Kanu Behl’s new film Agra is not for the faint-hearted. If Titli, Behl’s debut feature, was an unsettling exploration of a dysfunctional family, Agra fearlessly goes deep down the rabbit hole.

Agra was premiered in the Director’s Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival (Titli made its debut at the festival too in 2014). The Hindi-language movie, written by Behl and Atika Chohan, is a psychological portrait of a seemingly deranged but scarily normal 24-year-old man.

Guru (Mohit Agarwal) is gripped by intense sexual repression. His domestic set-up fuels his frustration. The house has a father who lives with his second wife on the terrace, a mother who is unable to escape her situation, and an ambitious cousin. Guru’s life takes a turn when he meets Priti (Priyanka Bose) at an internet cafe.

The cast includes Rahul Roy and Vibha Chibber as Guru’s parents, Sonal Jha as the second wife, and Aanchal Goswami as Guru’s cousin. Produced by Yoodlee Films and O28 Films, Agra confirms the willingness of Behl and his team to embrace the extremities of human nature, however shocking they might be.

Guru’s obsession with the fate of his house suggests a twisted version of Bhimsain’s Gharonda, in which the quest to own an apartment in Mumbai drives a wedge between lovers. In Agra, Guru’s fractured mind is mapped on to the architecture of his home, which becomes a bargaining chip between him and his family members. The film traverses inhabited spaces as well as the inner recesses of Guru’s increasingly fragile mind, resulting in scenes ranging from the disturbing to the explicit.

Mohit Agarwal in Agra (2023). Courtesy Yoodlee Films/028 Films.

While working on Agra, 44-year-old Behl made the short film Binnu Ka Sapna. He has also completed his third feature Despatch, starring Manoj Bajpayee. In an interview, Behl discusses the themes of Agra, the challenges of approaching difficult subjects, and the potential responses to his latest act of provocation.

It’s not always clear which year Agra is taking place in.
There’s a curious thing with my films. I don’t like to commit to a particular time and space. I wanted it to feel like it could be taking any place anytime. It could easily be a few years earlier. It’s deliberate – I think it gives the story a bit of a fable-like quality.

The title gives the impression that the film is about insanity. There are surreal moments that seem to be taking place in Guru’s head. Yet, is Agra more about the crisis of Indian masculinity rather than madness?
The film was about being able to very honestly look at this troubled guy who was not able to express himself. It was sort of a lament, a call for help, for some sort of honesty in our closest, most private moments.

Guru is seeking truth in a sexual union in its true meaning. Within moments where you are supposed to have an honest interaction, he finds various cracks of desire where other transactional desires come up. He arrives at that moment where no one is really trying to talk about the truth of the sexual repression that he feels and that they all are dealing with. They are trying to label him as the crazy guy, whereas from his point of view, they’re all crazy.

It’s a reverse coming of age, where he realises, all these relationships are transactional, so I will show how transactions are to be done. You can’t keep devolving your house or physical space through a woman. That’s cheating, a gaze on ourselves as men. Guru wants to rebel against that. He says that in the world that we live in, there is some sort of an amputation that is involved with this need for the almost phallic, vertical rise-up of space.

Much of the film is playing out inside Guru’s head. The space he inhabits too reflects his struggles.
I don’t quite know how to completely talk about the film purely in a socio-political-cultural context. For me, there were these human undercurrents.

In addition, I was looking at the idea of physical spaces, this need, a very personal need of every Indian family, to make a house. I’ve seen this need play out in my family and a lot of families around us. Everybody wants to make a house, but what is weird is that the people living in those houses are not quite a family in as many ways as they would want to be. Yet when they make a house together, all their small transactional dreams are invested in that house.

That I found curious – the act of making this house; how, when you are crammed into a house with so many people, your sexuality gets affected.

Rahul Roy in Agra (2023). Courtesy Yoodlee Films/028 Films.

Agra went through a long gestation period. What changed since you began working on it?
Titli for me finished in October 2015 when it came out in India almost a year and a half after its premiere at Cannes. I started work on Agra in full force in 2016 and early 2017.

There were two distinct chapters in the life of the film. I had two fears. One fear I knew, and the other I didn’t know then. The first one was obvious – who will finance this film?

I had a very different draft from what it is today. I went to the Three Rivers Residency in Italy. My mentor was Molly Malene Stensgaard, who has edited Lars Von Trier’s films. She asked me, why are you making this film? I was taken aback – I said I wanted to do a film about sexuality and sexual repression. She looked at me even more curiously and said, but then why are you not doing it?

That is when the other fear came to the surface. I realised that I was pussyfooting and not writing it the way I wanted to. It was pens-down time. I spoke to myself and said, you know what you’re signing up for. I decided that the feeling was strong enough and whatever it takes, this film has to be made. That shifted the film.

In between, you made Binnu Ka Sapna.
While I was in post-production for Agra, I also shot Despatch, which is in post.

Do you see Agra as the spiritual offspring of Binnu Ka Sapna?
Not so much. I can see some early play with form in some places. Binnu’s sound design could have informed Agra. But other than that, for me, they are completely different pieces. I feel like Titli might be closer to Binnu.

Binnu is more about anger and violence, whereas Agra is more about sexuality and sexual repression. Even class-wise, Guru is in a slightly different space.

Is Agra on a continuum with Titli, particularly in the themes of damaged masculinity, repression, transactional relationships, the manner in which patriarchy is imprinted by a father on his son?
I would like to see them as different pieces. The family in Agra is very different from Titli. The people in Titli were a unit and they were all working towards a shared future.

When sexual storms get heightened within a unit, it leads to a certain individuation of people. The people in Agra are solo units. It’s not really a family but five people living together under a roof trying to fulfil their own goals related to their desires.

In Agra, you meet a patriarch on the cusp of decay. In Titli, you meet a patriarch who’s in full flow.

Titli (2014).

The narrative is fragmented, whether in the human experiences, the layout of the house, or the manner in which scenes have been designed and filmed. There are explosions and lulls.
When I started thinking about this film, I wondered if I could understand the levels of Guru’s repression. I was not intimately aware of who this person was. I had felt sexual repression myself, let’s say to a degree of 40 or 50 or maybe 60%. But I knew that I was talking about 100%.

I didn’t want to do a false piece, a piece from the outside. I decided to put myself in situations where I first understood exactly what Guru was feeling. I had to find ways to be very safe about it.

For example, I spent six-eight months in sex chat rooms. I tried to actively put myself in a place where I was not writing a film, I was just being me. I subsumed myself into that chaos to see what people were feeling. I was trying to hit those notes, which is what the fragmentation comes out of.

The more I got to that place, I realised that if your desire, some black holes within your secret self, are not addressed in a certain way, it creates such a strong storm within you that you get fractured. You almost live a double life. The pathway between the public and the private gets destroyed. Sensing that time-and-space texture was important to reflect, the feeling of being inside Guru’s head. Otherwise it would be a safe film.

Did you mesh real locations with sets?
The whole film is shot in Agra. When production designer Parul Sondh, cinematographer Saurabh Monga and I started designing the film, we wanted to incorporate as much phallic and vulvic sort of imagery as possible. The film’s texture is full of repressed sexuality.

The biggest battles for us were the house and the internet cafe. We did a lot of work on the house. We’ve hidden a room at the back, we remade the bathroom, including the tiling. We were using a lot of blue, and we wanted the blue to spread everywhere. The terrace has been redesigned to feel bigger. That’s the last space of the house they are fighting for – it’s the main play area, it’s everybody’s desire.

The internet cafe was a much bigger battle. I wanted it in the middle of a busy market. It’s difficult to find exactly the space you’re looking for. We built it from scratch. We found a hole in the wall with bricks and open sky.

About the casting: you need actors willing to embrace the extremities of the material.
Before Agra, Mohit Agarwal had been on the Bombay circuit and had done some theatre. We had auditioned him early on.

We were not trying to cast actors who had an image of themselves. Here was an actor who was open to playing the part if it made sense to him. It wasn’t a challenge to convince any of the seven principal actors. Obviously, it was a journey to get everybody ready for the world that they were entering.

How do you get actors to be in the situations in which you put them?
Usually, I do a minimum three-month workshop with the actors. The first half is called ‘Strip’, the second ‘Neutral’ and the third ‘Dress Up’.

The first month is designed to make you strip all the other parts that you’ve done so far. Actors do a lot of prep for their roles, but there isn’t a lot of clean-up afterwards. Knowingly or unknowingly, they work with an image.

The second step is that you are at neutral, at zero. You have let go of what you had, you are not attempting to take on anything new as yet. The last month is very fluid. It’s essentially about wearing new clothes. It’s an introduction to the characters, trying to get a sense of the rhythms, the feelings.

Kanu Behl.

There has been a pushback in arthouse cinema against the depiction of explicit sex. Your film has several such scenes, and you haven’t used an intimacy co-ordinator.
I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t know if you can respond to the film on the basis of whether you had an intimacy co-ordinator.

A film is a film. Your first interaction with it is to have a conversation with what it’s trying to say. If your first reaction is, how did you shoot these sex scenes and did you have an intimacy co-ordinator or not, then you haven’t really seen the film.

Do the actors feel comfortable within the discomfort you are trying to create? Do you feel part of a specific piece where you feel the discomfort of the characters? How and why can we engage in conversations about sexuality without looking at the sexual act itself?

How do we hope to do a revelatory piece without going into the most secret things that we do? That would go into PSA [public service announcement] territory, where you are saying something from the outside. When you choose to be in the realm of the senses, you can’t say, why was it made this way? If you have made the choice to be in Agra, you have to be able to breathe in its time and space, however difficult it is for you, to see where it is trying to take you.

My responsibility is to make the film in such a way that it is a conversation, not a sermon. The audience response tells me more about them than me. If they choose to walk away saying, he’s just showing us sex rather than seeing the humanity and the struggles, it’s their conversation with the film.

What can you tell us about Despatch?
It has Manoj Bajpayee, and it’s produced by RSVP. It’s about a crime journalist who is fast becoming defunct in a world in which news is turning digital. He is from the old school. He is desperate to break a story. Due to his own greed and hubris, he gets involved in something way bigger than he can imagine. It’s about the odyssey he goes on. We should be done with the film by the end of June.

Also read:

Difficult fathers, brutal sons, conniving wives: meet Titli and his family

‘Titli’ director Kanu Behl’s short film ‘Binnu Ka Sapna’ gets inside a young man’s twisted mind