Thursday, July 18, 2024

To address sexual repression, we must first acknowledge it: ‘Agra’ director Kanu Behl

The idea took seed with his debut film ‘Titli’. The fact that he himself experienced certain sexual repression while growing up and witnessed the same among many people around him, made critically acclaimed filmmaker Kanu Behl whose latest ‘Agra’ was screened at the Director’s Fortnight section at Cannes take up the subject in the film.

“I asked myself what is the larger context and how does this very personal impulse become universal? It was then that the idea of physical spaces struck me and I found that to be a very interesting take on life — not just on the personal, but a larger socio-cultural context. The more I delved into the protagonist’s emotional landscape, I realised that his sexuality was related to the physical spaces that he inhabited and the latter was getting ‘affected’ by that as well. There was breathing give and take…It was an interesting enough conversation to be turned into a film,” he tells IANS.

Behl, whose ‘Titli’ also had its world premiere at Cannes, feels it is an honour to be with some of the finest filmmakers on the planet. In ‘Agra’, Guru, a young boy, lives in a small house in Agra. He sleeps in the same room as his mother, and on the upper floor, his father lives with a mistress. In an already tiny house, the only available space is the terrace on the upper floor. Guru insists that he loves Mala, an imaginary girl, and will marry her and live with her in a room on the terrace just like his father does with his mistress.

‘Agra’ then, becomes the odyssey of a young Indian man’s sexual coming of age as he goes from courting an imaginary girl; to sex chatting with an unknown girl online.

Even as Guru, the central character of the film can be difficult to walk and empathise with, Behl stresses that the same happens as there are certain areas in us all that we do not like to confront — like sexuality. “Sometimes, we do come to terms with who we may be but then it is time to run,” adds the director who does not watch his films once completed as he can find only faults in them.

He says that a major reason that most of the film takes place inside Guru’s mind as he wanted to demonstrate where the difficult actions were rooting from. “If we truly want to get rid of that repression, it had to be addressed from inside his head. Some may feel he is the ‘crazy’ one. Then what about the characters who are supposedly sane and fade their desires without acknowledging them publicly? Guru may not have the vocabulary to express what exactly is going on, but he is the only one who is trying to fight that repression in the house.”

Behl admits that the extensive research he undertook before the film — including spending long hours in sex chat rooms made him discover several facets of himself too. Posing as different people in those rooms, including changing his gender made him get some revelatory responses to figure out what Guru was undergoing.

“After being completely immersed there, I found myself in an honest enough space where I had something to hold on to in order to portray a character that is unique enough to break into areas that have not been explored before. That period did help me to find that emotional chaos that Guru was feeling.”

Crediting production designer Parul Sondh, with who he collaborated for ‘Titli’ too, for lending a peculiar character to spaces inhabited by the characters, the filmmaker says cinema is an art space that dabbles in space and time, and the production design must be able to deal with space properly. “And when you are doing that, space takes its history. When we collaborate, the effort is to let spaces reflect not only their fidelity but also their time. Films are about what is in the background and when they existed.”

Ask him if the international acclaim his films receive pushes distributors towards him and he smiles the gatekeepers will always be more interested in perpetuating the self as it would be easier for them to maintain the status quo. “Agra and Titli are simple films, I have received authentic reactions from people across classes. Unlike now, there was a much larger space in the past — directors like Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani could get releases,” says the director who also made the Short ‘Binnu’ during the process of making ‘Agra’.

Not very upbeat about the so-called OTT revolution that was supposed to give power to a certain kind of cinema, he feels it has very quickly turned into another version of the theatrical space where the box office has been replaced with subscriptions from a certain kind of content. “There are data crunching and algorithms at play — which surely do not have anything to do with creative expression.”

Behl’s next film, ‘Dispatch’ will see Manoj Bajpayee playing an old-school crime reporter who finds himself increasingly irrelevant in the era of digital journalism and ends up in a world he does not understand. “Both Manoj and I wanted to work together, and this proved to be a great opportunity,” he concludes.

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