Agra review: Kanu Behl confronts sexual repression in the boldest, most vital film of the year
Kanu Behl takes a deep dive into the nasty, gloomy questions surrounding sexual repression and India’s oppressive patriarchal reality with his second feature film Agra. Behl opens the film with a nightmarish sequence involving multicolour patterns, sex and a squirrel; and sets the tone of his uncompromising film immediately. Arriving at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival after marking its World Premiere at the Director’s Fortnight Section at Cannes earlier this year, Agra is at once the boldest, most vital film of the year.
Agra tells the story of Guru (Mohit Agarwal), who lives in a cramped and crumbling two-storey house with his mother (Vibha Chibber). Upstairs, Guru’s father (Rahul Roy) lives in a room with his second wife (Sonal Jha). All eyes are on that open space on the terrace. Guru wants to build his room there and stay with his imaginary girlfriend, whereas his mother has dreams of opening a clinic with Guru’s cousin sister (Aanchal Goswami). The second wife wants it as open space for her garden instead. These volatile inhabitants have no individual privacy and are toxic to one another, precariously close to a violent breakdown.
Kanu Behl, working here with co-writer Atika Chohan, is not interested in the subtleties of these interconnected relationships. He throws the viewer right at the centre of chaos and confrontations- orchestrated with a blistering need for space. The casual violence in this family becomes a microcosmic lens of a country at ends with power and privacy. There’s a standout scene where Guru goes to visit the girl with whom he has interacted in an online sex chat room. The humiliation is so painful that for a minute, we are invited to feel for him. The next moment, Behl takes an acidic turn, showing Guru doing something absolutely despicable in the next scene. There are no easy shortcuts.
Upon the arrival of Priyanka Bose’s Priti, a middle-aged widow with a polio-stricken left leg, is where Agra begins to complicate itself. Bose gives a fierce performance as a woman whose desire never takes a backseat because of her disability. Yet, Agra somehow loses its initial momentum in the second half, as Guru and Priti’s intense relationship takes shape. The accompanying plot point of the two women in Guru’s house is solved too neatly. It is also too unconvincing to suggest how Priti’s entrance in Guru’s life begins to straighten things out. The wobbly denouement arrives shortly after, not sitting quiet right after the dizzying burst of rage that Agra promised.
Still, this is a film brimming with commanding performances and assured craft. Mohit Agarwal gives a powerful performance as Guru, wrenching and volcanic in equal measure. Watch out also for Rahul Roy (remember him from Aashiqui?) as Guru’s father, who is so good in conveying the years of void. Special mention to Parul Sondh’s brilliant production design and the immersive sound by Pritam Das and Phillipe Grivel- convincingly depicting the claustrophobia that these characters feel.
Agra sets out to confront and question, not necessarily wrangle out neat answers. It is perhaps too mainstream to expect dramatic resolutions. Agra is a definitive conversation-starter of a film, one that demands your attention. At the heart of this unsparing and moving film, Guru is desperately wanting to be heard. Is anyone ready to listen?
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