Cast: Priyanka Bose, Rahul Roy, Mohit Agarwal, Vibha Chhibber
Director: Kanu Behl
Rating: Four stars (out of 5)
Kanu Behl’s new film, rapier-sharp and trenchant, is in many ways a follow-up to Titli, which premiered in Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain regard sidebar nine years ago.
In tone and texture, Agra isn’t a replica of Titli, but in spirit and substance it extends the concerns that Behl articulated in his debut film. It seeks to delve into the psyche of a young man grappling with his sexual urges in a home where space is limited.
Agra deals with the physical dimensions of a middle-class house as much as it probes zones of the mind of a 25-year-old looking for avenues to for his rampaging hormones.
People driven into a corner by the lack of financial opportunity and space for manoeuvre resort to questionable ways to stay afloat, no matter how precariously, and find their ways out of hostile social and familial environs.
Titli was about a family of carjackers who are, like many of their ilk, left out of the economic boom sweeping large parts of India’s national capital city and its satellite townships.
They resort to violence and crime to make a grab for what otherwise wouldn’t be theirs and the youngest male member of the brood wants to opt out of the family’s line of work and finds an ally in the wily girl he marries.
In Agra, which had its world premiere on in Directors Fortnight on Wednesday, a libidinous 24-year-old male trapped in a severely dysfunctional (or is it non-functional?) family gives into his uncontrolled sex drive and invites trouble. He hopes to build a room on the terrace. Two other claimants – his father and mother – have their own ideas about what to do on the terrace.
Guru (played by debutant Mohit Agarwal) lives with his mother (Vibha Chhibber) and frequently escapes into a world in which he intends to marry the girl he loves and settle down. The girl is Mala (Ruhani Sharma) but until he has a room that he can call his own, matrimony is out of the question.
Guru and his mother are always at loggerheads. The latter wants to start a clinic with the help of a niece, Chhavi (Aanchal Goswami), a diabetic dentist whose proposed marriage, too, isn’t unconditional. Guru’s father, Prakash, lives upstairs with another woman (Sonal Jha), who is simply “Aunty Ji” to Guru.
Above them all is the terrace – a contested site where a squirrel in a cage is emblematic of what is wrong with the lives of the people who live in the house. The cramped spaces that they occupy affect their thinking, adversely impact their already troubled relationships, and the consequent fears and misgivings aggravate matters.
Not until Guru encounters Priti (Priyanka Bose), who owns an internet café and has a back story no brighter or better than his, does his life reach a turning point. But where it will lead him and his partner, who serves as an outlet for his bottled-up concupiscence, is unclear because there are too many imponderables littered in their path.
Sex provides Guru the release that he craves, but his carnality looks like a mechanical and constricting chore rather than an act of liberating ecstasy. It does not evoke love, not even simple, unalloyed lust, but a form of desperation.
The repression that Guru seeks to tide over serves as a metaphor for not only his own debilitating frustrations but also for the obstructions that the social segment that he is a part of faces on a daily basis.
The screenplay, written by Behl and Atika Chohan, portrays a small-town bursting at the seams on account of indiscriminate urban growth – a story universally true of all growing economies and cities where space is at a premium and does not come without hustling.
The film homes in on individuals in a single modest house who have nothing in common – a microcosm for a society that is condemned to pulling in different directions because of the inequities that it perpetuates – and even thrives on.
This bleak but illuminating portrait of fragile lives and thwarted dreams employs palette animation for the purpose of transitions and reflecting the state of the young protagonist’s mind. These are the only points in the film where we see splashes of colour on the screen although the patterns that they create are nebulous, random, disorienting, and understandably so.
The characters who people Agra seek escape from the drudgery of their lives but the negotiations for space – the parleys with the construction company demonstrate the position of weakness from which Guru and his ilk must bargain – and compromise.
The cinematography by Saurabh Monga heightens the sense of claustrophobic gloom that clings to the film. The sound design (Pritam Das, Philippe Grivel) combines retro Hindi film sings and a grating, hollow drone that approximates the void in the hearts and lives of members of a family that barely holds together.
Behl, like he did in Titli, allows the actors to just be who they should be instead of getting them to act. They respond admirably, merging wholly with the universe of the characters and conveying degrees of emotional and mental laceration.
Both Rahul Roy and Priyanka Bose immerse themselves so completely that they are well-nigh unrecognisable. Mohit Agarwal lives his part. Vibha Chhibber, Sonal Jha and Aanchal Goswami, fleshing out the three women in the young protagonist’s immediate domestic environs, do pretty much the same.
Agra has scenes that are dramatic and centre on violence inflicted on one’s self and on others but Behl holds a tight rein on the flow of the narrative. He delivers pertinent social commentary pretty much like he did in Titli, and with as much power and precision.