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Cannes 2023 – ‘Agra’ – Lust, living space and the need to breathe, another Directors’ Fortnight selection… (review)

Cannes 2023 – ‘Agra’ – Lust, living space and the need to breathe, another Directors’ Fortnight selection… (review)

Sexuality is an increasingly common theme in independent Indian cinema and this film doesn’t shy away from confronting issues around frustration, desire and relationships that break convention…

COMPLEX and layered, co-writer-director Kanu Behl’s second feature, ‘Agra’, to play at the Cannes Film Festival, is a powerful study of sexuality and ‘living space’ and how one plays out against the other.

Selected for the Directors’ Fortnight section, (as compared to the slightly more glitzy Un Certain Regard category in which his film ‘Titli’ played in 2013), this is for directors who are pushing the envelope so to speak, both in style and substance.

For an Indian film, this is quite explicit and there are several sex scenes that are uncomfortable and deliberately uneasy to watch.

Like in many places, property is both at a premium and limited to a degree in its supply – especially in India’s bigger cities.

Guru (Mohit Agarwal)

The title, ‘Agra’ – alludes to the home of India’s most famous tourist attraction the Taj Mahal and yet the film has no more than a passing visual reference to monument – it is visible in a calendar on someone’s desk.

For many Indians, Agra evokes another emotion that should be held while watching this film – especially in its first in the more dynamic first half. At one time, Agra was home to India’s largest mental health facility.

Guru (Mohit Agarwal) is 24, appears to have a reasonable job in a call centre facility but it’s his living arrangements that rankle – he is lucky in having his own room, as there are no other siblings but under the same roof are his mother, father, father’s mistress and her daughter – and the property has a terrace too.

Guru is sexually frustrated, a virgin and fantasises about having sex with multiple women – including his step (cousin) sister, Chaavi (Aanchal Goswami). Effectively, there is no real outlet for his frustration, except that obviously most singular of pursuits – and he indulges in anonymous online sex chat in the hope of meeting a woman he can actually have sex with.

The family situation is complex and troubling – and is the source of tension throughout – in that his mother is bitter about the philandering nature of Guru’s father, Daddy (Rahul Roy) but has had to put up with it because she has nowhere else to go and both his mistress ‘Aunty’ (Sonal Jha) and her daughter Chhavi live upstairs, while Guru and his mother occupy the ground floor.

Among one of several quite arresting early scenes is a massive argument that breaks out between Guru and his mother (Mummy – Vibha Chibber) and leads to them both confronting each other physically and then Daddy coming down to intervene and himself being subjected to abuse and vitriol from his ex-wife primarily.

The ensuing mayhem brings a doctor to the scene and there is an uncomfortable standoff and allusion to abuse and the past predatory impulses of the medic against a younger Guru.

Barely able to function or control his urges, and with his sexual frustration reaching new levels, Guru attacks Chhavi and this alerts the whole family to his situation.

In some ways, it is a turning point in the film and there is a shift in direction and tone from Behl.

The urgency and blurring of lines between fact and fantasy, as seen through the eyes of Guru dissipate and the accommodation issues begin to increasingly dominate the core subject of the matter of the film.

This is made all the more apparent when Guru finally enters into relationship with an older widowed woman who runs an internet café.

She too has her own property issues as the café has been bequeathed to her by her late husband – against the wishes of his children, whom she did not know about when entering what was a second marriage after her first ended because of the unyielding domestic abuse.

Guru’s and Priti’s (Priyanka Bose) relationship is far from tender or romantic and is mostly performative and the issue of property also dominates their intimacies.

Priti (Priyanka Bose) and Guru (Agarwal)

Behl is a talented and imaginative director and the first half shows his undoubted strengths in vividly depicting Guru’s frustrations and mental anguish, both personal and familial.

The director displays courage in tackling taboos head-on and is encouraging conversations about sex, dating and romance, both at a populist and intellectual level – leading into questions of mental health, ‘rape culture’, patriarchy and other associated subjects.

All this is good, but the second half of the film gets seemingly entangled (at least to this critic’s eyes) in the property issues – true enough, it may be metaphorical and symbolic of what is going on between this complicated ‘family’; yet one can’t help feeling that had Behl stuck more intensely to the concerns of the first half and Guru’s predicament, we would have had a stronger and yet more potent film.

What we have remains interesting, bold and eminently watchable – but perhaps. fails to satisfactorily resolve or at least address the issues the first half so cogently and stimulatingly raises.

And Agarwal in what is his first feature film role excels and brings a believable frustration and innocence that is compelling. (Sailesh Ram)

Acv rating: ***½ (out of five)

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture