Agra is about sexuality and sexual repression. It is Kanu Behl’s attempt to understand how our sexualities are affected by the physical spaces we inhabit and how in turn the physical spaces get affected by our sexuality. He does this through characters living in the most absurd setting. Guru [protagonist] shares a room with his mother while his father lives on the floor above it with his mistress. They never talk about how twisted this whole thing is except Guru — an uncertain anger froths within him at the injustices he sees and feels. “The film is somewhere about truth, honesty, desire. It is about feeling the extreme and the vulnerable. About the constant need to be in a state of physical or sexual union with someone where, if it is an honest union, then you feel like you’ve breached all barriers. It’s also about the many other myriad desires that get unlocked when we are in a position like that with someone else. Agra deals with all kinds of human desires and it looks at sexuality in the context of our Indian culture because we are culturally very unique. We are one of the two most populous nations in the world. We are so many people tightly packed into such little space that I think a lack of space and us having that fight for space constantly with the people around us does affect our sexuality and our secret worlds a lot. That’s what I was trying to explore with this film,” says Kanu.
This is Kanu’s third film and also his second selected for Cannes. Agra had its World Premiere at the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight, a parallel section at the Cannes Film Festival 2023. It was the only Indian feature film in the lineup this year.
As a storyteller and as a filmmaker, what are your influences?
I think you are constantly growing as a filmmaker. Everyday you are living life and you are trying to breathe in the everyday of your life — good, bad or ugly. It is a daily process of formation, so I wouldn't know what my influences are, apart from my own life — being able to feel what I'm feeling. Other than that, you try to keep yourself informed with the larger cinematic conversation in the world, to be informed about what has been done in the past, what kind of films have been made, and what is being made now, so that you can have a much more informed conversation when you're doing your own piece and not end up repeating what other filmmakers and artists have already done. So in terms of cinematic influences and more contemporary influences, I really love what Steve McQueen does, I'm a huge admirer of his work. I really like most of what Kiarostami has done, Emir Kusturica, obviously Stanley Kubrick.
How do you think you have evolved as a filmmaker since Titli?
I am not sure how I have evolved since Titli. I think its really upto the audience to watch the work, engage with it and decide that they see evolution or devolution. I'll be honest here and tell you that I don't have an external gaze on myself. I don't think I sit back and try to assess what I'm doing or where I'm heading. Because that external gaze on yourself can be problematic and you can at some point start to mythicise yourself or look at what you've done as some sort of a structure that needs to be followed — it can play out in various forms. So I try to avoid that gaze as much as possible. I just try to focus on what it is that I'm doing next and what are the ripples I want to cause with it. How can I shift the gaze inwards deeper and deeper to be able to get to the most honest truth of the character or the set of characters I am writing and playing with for the next film.
Your last film, Binnu ka Sapna, released about five years ago. When we spoke then, you told us that Agra will be ready by mid-2020. Then the pandemic happened. Did the film evolve in that process?
By the time the pandemic happened, the film had already been shot because we shot it in June and July of 2019. And we were already editing it, but I would say the film has been an evolving beast throughout the process. It did evolve in the edit quite a bit and we realised that probably a lot of what we had written didn’t need to be said, it needed to be shown. Obviously when the pandemic hit, we hit those four or five months where everything just shut down and nothing was moving ahead. Personally it was a difficult time for me as well. I took four or five months off the film but when we did come back, we were always working on the edit and the various other aspects of the film.
Can you explain Guru in your own words?
Guru is a young man in his mid-twenties, who lives in a very weird house. His father lives with the mistress on the upper floor and Guru sleeps in the same room as his mother. And he senses weird unspoken chaos in the house where the father has got another woman in the house. This happened ten to twelve years ago. And somehow the mother and the mistress are living in the same house and none of these three people are ready to talk about this sexual chaos that is within the house. But Guru feels like it needs to be spoken about. So it becomes a bizarre sexual odyssey of a young boy. It is like a reverse coming-of-age almost where a young boy slowly gives in to that battle and realises that most relationships are probably transactional. It is about what happens in his life from there as he realises this bittersweet truth for himself.
How important was the setting of the film? Did Agra as a city inspire the story?
The setting of the film was important for me. It had to serve two functions — not only it had to be specifically Agra and be set in that city, but I felt it was really important for the city to feel like any other North Indian town. It could be Delhi or be Amritsar or Lucknow, because I really wanted the mental scape to feel like any North Indian city. A young North Indian boy growing up in any North Indian city. So while we were building the visual texture of the film, it was very important for me to make it feel like every place. And of course, I really wanted to shoot in Agra, specifically because spiritually for me, Agra, the name, was always a reference to the Agra ka Paagal Khaana (Agra’s Madhouse). Not because the specific main character might be defined in those ways, but I think the film also represents a microcosm of this one small house as a madhouse. All the characters are mad in their own ways, repressed in their own ways, but of course, they turn their gaze towards this one boy and call him mad whereas prob- ably that boy is the sanest boy. Because at least he is trying to talk about the things that none of them are wanting to talk about.
How did you decide upon the cast?
For the casting, I had written Priyanka Bose's character keeping her mind. She was one of my first choices for the part. And I think as soon as she read the script and we spoke about what the film was trying to do — how it was trying to look at sexuality from the inside and it was a film about sexual repression — Priyanka was immediately on board. That, coupled with the gaze on the character, how he wanted to look at her and her transformation, was something that excited her. It was also going into many territories that Priyanka has as an actor not gone into before. So many parts of it were fresh for her. Those were the major points that led to her casting. Also the fact that the story between Guru and Preeti was almost like this spiritual romance between a boy who is perceived externally as mentally damaged and a woman who is perceived as physically damaged, but of course, she had many scars of her own. And their meeting together leads into this strange relationship where they start to become a whole. That was also charming for both Guru and Preeti to play.
Other than that, getting Guru was also an interesting process because I knew early on that this is going to be a difficult part and it was going to be difficult to digest for a lot of people. I needed someone who had a certain physicality and who had a certain innocence to their external personality. Someone who could take the audience on this journey with them and get some sort of empathy for themselves, despite the dastardly things they were going to do. So Mohit's casting was informed pretty much by that. And then for Daddy, we needed someone who had a certain debonair and certain charming quality about them. But at the same time, the character was on the brink of some sort of decay and destruction, so we wanted someone who also had, in their own way, experienced that. And Rahul, with his ups and downs and some of the things he had gone through in his own personal life, was interestingly a very good mix of these two things already, so that played a big part in casting Daddy for the film.
Can you deconstruct how different or similar are Titli, Binu and Guru as central characters of your stories?
Titli, Binu and Guru are entirely different characters for me. Titli as a character was also a boy who was too obsessed with himself and couldn’t quite see through himself till very late in the film, where he realises that the violence he was trying to escape all this while is actually burrowed deep within him. The cause of that violence is no more external, no more his older brother, that violence is now within him and it comes as a shock to him and that’s probably the first time his gaze turns inwards as he pukes at the parking lot and he realises what he has become. The film pretty much ends with that realisation. When he goes back to Neelu, one doesn’t even know where their lives go from there. I don’t know what Titli will do with that realisation that the violence sits within him. Is he going to change paths or will the violence change its nature and take another form? I’m not quite sure.
Binu, on the other hand, was much more later in the arc. Again, a deeply repressed boy who doesn’t have the ability to look inwards. His vision is so blinkered. He just sees the world with a single lens. It’s a deeply coloured lens of women being manipulative and women as these seductresses or untrustworthy creatures. That is just his own inability to understand and engage with the opposite sex and empathise with them, leading to a slow building up of volcanic anger within him which takes him towards the drastic act of throwing acid on a girl. But I think the anger he is feeling is at his own inability to intelligently speak to himself about women. He doesn’t quite understand that anger and is transposing that anger onto women, trying to justify to himself that they are wrong and that leads him into a black hole.
And Guru, I think in that sense, is different from both Titli and Binu because he is coming from a place of empathy. He is probably the only one who is disturbed by the sexual chaos in the house and he wants to talk about it. He tries his best to talk about it, to fight for the truth and to talk about the truth within the house. Even without having the vocabulary for it, even without quite knowing how to speak about it, he tries to fight for it and eventually gives up. While Titli was a coming-of-age film, Binu was just a lament at what the world has become if we look at it from the outside and not from Binu’s point of view, and Guru is a reverse coming-of-age in that way.
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Words Hansika Lohani