strongly then there are a bunch of other people feeling the same way.
Looking at Titli, Binnu and this, It’s almost like you feel sorry for them.
Any artistic expression with a larger goal is [rooted in] empathy. I think I should empathise even with something I dislike the most. That’s my only chance to have a nuanced conversation with anyone – how can I hope to understand myself if I don’t try and engage with the other? I think empathy is a key ingredient for any artist, or for someone with any hope to create something out of thin air. People acting out even in the most dastardly manner around us – the journey they’re on – it makes complete sense to them. They’re doing something out of reason, because they’re made of some collective experiences till that point. For them those collective experiences are playing out in a certain manner, and it’s probably justifiable for them. It might seem like a bad reaction to us, but everyone is on their own journey. Not just Binnu, Titli or Guru – each and every character in the films has their own reasons for doing what they are doing. And I try to look at all of them with empathy, and try to showcase their own individual truths. Not my take on them, because who are we to judge anyone? Hopefully the attempt is to have these characters and their truths to start a conversation about what’s really going on around us.
I like how you depict masculinity at its most unattractive, diseased version. I remember watching the scene where Guru is masturbating, and it left me with an icky feeling…
I think the icky feeling that we get seeing Guru masturbate in his bathroom is a feeling that’s repressed within us. It has more to do with how we feel about our own sexuality. For example, the act of masturbating is not spoken of in an open way. When you’re in your own company – when you’re engaged in a solo sexual act – you’re probably playing out your sexual desires in their most unhinged, raw forms. There’s no holding back. Those are moments when we’re like that only in specific moments. We push that version back into the secret hole as soon as we’re done with the act. I think the fact that someone might feel icky about these scenes says a lot about how we view our own sexuality, whereas a character like Guru is desperately trying to make a connection. I think it’s somewhere that desperation that unsettles many of us, that desperation to reach out to literally anyone. He’s doing so because he doesn’t know there’s a gaze on him. What we’re witnessing is him at a very private, lonely moment. We, as human beings, are probably not ready to engage with our primal sexual urges being played out on screen. We all have public, private and a secret life, right? What we’re witnessing in Guru’s masturbation scene is his secret life, and not all of us are comfortable being found out. I’ve personally never found that scene icky, because it seemed like a desperate call for help.
I’ve been hearing about the film for more than three years. Has it been ready for a while?
Actually, no. We’ve been editing the film very slowly. It’s a fragile, difficult film to edit, operating on a very thin line. And we have a very difficult character at the centre of our film. So we’ve been fine-tuning it. Just making sure there was a string of VFX, and colours, there are parts where we’re inside the protagonist’s head. We were just slowly going through post-production.
Surely, the Cannes premiere adds a whole lot of prestige to the title. But it also brings with it the baggage of a ‘festival film’.
I have a different take on this. I think this has more to do with the gatekeepers and the structural environment – where there is no real, feasible outlet left for a certain kind of content. I think the kind of films I make, or some of my contemporaries make, has nothing to do with “arthouse cinema”. I think they’re all pretty comprehensible, deeply felt, emotional films. They’re for the common man. Some of the best reactions I’ve got for both Binnu and Titli are from the so-called ‘working class’ – often bracketed as someone who ‘don’t want’ sophisticated films. An auto driver told me about Titli, “Yeh aapne banaayi hai? Kitni sacchi film hai, sir! Aise hi toh hota hai, aise hi toh jeete hai hum! (You made that film? It’s such a truthful film, sir! This is usually what happens, and this is how we survive!)” And this might just be a one-off example, but even when I’ve travelled with the films, the so-called “normal” audience are the ones that connect the most with the films. I don’t really care too much about the tag of arthouse cinema, but these are fairly easy, comprehensible and deeply emotional films for everyone. The gatekeepers don’t feel the necessity to push the envelope, and facilitate content that engages with the audience – not by infantilising them – or put you to sleep under the guise of educating you. Films like Agra tell the audience “I respect the fact that you’ve taken out two hours from your life to spend on me, and I’m going to engage with you at every level. I want to have a conversation with you.”
Rahul Roy is such a novel choice for the part. How did he even enter the conversation?
When we began casting, we were meeting three-four actors. Rahul was one of the initial actors we approached. For the part, we needed someone with charisma, and this debonair quality. We also needed someone who had experienced destruction, if you know what I mean. A certain turmoil melding with the charm – because, at the end of the day, he’s both a charming womaniser and a failed businessman. The more time we spent with Rahul, and also his sheer excitement of getting a part like this, his complete submission to the process is what got us excited. He would be the most charged individual during the workshop process, he would be the first to arrive and last to leave. The dedication he showed to come up with a backstory for what Daddy’s life might have been before the film begins, just his willingness to imbue it into his performance, it was visible to all of us that he was Daddy. None of us had to remind him anything, he became the character for the entirety of the shoot.
Priyanka Bose is such a compelling casting choice. There’s so much going on with her at any given point in the film.
Priyanka was someone I wanted for the part, she was who I had in mind when I was writing. And I guess it was another case of those meeting of the hearts and minds. The moment I met her and I told her what I intended to do — also after she read the screenplay — she was quite taken with it. In some ways, this was new territory for her as an actor. It’s not a gaze, she’s had on herself as an actor ever like this, and I think she was excited. We spoke about how the film wasn’t going to look at sex for titillation – it was meant to examine desire, power, truth, love. We workshopped quite extensively for the part, and that turned out to have a tortuous path of its own. Because we were trying to expand every shade in her. Not only is she manipulative, but she’s also sincere, and she’s been through many kinds of hurt. In that way, it’s a very interesting romance between a young boy and an older woman. Here’s a boy who is considered mentally damaged from the outside, while she’s considered physically damaged. In their perceived incompleteness, they find they can become whole through each other. When you’re so naked with another person, there’s simply no hiding – you get peeled back like an onion.
I noticed these Nineties' songs that you pick as diegetic music for a few scenes. Does it come from your affection for that period of music?
Not at all. If you go on the street, and if you spend some time with these characters, you’ll realise they’re frozen in time. They are attached to a certain kind of music, which they associate with a certain kind of nostalgia, which keeps many difficult feelings at bay. The music we hear today is more geared up towards a kind of beatification, which can almost feel like a hammer. That transitionary period between the Seventies to the Nineties, when the lyricism was decaying and the melody was still intact, is appealing because it can make you feel a kind of ennui. It also makes you feel nostalgic, and that’s probably why it is the most comforting music for one strata of society.
Where did you find Guru’s house? Production designer Parul Sondh has designed some labyrinth-like, claustrophobic locations for the film.
Yeah, we do those alterations all the time. Not just with Parul, but also with Saurabh (Monga, cinematographer) or Fabeha (costume designer). We were trying to include as much phallic, vulvic symbology into the film. A lot of the design of the house in the film was originally how we found it. There are parts of the house hidden, and we’ve tried to make it seem smaller.
Priti’s internet cafe that you see in the film, is something we made from scratch. It was a hole in the wall kind of place – an abandoned shop with an L-shaped opening at the back – something we redesigned. We looked for a place for a really long time and couldn’t find it, and that’s when we decided to build this. I wanted Guru’s entry into the narrow passage to seem like he was entering a vagina, which opens up into a sac in the back, where Priti lives.
Like Binnu, the sound design is again so omnipresent in Agra, especially to the extent it puts us in the protagonist’s head.
Our idea always was not to use music. During my initial conversations with Pritam (Das, sound designer), we knew this couldn't feel lyrical. There couldn't be any musical intervention. The sound that Guru has in his head is closer to white noise. What he’s experiencing could be expressed in this very diffused drone. He’s in the middle of so much unexpressed love, trying to express it through his primal connections, the residual effect of not being able to connect with someone has created this noise. The first 70 mins has no music whatsoever, there’s just this drone. It begins only in the second half, when Guru’s defeat has already begun in many ways. The only really big piece of music was during the house construction montage (towards the end). Here’s the piece of music contrasting against the noise of the construction, almost as a way to tell the audience what the characters were feeling about the farce that ‘resolves’ the film.