by Abhi Parasher


For many, this evocative word conjures vivid imagery of the iconic Taj Mahal, carrying with it a sense of majesty and grandeur that captivates the imagination.

“For people in India, the first image that it really evokes is Agra Ka Pagalkhana (Agra Mental Asylum),” explains Kanu Behl, the writer and director of Agra which premiered at Cannes 2023.

“Agra Ka Pagalkhana was perhaps the biggest mental asylum in the country a few years back. I wanted the madhouse to play as a metaphor for the madness within the family in the film. Hence the title.”

Agra follows Guru, a young single call centre employee who still lives with his parents. Consumed by frustration, he plunges into a fever bordering on insanity, between pathetic fantasies, dating apps and blackly humorous self-harm. Adding to Guru’s difficulties is the fight for space within his family.

“I think what is very peculiar about India is that there are 1.3 billion people tightly packed in together. That’s where we differ from everyone, even China, who have a similar population, but with a lot more space,” says Behl. “The idea of space, or the lack of it, and the almost daily transactional battle that we end up fighting for that space, truncates our sexuality and contributes to that sexual repression we see in India. That is why I wanted to explore this idea of sexual repression through the physical spaces we inhabit.

“Sexual repression is everywhere, in every society. However, the expression and the peculiar playouts of violence related to it, or other byproducts are unique to India.”

There is much to be gleaned from Agra, both from the unique insight into the mindset of a troubled young man, to the impact of environment on behaviour. For Behl, shaping the audience’s perspective is not his responsibility.

“I don’t think my job as a filmmaker is to leave you with a consolidated view of what I am trying to talk about. I see my role as someone who is raising questions and participating in the initiation of a conversation,” says Behl. “We need a more nuanced conversation around this. Very often, what happens is perpetrators get blamed and locked away instantly. That never lets us get to the root of the problem. You can very well look at a violent act after it is committed and begin judging them. I don’t think that leads to really addressing the problem. The reason I made this film is to start that conversation.”

Agra premiered in the Director’s Fortnight section at Cannes and will have its Australian premiere at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne. While the film has journeyed across continents, such global recognition is a rarity for the wider Indian film industry.

“A lot of people don’t know much about Indian cinema, outside of maybe Satyajit Ray. I think that is because a lot of Indian cinema is bracketed under ‘Bollywood’,” says Behl. “Cinema in India is a lot bigger than just Hindi films, and that too, just a certain section of horrible Hindi films. For example, there is a really strong cinema movement in Bengal and Kerela. I don’t think Bollywood should be the only marker for talking about Indian cinema.”

Behl proposes a first step with which Indian cinema can begin to transcend geographical boundaries and effectively portray the profound richness in the nation’s cinematic landscape. “To get Indian cinema recognised for its depth globally, I think we need our people to value our own cinema first. Because we have lost nuanced conversation in our society, art has now become about usefulness. As a result, we are not respecting art within our culture. As long as we don’t restore that respect within, no one from the outside is going to be able to come and truly explore who we are. The reinvention has to begin from within us.”

As for his own cinematic career, Behl is already in post-production for his third feature, Despatch, starring Manoj Bajpayee.

“We are finishing the sound mix for the film, so that should be out soon,” shares Behl. “Once I see Despatch and Agra through their journeys to their eventual meeting with Indian audiences, then it is back to writing and figuring out what is next.”

Agra will play on the 17th of August 2023 as a part of the 14th Indian Film Festival of Melbourne.