Agra, a dark slice-of-life film written and directed by Kanu Behl, has had its World Premiere this week at the prestigious Director’s Fortnight of the 76th annual Festival de Cannes 2023. The film explores complex sexual dynamics within a dysfunctional family as it navigates everyday life in constricted living spaces.
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In a conversation with us, the director Kanu Behl and one of the producers Siddharth Anand Kumar, vice-president, films, at Saregama India, spoke about this film that marks the comeback of actor Rahul Roy and features Priyanka Bose. Edited excerpts:
Tell us about Agra.
Siddharth Anand Kumar: Agra is a layered, undefinable journey into the human mind and very hard to categorise or describe in a typical logline or an explanatory one line. It’s also a deeply personal film and very honestly explores one man’s mental trauma and sexual frustration within a dysfunctional family unit. In its approach, it is much like Kanu Behl’s last feature Titli and articulates the human condition in a complicated world. The film is very relevant at a time when the cohesion of the family unit is being challenged and individual agency, sexuality and sexual desires are also being repressed. Agra addresses all these issues with stunning candour.
Kanu, you’ve said Agra has been a difficult personal exploration for you. How was that?
Kanu Behl: In my adolescence, and years after that, too, I experienced a certain deep sexual repression which stayed with me. And not only have I experienced it myself, I sensed it in many boys and men my age. And I have seen the way it played out for them. For me, probably it was not that hard to deal with as it was with some of the other people, but I felt a strong need to speak about it. I also wanted to find a larger context for it within the country and if this was this specific to India and differentiated it from all other countries except, maybe, China which is the second most populous country in the world. In India however, unlike China, we are crammed tightly together, culturally, socially, and practically, in a little space almost like sardines in a can. I also wanted the film to be contextualised within our secret sexual life as much as in the context of the physical spaces that we inhabit. And how all physical spaces affect sexuality and vice-versa. And that’s really where the core idea of the film germinated, and the story took a life of its own.
How much does it mean to be at the Cannes?
Kumar: Being in a film festival like Cannes can really help a film reach a larger audience because not only is it viewed by some of the best working filmmakers of the time but also gets viewed by a ‘cinema-educated’ audience that exists in France. Everyone makes a film with the hopes that it will reach the largest audience possible and that is why films get made. Our goal includes this. Filmmaking is a very vast art form, and you have the commercial cinema which is made for a larger number of people and, therefore, must cater to a greater degree or a greater range of intellectual abilities and tastes. So, looking at films like Agra, we aim to reach greater heights every time.
This was your second film to premiere at Cannes and it was the only Indian film selected for Director’s Fortnight at Cannes this year, how does it feel?
Behl: I think awards and recognition are always secondary. I don’t think any filmmaker sets out wanting to get recognition. I think every maker is seeded with the need to have a conversation and to build a world around an idea that they feel strongly about. This is what my journey is all about and I feel most filmmakers are also on it. And I think everything else that comes with it is a by-product of that natural desire to tell a story that every filmmaker has.
Tell us all about working with Rahul Roy. He had suffered a brain stroke in 2020?
Behl: Agra was shot in 2019, before Rahul had suffered from the brain stroke. It was an amazing experience to work with him because he was just so giving to his part. Our workshop and prepping period for the part was very intense. We had our workshop for three months and I remember Rahul’s pure dedication to the preparation for the film. He was the first one to turn up for the workshop and he was the last one to leave, every day. I fell in love with his dedication, and it was lovely to work with him. By the time we started filming, not just him but all the actors were so well prepared to play their characters. I didn’t really need to actively tell them what to do because they were living their parts day in and day out.
What makes the movie special?
Kumar: Kanu Behl’s vision and his courage to tell a story that has never been told before. The hallmark of Kanu’s filmmaking is a personal, very specific and microscopic perspective that somehow is also universal. That duality is what really got us interested in the story and made the film special. This is also exactly why Agra has been chosen to be premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where a global audience and some of the finest cinematic talents will watch it.