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Agra, but not quite about Taj

The moments of sexual acts are so personal and visceral that they are not really talked about. It’s the second time for Kanu Behl at Cannes. His directorial debut, Titli, about the youngest son in a patriarchal family trying to find his way out from suffocation to freedom, played in the official Un Certain Regard section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

His second feature film, Agra, about a sexually repressed young man, plays this year at Cannes in the parallel Directors’ Fortnight section. On the eve of the film’s premiere, on May 24, Cinema Express spoke to the filmmaker.  I begin with the obvious. How did the idea of Agra come about?

After I had finished Titli, I was wondering what it was that I wanted to speak about next, what was I deeply feeling for. It was the sexual repression I had felt, and it wasn’t just about my own journey, but I had seen it around me in young boys. The moments of sexual acts are so personal and visceral that they are not really talked about. The myriad forms of desire that you experience as soon as you connect on that intimate level. Those moments are the peak moments of truth with another person. While researching on the subject I also got drawn to one thing specific about our country: we are such a big population. So many people are crunched into a little space.

It was about sexuality at its most personal, human level and combining the inward gaze with the larger socio-political-cultural-structural look at how our sexuality affects and gets affected by the spaces we live in. Both your films have engaged with the idea of space… The underbelly of the city, the outliers living there, the Delhi and Agra that cinema doesn’t usually venture into. Also, the way you have designed the two significant settings—the house and the Internet cafe… When we were thinking of the visual design, we all figured we will look at the phallic symbology. [So], the house is like a tall tower. The idea was to look at [the protagonist] Guru empathetically. There is so much sexual repression in the house. The father living with his mistress upstairs. Guru living with his mother downstairs. He is trying to talk about the turmoil in his own way.

He may not have the vocabulary for it but is the only one to have the courage to speak about it. We were trying to get into the textures of such intimacy, the inner entrails of desire. Similarly, I had a specific design in mind for the internet café. It took the longest to find out. It’s like a long, narrow passage. It was made from scratch in a hole in the wall in a busy market. We were trying to hit the psychological symbols everywhere, as much as possible. You are locating sexual repression in a very patriarchal construct. Patriarchy is something you engaged with in Titli as well… Agra is a piece about sexuality seen through the lens of patriarchy because that is our reality. But it’s very different from Titli.

Agra is about a fading patriarch whereas Titli begins with power to end with a loss of it. The journey in Agra starts where Titli ends. They are different journeys, but we live in the same socio-economic-political context. But Guru is a product of what patriarchy expects of men... Absolutely. You are who you are in the larger context of the society you live in. But the responsibility for his repression lies in a way also with the women, the mother, and the mistress as much as the father. Yes, there is a patriarchal construct, but my idea was to treat all the characters as complex human beings who are trying to deal with the structure in their own way. ‘I didn’t want the film to radiate only masculine energy’ The film took a while after Titli… It took me a while to gather the courage to write the film.

I knew it would be difficult to find the right kind of support for this film in India. For a while, I was tiptoeing around what I wanted to write. But I got lucky. I was in the Three Years Residency with Molly Malene Stensgaard, editor of Lars von Trier, as my mentor. I worked with her on the script and got clarity in the fifth or sixth draft. She asked me why I wanted to make the film, and I told her that it was to talk about repression. Then why are you not talking about, she said.

She told me to make it only if I was ready to do it. It was there that I got convinced that the film needed to be made and there was a need to have a conversation about it. We got the Cinema du monde funding which was about 40 per cent of what we needed and then we found collaborators in Sa Re Ga Ma and Yoodlee Films. Getting the right collaborators to make the film in the way it needed to be made was quite a journey itself. You have Atika Chohan for the co-writer. Does a woman’s point of view change the script in any way? I was sure I needed a woman collaborator for this film, but I would not want to bring this down to gender.

I didn’t want the film to just be about masculine energy. There is a masculine and feminine side in all of us. It is the feminine in Guru that is rebelling in the film. So, the film needed a balance of the two energies. What Atika brought to the screenplay is a feminine energy to all the characters. There is an edginess to the film that doesn’t allow one to relax or get comfortable with its world. You are talking about desire without making things palatable at any point... I was scared that the repression I have felt may not be to the same extent as that of the character I am writing.

I was scared it would feel fake, false, and external. So, I had to get into the world I had chosen to portray, and get as close to it as possible. I went into sex chat rooms posing as a woman. I tried to genuinely have a conversation and see where it leads to. What is this boy feeling, to get to the storm in his head? It could have been a very external film, looking at the protagonist and his world from the outside. But I wanted to recreate what he was going through. The device of the colourful dreams in the narrative. Was it a part of the script? Or improvised? It is written in the script.

A neutral place to think and feel on Guru’s behalf. I wanted the audience to hear the white noise in the head, the confusion. He is not able to make sense of what people are doing around him. There are these noisy spaces inside his head. What made you pick up the specific actors for the roles? That was a magical process by itself. We took six months to choose the seven characters and there was three months of workshop. The most critical choice was Guru. Newcomer Mohit Agarwal is a totally different person, just the opposite of Guru. He is quite a ladies’ man for real.

Very charming and likeable. We had two other actors to go with but he had the physicality and face. We felt his physicality would bring an invaluable essence to the character. From then on, it was a long journey to make him process what Guru was feeling. Priyanka Bose who plays Priti had tremendous faith in my process. She understood that sexuality was not a titillatory tool in the film. For her, it was quite a journey to find the physicality of the part. While Guru is mentally damaged, she is physically damaged. I wanted it to be a coming together of two damaged people finding kinship, connection, and wholeness within themselves.  

The casting of Rahul Roy, well etched in popular imagination for Aashiqui, as the father. What made you go for it? We had other actors in mind but zeroed down to him very quickly because he was so excited about the film. He was devoted to what was on paper, engaging with the character in depth. What’s coming next from you? It’s a film called Despatch with Manoj Bajpayee produced by Ronnie Screwvala. We are doing the post-production, sound design, and VFX on it. That’s basically the odyssey of a crime journalist in Mumbai. Cannes is like home ground for you… The film is getting the right platform. It’s a difficult film for the gatekeepers to deal with. I am glad it’s there, from where it can develop its own voice and find an audience. (THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS)