Utopia does not interest Kanu Behl. His two feature films—Titli (2014) and Agra (2023)—are ample proof of that. Speaking to us from Paris, days before Agra premiered in Cannes on May 24, Behl used the logic of demand and supply when answering a question about his predilection for dystopic reality: “If there’s so much utopia already available in the market, one should perhaps try and offer something that is slightly less available.”
Agra hits you like a hammer. Following the film’s opening sequence where a feverish sex dream becomes a terrifying nightmare, there are scenes that leave you breathless and scared. Guru (Mohit Agarwal), the film’s 24-year-old protagonist, is repressed to the point of chaos. Behl does not once allow you the respite of distraction.
Guru’s head feels like a dentist’s chair. Despite the anaesthesia of distance—you are, after all, only watching a film—you feel his pain with the intensity of an extraction. The drone you often hear in the film sounds like an ominous drill you usually associate with discomfort. “You get into his head for a bit and hear the noise he hears,” says Behl. “That becomes your space with him, but it also becomes a space with yourself.” The sex that Guru imagines borders on the violent. At one point, he threatens his cousin Chhavi (Aanchal Goswami) with rape, and at another, he tries to force himself on her. Behl, though, does not dismiss Guru as a monster. The spectrum he gives his character is decidedly human.
Agra, says Behl, was born from a feeling of being “choked”, a “certain throttling”. Once Titli had released in India in 2015, the filmmaker started asking himself some pressing questions: “What is it that I really want to talk about? What bothers me to an extent that I would want to make a film about it?” To Behl, 42, the themes of sexuality and sexual repression felt personal and urgent. “Until I turned 25, I had not been able to express myself in ways I would have liked. I had observed this same feeling in boys around me. I felt I’d hit on something, so I began asking myself broader questions.”
When conceptualising Agra, a film that grapples with delayed male sexual maturity, Behl felt certain he did not want to work on a “safe piece”. He did not want his gaze to be academic or “carefully charted”. He says, “I did not want to attempt to understand sexual repression. I really wanted to get inside.” Guru takes his phone to the toilet. In chat rooms, he participates in fantasies of sex and rape. To get to the bottom of Guru and his desires, Behl spent some time in chat rooms, too, alternately posing as a girl, boy, and himself: “I wanted to see Guru’s sexual repression play out at its stormiest. I also wanted to pare it down and remove the many curtains that conceal those places we keep secret.”
Behl believes that we are each made of three selves: the public, the private and the secret. “There is a sort of symbiotic relationship where each helps the other survive, but I somehow felt that when you have this much sexual noise within you, the private gets destroyed, and you have only two layers left—the public and the secret. I found my ‘in’ into the film the moment I discovered this fracture and fragmentation.” For Behl, the scenes where Guru is sex-chatting in the toilet are desperate cries for help: “He is desperate for some connection. He strongly feels the need to connect to another person.”
Watching Agra in a theatre might not feel easy. Behl ensures that his audiences cannot keep Guru at arm’s length. You may not like Guru, but his confusion soon becomes yours. The unease that Agra forces you to feel sometimes necessitates low-hanging adjectives like “dark” and “disturbing”, but such descriptors only result in a misunderstanding of Behl’s craft. “If we can all coexist with our secret lives, why do we find it so hard to acknowledge when it is mirrored? It is not my job to think about the alienation of my audiences. My job is to talk responsibly about what I am feeling. The film is not a sermon. It is genuinely interested in talking to you. If you are not willing to have that conversation; if, for you, the film is, say, ‘too dark’, you only underscore the urgent need we have for that conversation.”
“Guru’s head feels like a dentist’s chair. Despite the anaesthesia of distance—you are, after all, only watching a film—you feel his pain with the intensity of an extraction.”
Titli and Agra have some things in common. Both films premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and at the heart of each film is a north Indian dysfunctional family for whom a few lakhs of rupees often become the fence on which their existence is precariously perched. Behl, however, insists his two films are different. “In Titli, the family in Delhi actively organises itself as a unit. They are all heading in one direction, but the family in Agra is more a set of individual units. They live together under the same roof with different desires and different plans.” While Guru and his mother (Vibha Chhibber) share a bedroom in the ground floor of a cramped, single-storeyed home, his father (Rahul Roy) lives with his mistress (Sonal Jha) on the top floor. Peril and confrontation lurk behind the plot and dialogue.
Madness in relation to desire
Less than half an hour into the film, Guru’s family interrupts his suicide attempt. Guru attacks the doctor who is brought in to tranquilise him, and the relationship we see him rely on as an anchor turns out to be invented.
Despite these glaring symptoms—sudden violence, hallucinations—Behl says he never once filmed Guru through the lens of mental illness. “The minute you do that, you ‘other’ the character. It is so much more comfortable to label someone mentally ill, and say things like ‘you are mad’ or ‘you should be locked up’. But if Guru is mentally ill, then I would argue that all the other people in that house are far more mentally ill then he is. They can just function better in public spaces.”
““Every film is political. Your every breath has politics in it. My every frame reveals my political stance.””Kanu Behl
Though Behl had Agra’s asylum in mind when naming his film, he says he was more interested in desire than he was in mental health: “There are seven mad people in that house. I wanted to speak about human madness in relation to desire. I did not want to come at it from the clinical madness point of view.” In Agra, an empty terrace area becomes land that every character covets. Guru’s mother wants to build a clinic there with Chhavi, her dentist niece, while Guru hopes to live there, first with Mala (Ruhani Sharma), his fictive girlfriend, and then with Priti (Priyanka Bose), his polio-stricken lover.
Questions of property sometimes interrupt the sex that Guru and Priti have. It is a desire for ownership that guides Guru’s doubt and his thrusts. “I am fascinated by the other forms of transactional desire that play out within a sexual act. There is a constant give and take between our most animal selves that are driven by the amygdala. And all that it is so closely connected with wanting to acquire. At the end of the day, sex is about power, but so is the acquirement of property.” Behl reminds us that the five-storeyed building which solves the problem of space in the film is “an almost phallic structure.”
- Agra, Kanu Behl’s film that premiered at Cannes 2023, grapples with delayed male sexual maturity.
- Though Behl had Agra’s asylum in mind when naming his film, he says he was more interested in desire than he was in mental health.
- Agra is also about property and ownership, with an empty terrace area becoming the land that every character covets.
“Structurally, I was trying to understand the relationships between physical spaces and sexuality,” says Behl. “I feel like we live in a cultural space that is very curious and unique. We are one of the two most populous countries on the planet, but unlike China, we are all tightly packed like a can of sardines.” A vertical India, adds the filmmaker, is an inevitability, not an option: “The idea that going vertical is a sign of expansion and betterment is purely a socio-political sell. There is no space. What does one do?”
The mobile phones we see in Agra all look slightly outdated, but Behl says he only used these yesteryear devices to give his film a “timeless” quality. He never specifies the exact year in which Agra is set, and while the aesthetics of the film undoubtedly benefit from the director’s reluctance to pin them to a particular time and date, the politics of Agra squarely belongs to our present era. The film’s narrative repudiates the unbridled misogyny that has come to define our society and polity. “It would be naive for rulers to think that only some films are political and others are not,” says Behl. “Every film is political. Your every breath has politics in it. My every frame reveals my political stance.”
Initially backed by UFO, a French production house, Agra was also helped by Cinémas du Monde, a French grant for foreign feature films. “I had 40 per cent of my financing in place,” Behl tells us, “But finding the other 60 per cent in India took me two years.” When Behl began pitching Agra in early 2017, producers frowned at the script he had written with Atika Chohan: “They would look at it and ask, ‘What is happening here? Why don’t you do a comedy?’” Two years later, he finally found in Saregama India’s Siddharth Anand Kumar and Vikram Mehra producers who backed him and “were on the same page”.
When Behl heard that Agra was going to be screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival as part of its “Director’s Fortnight” selection, his first feelings were those of relief. “There is a long battle that still awaits the film. I thought that maybe the fact that the film now has a platform like Cannes will help the rest of its journey get smoother.” The final goal for Agra, says Behl, is finding an Indian audience: “It is a film for us. It needs to be spoken about amongst us. For me, the conversation starts when it reaches Indian audiences. Cannes is a beginning. It might help us wade through today’s murky waters.”
At one point during our conversation, Behl admitted that he was not sure if his second feature film will release theatrically like his first. “Presently, there is this complete absence of structural support for a certain kind of art, anything that is attempting to have a more nuanced conversation.” Behl says he knows at least 15 other filmmakers who still have not been able to release films that premiered at prestigious film festivals. “Unless you subscribe to the typical Little Miss Sunshine template, unless you are offering something completely sugar-coated, you don’t have an outlet today.” The OTT revolution, feels Behl, does little to aid filmmakers like him: “They will not engage with me because my films have a voice. We first had number-driven theatres and now we have algorithm-driven platforms.”
Behl’s stories of how Agra was made are as immersive as his film. Making his comeback, Rahul Roy, star of romantic dramas such as Aashiqui (1990) and Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayee (1993) is hard to recognise in Agra. As Guru’s father, he seems to have internalised perfectly the entitlements of patriarchy. “No other actor I have worked with has matched his dedication. He was always the first to arrive on set and the last to leave.” With Mohit Agarwal, the actor who debuts as Guru in the film, Behl was faced with a unique problem: “Mohit, in his real life, is almost the opposite of Guru. He is a ladies’ man, a charmer. We had to make him feel like Guru. We had to bring him into a style of acting which helped him realise that he wasn’t just playing another person. He was going to have to be that person.”
Behl’s next feature, Despatch, will be ready in June. After living in Patiala till he was 11, and in Delhi till he was 23, Behl says he never felt confident enough to explore fictional terrain outside north India. Despatch, however, treads new ground: “I have taken the plunge by setting it in Bombay.” When asked if Indian audiences will see Despatch before Agra, Behl called his Manoj Bajpayee-starrer “a beast of its own”. This must perhaps be expected. In his oeuvre, Behl leaves no room for the tepid.
Shreevatsa Nevatia is a Kolkata-based journalist.