Cannes: Sexual Repression in India and an ‘Agra’ Without a Taj Mahal

After his debut feature “Titli” bowed at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard strand in 2014, Kanu Behl is back on the Croisette with “Agra,” which has its world premiere at the Directors’ Fortnight.

” ‘Agra’ grasps the reality of patriarchy in India through the prism of male sexual misery,” is how the festival describes the film. It follows Guru, a young single call center employee who still lives with his parents. Consumed by frustration, he plunges into a fever bordering on insanity, between pathetic fantasies, dating apps and hysterical self-harm. The film also explores the role property can play in a young man’s emancipation.

After the theatrical release of “Titli” in India and France in 2015, Behl began thinking about what to do next. “I realized that I had felt a certain sexual repression or an inability to express myself sexually in my adolescent years,” Behl told Variety. The filmmaker realized that he was not an isolated case and saw many examples around him. “There is this almost very common delayed sexual maturity that happens in India and I really started thinking about that,” Behl said adding that it is a subject not spoken about.

The next step for Behl was to look at the subject in a broader context. “I realized that culturally, socially, politically, we are a very unique country. We are one of the two most populous countries on the planet, with China, but China has a huge landmass. And we are almost the same number of people very closely packed in together and we have no space. And that somewhere, clicked, and rounded off with my own personal experience of living in a small space with too many people close by. And I realized that how sexuality affects our physical spaces, and how those physical spaces affect our sexuality in turn, was something that was even more exciting – it was not a gaze that someone had taken on a subject like this,” Behl said.

Once the screenplay, by Behl and Atika Chohan, was written, the next stage was to find financing. The project participated in the 2015 Asian Project Market at Busan and it was a long road ahead for “Agra.” William Jéhannin who had worked with Behl on “Titli” was on board via his UFO Production and the project tapped into CNC funds in France. Some 40% of the budget was in place by mid-2017, but it took two more years to find the right partners in India.

During this time, Behl directed the short “Binnu Ka Sapna” (2019), which won the youth jury award at Clermont-Ferrand. Saregama India eventually boarded “Agra,” with Vikram Mehra and Siddharth Anand Kumar as producers. The company, via its Yoodlee Films division, had a track record of backing independent films, including Rotterdam and Busan selection “Ajji” and London Film Festival title “Axone.”

“As a studio, we have strategically supported clutter-breaking stories with smaller budgets and strong content. ‘Agra’ was part of this strategy to tell untold stories and the theme itself was very powerful as it addresses the need for personal space and how its lack can impact family dynamics and an individual’s psyche. We wanted to let this film unfold without any creative interference and to support Kanu Behl’s vision wholeheartedly,” Kumar told Variety.

“Agra” eventually filmed in June and July 2019. In 2020, when the film was in the middle of post production, the pandemic hit and everything was shut down for five months. “It has just been a journey to put the film together, to edit it, because it’s also a film that functions on a very thin line. As as much as you want to empathize with this boy and look at the whole issue of sexuality and sexual repression from the inside, you also don’t want to condone in any manner what he’s doing.”

The film was shot on location in Agra, the city known for the Taj Mahal, but also for its Institute of Mental Health and Hospital. For Behl, it was a deliberate choice not to show even a glimpse of one of the world’s most famous monuments. “I really wanted to subvert that because the film anyway is not about the Taj Mahal or that side of the city,” Behl said, adding that he got the idea of shooting in Agra because of the hospital. “We all just live in a giant madhouse. And in that sense, this house full of these crazy people is also a representation of that madhouse,” Behl said.

Guru is played by debutant Mohit Agarwal and the film also stars Priyanka Bose (“Lion”) and Ruhani Sharma, Vibha Chibber, Sonal Jha and Aanchal Goswami in pivotal roles. Guru’s father is played by Rahul Roy, known for his romantic lead roles in the 1990s, including blockbuster “Aashiqui.”

“The character is a serial womanizer so we needed a certain charming, debonair quality to the man. But we also needed at the same time, a very crushed, failed vibe to the guy,” Behl said.

Next up for Behl is “Despatch,” starring Manoj Bajpayee and produced by Ronnie Screwvala. The film is in post-production and bound for a fall festival. “It’s a film about an old school crime journalist who’s getting defunct in the world of digital journalism. And, in desperation for a story, he starts investigating a case and ends up getting mixed in something which is way above his pay grade, and how that begins an odyssey into the darkest corners of corporate crime and white-collar crime within India,” Behl said.

“Agra” premieres on May 24.

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