Agra (2023) ‘Cannes’ Review: Uncoils itself with a seething, unnerving force

Agra (2023) ‘Cannes’ Review

Agra (2023) ‘Cannes’ Review: Nothing quite prepares you for the opening sequence of Kanu Behl’s latest directorial, Agra. Multi-color shapes and patterns bleeding together, tight close-ups of grilled meat, and a dinner scene between a man and a woman are electrically fused. There is some teasing invitation, a play on word and intention.

The scene quickly turns surreally startling, Behl laying out the film’s foray into the flesh, carnal and bestial, with an arresting immediacy. You instantly sit up and take notice, and not even once does Behl loosen his grip, even as he is crunching together the thorniest, discomfiting feelings, fantasies, and dreads, all into a disorienting conversation.

Behl’s gift as a storyteller is his ability to plunge the viewer often into the ghastliest of circumstances and make us consider the histories and shadows of such acts; domino-like effects wildly spiral out into bracing comments on how relationships are curdled and re-negotiated, the particularity of location within which we operate and their equation to why we do what we do.

In Behl’s hands, gender, sexuality, power, property, and the very meaning of agency assume their full force as vividly contestable entities, jostling with each other. Nothing is allowed to exist in isolation. In a city mostly identified as a site of extraordinary, enduring love and beauty, Behl joltingly hurls us right into its seediest and sourest.

Guru (Mohit Agarwal) lives with his mother (a terrifically fierce Vibha Chhiber) on the ground floor of a two-storey building. The upper floor is occupied by his father (Rahul Roy) and his second wife, Aunty (Sonal Jha). Daddy and Aunty have been living together for the past eleven years. Space is unbearably cramped, and bitterness between Guru and his mother is poised on a constant tipping point that threatens to explode anytime.

Even as there seems to be little individual privacy, the inhabitants of the house are accentuated as deeply individuated beings, each on varying wavelengths, frequently in opposition. Guru’s mother can see what he shoves inside his bag. Our first glimpse into his relationship with his mother is through a lens of intense hate being lobbed between the two, bristling with venomous impatience.

His mother’s intention of opening a clinic on the terrace with Guru’s cousin sister, Chhavi (Aanchal Goswami), clashes with other desires. Guru needs the terrace to build his room which he can have with the woman he loves. Upstairs, Aunty counters the clinic plan, for she needs open, sunlit spaces for her garden. Guru’s father, Daddy/Prakash, is impassive and almost blasé in engaging with the chaos of the living setup his actions have sparked. Therefore, all the desires in the house run in disjunction, each testing the other.

Everyday tussles reflect grievances nurtured over years that are denied resolution, grudges rooted in dismissed demands. The battle lines in the household overlap and intersect, the space of the terrace bearing a crucial witness to various parties laying their claims upon it. Everyone chafes at being bound together, seeking to ‘build their own kingdom.’ Even the squirrel in the cage that Aunty looks after is not spared the violence that permeates the house.

Guru’s dreams and hallucinations persist even after he finds some sort of anchor in Priti (Priyanka Bose), a much older polio-stricken woman who runs an internet café. He is drawn to her. However, even she has her own agenda in entering a relationship with him.
The gaze that frames the sex scenes is relentlessly curious and razor-sharp, alert to the implications of utterance that underpin them. A confrontation is enacted through sex, a character making the other realize he knows the other’s motives.

Agra pokes at every single layer of connotation embedded in the violence that erupts across a variety of spaces: bedrooms, courtyards, and terraces, both behind closed doors and in stark, blatant public view. Characters wrestle with themselves, the debilitating force of their urges, and other claustrophobically proximate beings whose aspirations are torpedoing one another.

The clutch onto one’s ambitions is loaded with the intricately enmeshed interplay among familial, relational, and singular, triggering a series of knockout effects. The jammed tangibility of physical spaces that seem to swallow Guru and his family twists into hallucinatory flights that transgress the temporal. Saurabh Monga’s camera snakes in and out of tight spaces, aided by Parul Sondh’s immersive, authentically detailed production design.

The recurring industrial buzzing noises punctuating Pritam Das’ chillingly effective sound design and Behl’s superb, unfaltering staging, be it vicious squabbles within the family or Guru’s widening sense of emotional alienation, coalesce in depicting milieus so vitiated and vicious you are often left reeling, gasping for breath. It produces a doggedly stomach-churning experience, where you wish for some reprieve but know no such is.

Guru’s sexual starvation affects a series of delirious fits and dreams, where a fictive romance swiftly reveals itself as short-lived, making off or mutilating, under the weight of his terrors.

Agra (2023) ‘Cannes’ Review
A still from Agra (2023)

Watch out also for the scene of Guru going to meet someone at a café and what happens next; it is a visceral dissection of a man’s eager yearnings, its crumbling and the horrific shape it subsequently takes on, Agarwal ripping out a piece of Guru’s shattered soul for us.

Grime and sweat, self-loathing, resentment and shame are all jumbled together, spurring acute unease that Behl and his co-writer, Atika Chohan, push upon us. Behl and Chohan’s screenplay expertly dives into frictions and evolving relationships, zooming in and out of discrete individual mindscapes and how they respond to the burdens imposed by the other. The subtlest lines of dialogue are infused with details hinting at disturbing histories, which have led things to arrive at the situation in the house as we observe.

Guru grapples with trauma accumulated over abuse, domestic and sexual, making some deeply questionable moves. Instead of addressing his wounds, a route negated by the state he is in, he is cripplingly lost, unable to articulate feelings that make him feel revolted at his own self. We follow him closely, minutely, skidding off the limits of deprivation and into delusional fits of raging aggression, his fantasies around a colleague at the call center, the bile, and revulsion that overwhelm him when he looks at himself.

He slips off the brink of sanity whenever he feels his desires and impulses have been tossed underneath another lid. The character is a punishingly difficult one, straddling furiously battling emotions often within a scene, driven to nastiness he himself cannot comprehend, thinly suppressed assault urges never too far behind.

But Mohit Agarwal turns in such a committed, fearless performance, teeming with psychological nuance and a sense of physicality veering between delicacy and dynamism, you constantly doubt any easy judgment that can be passed on him. His performance combines a tremulousness with rattling feral bursts.

Guru is desperately lonely, haunted, and anxious. Agarwal sharply delineates shifts in mood with an almost frightening degree of persuasiveness and complicates our sense of empathy and disgust. Our effective equation with him is rendered knottier as he takes us on an emotionally sprawling journey in quest of slaking his unforgiving, insistent sexual hunger.

The entire cast, in fact, is top-notch, even the two actors playing a builder and his associate. It is especially remarkable how Agra skilfully realizes its women in a narrative that is a potential discursive minefield of debatable representations. For all its nerve and verve, Agra is never bungled by empty provocations. The film wields an uncompromising emotional honesty, stripped to its barest needs and wants, expectedly becoming agonizing in a lot of stretches.

Behl and Chohan create women who might initially seem trapped as receptacles and objects of male desire but soon reinstate their complex positions as women who exercise autonomy as much as they can in navigating a gamut of unwelcome situations they find themselves in, confronting and negotiating male damage on their own terms.

The screenplay problematizes survival, companionship, and manipulation; there is a delicious ambiguity in when one ends, and the other begins. Caught among a cesspool of relationships bordering on transactional as everyone clobbers the other in latching for space, Guru strains to make sense of trust, faith, and a genuine emotional connection within the ambit of a sexual act.

Priyanka Bose imbues Priti with a quiet, steely resolve and strength, a woman who knows exactly what she wants. In a scene where she shares her story with Guru, there is no attempt to wheedle any pity, only a firm assertion of leading the life that she does, accepting life with a full-bodied embrace. There is a ragged ferocity about her.

Rahul Roy carries this looming sadness about him, evoking a life that is waning. Sonal Jha, who was such a scene-stealing presence in Ajitpal Singh’s Fire in the Mountains, brings in reserves of dignity. A scene featuring Jha, Chhiber, and another woman brilliantly weighs the circularity of damage a man has wrought in their lives, assumptions handed down by patriarchy as well as resistance posed.

Behl builds and accrues tension and that sickening feeling in your stomach masterfully, a scene between Guru and a doctor unfolding with slow, considered repulsion. While Agra hinges on Guru, a lot of it is compellingly refracted through the myriad perspectives of those he shares spaces with, Behl astutely making room for everyone’s voices, excavating why they need what they are vying for, including Chhavi.

Agra does not leaven its severity, sculpted (Samarth Dixit and Nitesh Bhatia’s taut editing) in such a fascinating, occasionally oblique manner that sparingly shows how the fault lines were drawn, the brunt of experiencing violence, learning its vocabulary intimately enough to inflict it on others.

The film wends its way to an incredible denouement that mixes a promise and the inescapable into something that will have audiences discussing for hours after.

Agra was Screened at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival

Agra (2023) Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
Agra (2023) Cast: Mohit Agarwal, Priyanka Bose, Vibha Chhibber
Debanjan Dhar

A devotee of gore and the unsavory but is now drifting to the milder. Envious of anyone who gets the lowdown on recent films, and likes late-night street strolls only to get stalked by random strangers.