Onto to the next MAMI release and I have finished watching the Hindi film Agra which is directed by Kanu Behl. And anyone who has been following films from the International Circuit would tell you on how highly anticipated the film was at MAMI. There was a genuine buzz for the film which had met with extreme reactions at Cannes, particularly with respect to the content that it was presenting, while also garnering its fair share of criticism. And I totally get the criticism for the film given that this is a story which has its roots firmly grounded back home, something which may not be remotely relatable or palatable for an International audience.
The topic of sexual repression in itself might be complex, and varying from individual to individual across the gender board. Yet, the society that we stay in, has always been a regressive one, considering s*x as a taboo. The average age where individuals lose their virginity across the globe is generally in their teens but back home in the Indian Sub-continent, the numbers go up drastically. And because the topic of s*x isn’t freely discussed, it does often result in a crime which is absolutely heinous to say the least. And with Agra, here was a film that was meticulously discussing the topic of sexual regression almost like a case study from the very first scene. Given Kanu Behl and his ability to go all out, as also seen in his previous film Titli, I was expecting Agra to absolutely hit home with its complex outlooks to sexuality and its subsequent repression. So does Agra manage to impress, let’s find out.
Story & Screenplay
Written by Atika Chohan and Kanu Behl, Agra follows the story of an individual on the verge of losing his sanity while being sexually repressed for years after hitting puberty. Before I get to the story, I had the honour to ask the director(at MAMI during the Q&A session) the significance of the title of the film. Yes, it is set in Agra but his reply was interesting. The word ‘Agra’ here represents madness, a clever spin-off of the phrase ‘Agra Ka Pagalkhaana'(a mental asylum in Agra), that tactfully represents the psyche of the protagonist. The story here is complex and layered while also being claustrophobic while addressing a valid issue of sexual repression. The idea is meticulous and wild and presented in an unabashed fashion. The screenplay standing at 132 minutes is dark and claustrophobic while painting a grim nature of the issue in hand with respect to the gaze of the individual. It is gut-wrenching with rampant love making scenes that did push the envelope for the same in India. And quite honestly, this in-your-face approach is what creates a stunning impact on the minds of the viewers where the makers have done just not held back(as a huge positive).
The drama opens with the introduction of the protagonist who is interacting with a mysterious woman while having dinner before having a strong urge to make love to her. As he does indulge in the act, the girl is shown to be standing in front of him while he thrusts his motions on what seemed to be an imaginary squirrel. This before the screen paints itself in a Kaleidoscope of sorts. This was a perfect representation for the bizarre drama to follow which only continues to get intense. You are soon delved into the psyche of the protagonist and instantly there is a sense of disdain inside you while being marginally empathetic towards him. How often have we seen several boys DMing girls randomly for a s*xt chat and this is where the makers have switched the point of view for its viewers. The man is question is on the verge of losing his sanity and that does reflect in his actions as well. While he is privy to his household, the dysfunctionality of his family featuring his father residing with another woman and his mother in the same house, makes him want to opt for a room of his own. Yes, the space constraints are a real thing, even in metros! His condition is like the squirrel of the household which is caged, much like his sexuality.
The proceedings are engrossing and indulging to a point where it sucks you in its narrative before maintaining a firm grip with the events unfolding. The writers do not intend to dilute the impact of the drama at any given point, while also venturing into a dark territory of ‘incest’ that will leave you heavily disturbed and disgusted. But because the makers have presented and established his psyche so well, there is a trace of empathy towards the character. Things change drastically with the introduction of another character, an elder woman with a limp, towards whom the protagonist is attracted to. The amalgamation of the two worlds – one mentally scarred and the other physical scarred(purposely done to take the physical attraction out of picture) did seem like a match made in heaven. And here is where the writers keep you guessing with the character traits of the two individuals who may or may not love each other but continue to indulge in rampant s*x which in a way completes the two in question.
I did feel that the final act did marginally digress from its core topic by only using it as a by-product. But the grey shades of the drama almost transform into a coming of age tale with the maturity of the protagonist being tested with respect to the spaces that he has been confined to. If I were to look at his journey from a holistic picture, it was a fascinating character study of an individual who was at his lowest, often being repressed to an extent of him losing his sanity, to slowly clawing his way back into the society. Elsewhere, a little subplot involving his father induces levels of ignorance with a hint of humour thrown in. The drama did have an open-end but my interpretation of the ending was the ability of the protagonist to let go of his inner turmoils, although not completely while only traces of it remain within him. The screenplay is brilliantly penned and creates a solid impact.
Dialogues, Music & Direction
The dialogues are filled with expletives that adds a layer of authenticity to the drama. And the conversations are raw and edgy while continuing to stay true to the tone of the drama. The BGM is sparingly used, often relying on natural sounds while not overpowering the drama at any given point of time. The cinematography adds to the claustrophobia with some extreme close-ups and tight shots which will leave you in an uncomfortable space. The production design deserves a mention with the grim and carbon-sooted walls of the house that are in line with the grim society that the world is set in. The editing is crisp and sharp right throughout the film. The costume department deserves a mention too but keeping things simple and not going overboard with the same thereby keeping the physical attraction of the characters in check. Director Kanu Behl is not a director who would hold back and you has gone all out with this subject matter. And his ability to craftily create a tense environment with disturbing and claustrophobic layers speaks volumes of his conviction in his subject matter. The direction here is incredibly good and a huge green tick in his report card.
The performances are excellent by the ensemble cast. Sonal Jha as Auntyji is wonderful to watch and her insecurities are put to the fore wonderfully well. Vibha Chibber as Mummy ji is an absolute treat to watch and she does a stupendous job. The core trait of her character can be judged from her opening scene which begins with an argument with her son before the makers gently shift the POV towards her and then focus on the bearings that she has been going through with respect to her husband. Rahul Roy as Daddy ji has a frivolous streak to him while seemingly thinking of himself to be responsible towards his family. Now these are conflicting emotions and I felt he did a swell job in balancing these traits.
Ruhani Sharma as Mala looks pretty and does a splendid job. Here I mention pretty also because this trait seemed to be the primary one for the protagonist while dealing with her ‘imaginary’ character before the character of Priti steps in. And Ruhani represented that wonderfully well with her emaculate screen presence.
Aanchal Goswami as Chhavi too represented this trait but in a limited capacity and she was absolutely spot on with her character which was caring and willing to let-go while accepting the protagonist with his set of flaws. And her ability to confront and express was wonderful to watch.
Priyanka Bose as Priti is absolutely brilliant to watch. Her character might have been a hard nut to crack(no puns intended) but the amount of baggage that she had being carrying in seeking for genuine love while having to deal with loneliness and sexual repression herself was beautifully highlighted here. The limp in her character was a deliberate attempt by the makers at eliminating a sense of physical attraction towards her, and that is also what made her vulnerable, and perhaps wanting to find love from whichever quarter that she could. And it did take a highly skilled actor to pull off these conflicting yet deft emotions, and beautifully so.
Mohit Agarwal as Guru is the heart of the film especially because the entire film was unfolding through his gaze. Guru was such a complex character who wasn’t likable at all even with his vulnerability on show, yet his performance imduces a sense of empathy towards him. His ability to express his pain and give us a glimpse of his terrifying psyche was brilliant while also adding several disturbing layers along the way. This was a towering performance in a wonderful coming of age tale, while leaving a space of ‘grey’ for the audience to uncover at the end. And this balance was a sign of a great acting who will make a name for himself going forward.
As a part of our MAMI coverage, Agra is a fascinating character study of a complex individual suffering from sexual repression, packaged in a deeply disturbing tale of claustrophobia that comes with my highest recommendation!