Kanu Behl, a graduate of Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute, earned recognition in Indian cinema as a director with his first independent feature film Titli, which was greatly appreciated by the national and international audience, being screened at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Melbourne International Film Festival, Rio de Janeiro International, Zurich Film Festival, Filmfest Hamburg, BFI London Film Festival & the Chicago International Film Festival. He also co-wrote the critically acclaimed 2010 film Love, Sex aur Dhokha(directed by Dibakar Bannerjee), in which he was the chief assistant director. He was also involved in Dibakar Bannerjee’s critically acclaimed black comedy Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! as an assistant director. In this interview, we discuss with him about his new project Agra, his thoughts on cinema, his approach to it and the prevailing plight of Indian cinema under the current censorship board.
Your new film Agra, as you described in one of your interviews, is about love and madness. A boy falls in love with a girl but then he realizes that she is actually imaginary. Could you please tell us more about your conception of this idea? Also, what has your experience been with your cast and crew till now?
Agra is about love and madness, and at the same time, it is about our idea of sexuality and the physical spaces we live in. How these cramped spaces and vertical lives end up impacting the way we think and perceive on a daily basis. It is about a young man’s escalating inward spiral onto discovering his own sexuality and the transactional nature of relationships.
The film is currently in pre-production and casting is ongoing. The process of working on any film is always the same. The idea is to hopefully be able to keep it alive as a human document and steer it away from being a ‘statement’. To this end, the process of writing, shooting, and editing becomes a collaborative experience where each crewmember walks in with their experiences of the themes that you set out to explore. In that sense, I consider my job as a director only to the extent of setting the rules of exploration and then being able to let everyone roam free to make their own discoveries within those boundaries.
You’ve worked extensively with Dibakar Banerjee, and both your and Dibakar’s films are really making an impact on Indian cinema. However, one cannot fail to ignore the fact that the audience is still stuck on to entertainment pictures rather than experimental or ‘parallel’ cinema, as critics like to put it. How do you plan on taking the cinema that you are making, forward?
I don’t look at my cinema as experimental/parallel at all. I think it’s a trap for any filmmaker to step out and look at their own work as anything else other than the central impulse that is leading them towards wanting to seek the truth within the current work being put together.
I’m working to creating a time-space that is understandable and relatable, and yet intriguing enough to be a conversation with the audience. It does not take its audience for granted. And I have immense faith that when an audience is invited to that sort of an engagement, they always respond and participate. The challenges for reaching out with any piece of work that aspires to do that – in any art form – lie within the already established structures of an existing market designed for maximum consumption.
Distribution is really the issue here. The audiences are not. And that is a much bigger problem than one individual. At the same time, it is for our society and every individual – also as an audience member and a citizen – to respond to the call of quality of life. Every voice is at the end of the day introspection. The state and the individual need to come together to create necessary spaces where we encourage our own, and other people’s voices.
Which filmmaker(s) has (have) impacted your writing & filmmaking greatly, and why?
There are many that influence your work on a daily basis, at minute and sometimes unrealized levels. But if I were to count my major influences they would be Stanley Kubrick, Abbas Kiarostami, Lars Von Trier, Emir Kusturica, and Jacques Audiard. Kubrick with his wide span of genres and sheer scales of creating human experiences clearly leads the pack, and is father and inspiration to many a filmmaker, not just me. I think the audacity of his themes, the exploration of them, and the drive to subvert story and take the audience on an experiential ride is what lures me most to his work.
Your film Titli (2014) was greatly influenced by your relationship with your father, Mr. Lalit Behl. On that line, I’d like to know how much of your personal life do we see in your films, or do you lay more stress on ideas that are universal?
I think it’s very essential for any film to be both personal and universal in the same breath. It always starts from the deeply personal, because if there’s nothing personally lived within the film then everything about the work tends to be external and hence artificial. And an audience reacts to that subconsciously, very quickly. So usually, the seed idea or germination of the theme comes from the deepest anxieties or fears I’m trying to resolve myself.
But at the same time, the necessary distance from the problem is the most essential part of the process. To be able to start from the self and make it the ‘other’. To be able to look at it from a distance and make the process of making the whole film ‘cathartic’ in some way, which is not artificial for the character within, leads to a deeper investment in the film, I feel. And then you can keep asking yourself the question, and let the ‘other’ find the answer. And sometimes you might find what you’re looking for and at other times, not.
Regarding surrealist cinema, a genre that Indian cinema is yet to venture into, do you think that there exists a thin line between ‘art’ and ‘nonsense’? Meaning that in surrealist cinema, does the director possess immunity from any criticism by virtue of it being a style of art that is beyond one’s comprehension? Would you ever consider making a surrealist film?
No, surrealistic film worth its salt is made as just ‘art’. Every sincere film and filmmaker is trying to have a conversation, and trying to speak about something. Surrealistic cinema tries to attack a problem from the subconscious angle and touch chords that might seem ‘nonsense’ but are actually working on connecting synapses that might be consciously dormant.
Which leads us to the interesting problem of whether we can criticize it or not. I think anyway it’s non-interesting to look at cinema as ‘story-telling’. All narrative films, at their best, are only able to put their characters in certain time-spaces that might/might not leave an indelible impact on audiences. Sometimes, they do so, but at the cost of comprehension. Then the most interesting measure to view any film for me is to sense themes and their exploration, even if I’m not able to comprehend every single frame of what I see. If two out of ten questions are getting answered, I go look for more. If none of the questions are getting answered, I still go look for more, in terms of conversation around the film. Still, if I’m at sea, then maybe the conversation is not for me.
As a director, do you focus more on the story or the visuals? Which do you think bears more importance?
They both go hand in hand. For me, ‘story’ is characters and the time/space they inhabit. And within that, their journeys. If I don’t have that base material in place then I would not feel confident of shooting anything. No matter how visually beautiful or intriguing. But at the same time, without the visual representation of the emotional mindscape of the characters that inhabit the film, the whole exercise would be fruitless. At its best, for it to work most beautifully, I feel you discover enough of the story to be able to explore it visually and still be able to find more in it so that the you have a beast that is alive and roaring in your hands, in each day of principal cinematography and then, subsequently, in the edit.
Given India’s incredibly rich cultural and political history, there are very few biopics in Indian cinema (excepting the current Bollywood craze) and even fewer films on our country’s history? Given that art also plays a big role in preserving heritage, what are your thoughts on the same?
Cultural and political history is reflected in each and every choice made in each and every film. Even some of the worst cinema of the 90s reflects our histories around that time adequately and interestingly. It would be a mistake to only look at a particular genre or film as reflective of the voice of a certain period. Biopics often end up being a much more complex problem. They can be chronicles of an individual yes, and sometimes eulogies – but are they more comprehensive documents of socio/political history than the most interesting fictional romance or kids’ film getting made at the same time – maybe not always.
With the recent film Lipstick Under My Burkha being refused certification by the Central Board of Film Certification, citing the most petty and illogical reasons, and also with the fact that this is not the first film to have suffered this fate after the appointment of a certain someone to a highly authoritative post concerning Indian cinema, how do you think this has affected and will affect Indian cinema? How do you plan on tackling such arbitrariness and autocracy?
Censorship and the law in any state reflect the mood of the majority in some way or the other. The choices being made by any regime – democratic or otherwise – are coming from an electoral confidence, and mandate. An artist, at any given point of time, is reacting to life around him. And is willing to dissent and talk about things that he/she does not like or wants bettered. To that end, it’s an ongoing battle with any government that is in power because dissent is almost always against prevailing control.
The most clever and intelligent regimes leave spaces open for dissent, because that keeps base urges weak. Whenever, control becomes unreasonable, the voices also gather steam and increased resolve. Self-censorship is probably the biggest challenge in moments like these, but the strongest voices are often the most fearless.