A young man sits in a cafe with a cold coffee in hand, his eyes searching for someone. Wearing a dull grey T-shirt, it will take him some time to realise that he’s been stood up by the person he was supposed to meet: a girl he exchanged messages with in an online sex chat room. Devastated at being rejected like this, Guru (Mohit Agarwal) gazes into a mirror after going back home, trying to wish away his less-than-affable appearance. Some of us might feel sorry for the protagonist, but then the director does a 180-degree flip on his audience, showing him doing something dastardly in the very next scene. At this point, Kanu Behl’s Agra – which premiered in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes 2023 – begins to resemble an origin story.
Behl has often found himself telling twisted coming-of-age tales for men emerging from not-so-favourable circumstances. Whether it was Shashank Arora in Titli [premiered at the 2014 Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section] trying to break out of the casual violence passed on from his father and elder brothers; or Chetan Sharma in Behl’s short film Binnu Ka Sapna (2019) inheriting warped values of masculinity from a father routinely inflicting violence on his mother. Behl’s gaze is almost surgical as he portrays the Indian family as an adversarial element, who are often desperately trying to paint themselves as a ‘supportive unit’.
In Agra, Behl takes this narrative shtick to newer heights by focusing on the internal push-and-pulls of Guru’s family, as he battles intense loneliness, flirts with the edges of sanity and finds his way in a society that barely even registers his presence.
Guru lives on the ground floor of a crumbling mansion with his mother (Vibha Chibber), as his father (Rahul Roy) lives in a room upstairs with another woman (Sonal Jha). Guru’s mother wants to build a room on the terrace, helping her niece Chhavi (Aanchal Goswami) – a dentist, to set up her practice. Guru wants to build a room for himself – where he can live with his partner. Guru’s father is trying to negotiate one failed business scheme after another, to keep the fire burning in the kitchen. A domestic squabble within the family, becomes a microcosm for a country where personal space comes at a premium.
The image of a young man furiously typing – “Anyone from Agra? Anyone?” into a group chat is one of the most striking images in the film. It reminded me of those tickers that would run on most music channels (like B4U, 9XM, ETC) back in the day, where people (a majority of them from tier-two/three cities) would send messages. Most of which, funnily enough, read like declarations of love. I used to wonder if those couples actually existed, or if some of those messages were sent by someone like Guru – desperately seeking someone’s – anyone’s – attention.
It’s impressive how Behl (along with writer Atika Chohan) weave in the dreadful backstories for most members of the house in seemingly ordinary dialogue, trusting the viewer to catch on to tiny pieces of information to figure out everything the mansion has witnessed. While talking to Chhavi, the mother casually mentions how Guru was only 11 years old when his father brought the mistress home, and how he would lock his son in the toilet for hours. Similarly, an elderly character talks to Guru in a way that suggests that he might have been sexually abused as a child. While threatening his parents, Guru says, “I’m not fooling around, this time I’ll make sure that I drink the phenyl” suggesting he’s tried it before as well.
In a film brimming with great performances ranging from Mohit Agarwal as Guru or Rahul Roy as Daddyji, the stand-out is Priyanka Bose as Priti – a middle-aged widow with a polio-stricken left leg – who runs a cyber cafe. Forming an unconventional bond with Guru, Bose delivers an incredibly perceptive performance, where she is many things in the same breath: sincere, manipulative, vulnerable, and yearning to be seen in a world that always makes note of her disability before her humanity.
Behl employs a buzzing industrial sound design – something he did in Binnu Ka Sapna as well – to communicate the noise in the head of his visibly-disturbed protagonist. The sound in many scenes is a kitschy 90s Bollywood song playing on a radio, adding to the cacophony, as dialogues are screamed over them. The only thing one could probably nitpick about Behl’s latest film is the familiar style, which is slowly becoming recognisable to a fault. Whether it’s the close-up of curry and rice smeared on a tablecloth, or a crammed apartment where the only source of light is the glow of a TV – Behl’s mise-en-scene is losing its novelty.
What really does work for Behl though is how he marries complex ideas with technical flourishes, even if they risk feeling esoteric; streaks of colours used as a transition to showcase the messiness of the protagonist’s head, is a choice that works theoretically more than it does practically. Like in Titli, construction projects are a big presence in Agra too. Behl almost seems to be teasing his characters with the promise of a ‘sample flat’. However, as the film finally concludes – something Guru realises as soon as he learns to put on his mask of sanity – it’s all an illusion. For a world fast asleep, only those awake become subjects of ridicule.