‘Agra is about sexuality and sexual repression, and the relationship of sexuality to the physical spaces that we are in.’
In 2014, Director Kanu Behl brought his first feature Titli to the Cannes Film Festival.
An explosive story about a violent family living in a small flat in Delhi, the film introduced a young actor named Shashank Arora. The cast also included Ranvir Shorey and Behl’s late father, Lalit Behl.
Titli was produced by film-maker Dibakar Banerjee and an unlikely financing partner, Yash Raj Films.
Behl is a graduate of the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute. Before making Titli, he worked as an assistant on Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and also co-wrote LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhokha.
Now, the 43-year-old film-maker is back with his second feature, Agra. It’s another explosive film about a young man struggling with sexual repression, while he lives in a small house that he shares with his parents and his father’s mistress. His life changes when he meets a middle-aged woman, who runs an Internet cafe. Agra stars Priyanka Bose (Lion) and a new actor named Mohit Agarwal.
Agra is unlike any recent film made in India — it is claustrophobic, tough and does not shy away from exploring the sexual encounters of its characters.
Agra premiered this summer at Cannes in the Directors’ Fortnight section. Since the film showed the dark side of one of India’s most famous tourist destinations, the Variety story from Cannes carried this headline: ‘Sexual Repression in India and an ‘Agra’ without Taj Mahal.’
After Cannes, Agra has traveled to a number of film festivals. Its South Asia premiere will be held at the Jio MAMI: Mumbai Film Festival.
Behl speaks to Aseem Chhabra about the making of Agra and how he worked with his actors while shooting some of the film’s graphic sex scenes: “The journey to pull off that kind of deep personal representation of anyone’s sexual life has to begin with having conversations with the actors. First of all, we made it clear that it will not be shown in a titillating manner. I had to gain their trust, especially that of the women in the cast and make them understand why a scene was being done in a particular way.”
Kanu, you made Titli in 2014. Then you made a short Binnu Ka Sapna. You have been working on Agra for some time. Why did it take so long to get made?
Titli was at Cannes in May 2014, but for me, it finished in October 2015 after the India release.
I knew from the beginning that this film will be very difficult because of the themes it deals with.
It’s difficult to make a film like this in India, which tries to deal with the whirlpool that a young man is facing in his life, and doesn’t try to look away from the difficult feelings he is going through. A film like this would need a long gestation period.
There was an early period when I tried to write the film, but somewhere inside, I was scared of what I was taking on. Because I was asking myself a question ki yeh banegi kaise? How will I gather the financing?
Around that time, I was at the Three Rivers Residency. My mentor was Molly Malene Stensgaard, who edits for Lars von Trier. I had an early draft of the screenplay, and spent four or five days with Molly when she asked me why I was making this film. I was taken aback. I told her I wanted to talk about sexuality and sexual repression. Her response was, then why are you not talking about it?
Something clicked in my head.
I took about a month during the residency understanding that I really wanted to make this film. This is what I was feeling and we needed to talk about it. That is when the script started to change and I started to write honestly.
When Molly asked why are you not writing about it, what were you doing in your writing?
I think I was trying to work on a watered-down version of what my character was feeling, not going into all the difficult places that the film needed to go.
And then to really go all out with the nudity and the sexual situations that you that you shot… You put that on paper but were you convinced that you would be able to do it in India?
By then, I had stopped thinking whether this film will get made or not.
When the script finished, we applied for Cinémas du Monde funding which, along with the French financing, made up of about 40 percent of the budget.
But we still needed another 60 percent. It took us nearly two years to find the right collaborators in India — a collaborator, who would see the film exactly for what it is and not try to take it in any other direction. We were lucky to find Saregama and Yoodlee Films. It turned out to be a brilliant fearless team.
We started the prep in May 2018 and shot film in June and July of 2019.
How did you find the lead actor who plays Guru? Was he comfortable with the vulnerability he shows, including shedding off his clothes.
His name is Mohit Agarwal and we found him through the casting process.
He had done theatre in the past.
We were looking for Guru in cities such as Delhi, Bombay, Agra.
We had auditioned Mohit in the early part of the search, but we also had a couple of other strong contenders who were close to the chaos that Guru was feeling.
One thing that I felt, along with my casting director Prashant Singh, was Mohit’s physicality and the vulnerability on his face. The empathy you feel just by his presence was overwhelming. I felt his Guru would say to the audience, ‘Yes, I am this difficult character but don’t look away.’
Mohit actually is the opposite in real life from the repressed boy that Guru is. He is quite a charmer and good with women.
You take the film to a level, especially with the sex scenes, where very few Indian films have gone. What does it take to shoot those scenes and to get your actors comfortable? And the scenes are long.
The journey to pull off that kind of deep personal representation of anyone’s sexual life has to begin with having conversations with the actors.
First of all, we made it clear that it will not be shown in a titillating manner.
I had to gain their trust, especially that of the women in the cast and make them understand why a scene was being done in a particular way.
This was equally so with Mohit. He was apprehensive because there is a very thin line where we could have gone overboard.
I think the sex scenes are driven with what the characters are feeling. And it’s not about sex.
For instance, Guru’s scenes are by himself in the bathroom. Those scenes are born out of a desperate need to connect with a woman in a real life. When he’s not able to do it, he does so in virtual chat rooms.
Then we had to deal with the mechanics of how to effectively portray those scenes in the film. I prep a lot for my films and like to prepare outside of what is written in the script.
But this time, for the sex scenes, I felt there was a need for spontaneity. We didn’t rehearse much even with the crucial sex scene between Priti (Bose) and Guru. We had conversations about it while prepping and then, a long conversation the night before we shot it.
The same was for Guru’s scenes in the bathroom.
We spoke about it a few times, and discussed the mechanics of it, and the emotional graph for where the scene needed to go. But we didn’t rehearse.
Priyanka Bose is a wonderful actress and her performance is really good, just the physicality of the way you made her walk with a twisted foot. She is probably the only well-known face in the film. How did you think of her?
While I was writing the film, I was thinking about Priyanka. So in many ways, the part was written for her.
When we started auditioning for the film, we did test a couple of people.
We knew we wanted to go with a slightly known face.
Priyanka has an inherent base energy that is really interesting for this part, but I also wanted this character’s beauty not to be apparent.
You are going to see this person where her beauty is completely taken out of the equation. For that, I added a layer of physical flaw to her character.
People refer to Guru as pagal. Not a single character in the film turns around and says ki thujh ko hua kya hai? He is the only one who is fighting for the truth and questioning the chaos in the house. The father lives upstairs with his mistress, while the son lives downstairs in one room with his mother.
Here is a young man labeled damaged who meets a woman who has a physical flaw. It’s almost like a beautiful meeting of these two people who are considered not whole by the world. And there’s an immediate sexual and spiritual connection.
I know a few people who have issues with their feet. Priyanka spent some time with them. We shot some videos so she could observe how to get the walk right.
But the more exciting and challenging journey was how to get this woman’s character right.
There is so much mistrust about her and she’s been betrayed so many times, but she is strong and has faith to go into yet another challenging relationship, this time with a much younger man. How she keeps that fragile hope alive, in spite of the deep burn and scars…
Both Titli and Agra deal with dysfunctional families. They are not identical problems and issues. Why and where does the dysfunctionality idea come in your mind?
I wouldn’t call it dysfunctionality. For me, these are two different films.
Titli was a film about circularity, how images, violence and aggression can pass on from one person to the other, generationally, without us having control on it, if we don’t try to understand it from within its roots.
Agra is about sexuality and sexual repression, and the relationship of sexuality to the physical spaces that we are in.
We are crunched together into really tight spaces.
I think culturally, socially, politically that translates into a completely different feeling as we try to negotiate our sexuality.
They are different films, although both are set within families. At the end of the day, we are individual microcosms of our families and the immediate people around us.
Why call the film Agra? Is it because there’s a mental asylum in Agra?
Is it still functioning?
Yes. I spent some time there researching for the film.
But why is Agra’s mental asylum part of our cultural folklore?
I think because it’s the largest one in India or it used to be at some point of time. The legend is built around that and it is part of popular culture.
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