Akarsh Khurana is one of those souls who grew up in the theatre, quite literally. His first part was that of the boy messengerat the age of six, in Motleyâ€™s production of Samuel Beckettâ€™s WAITING FOR GODOT. He then went on to play several other parts across the years, and then came a time, when he struck out on his own. Here, he narrates his journey in the theatre, giving us a glimpse into various productions that his company Akvarious has done thus far.
His latest directorial DHUMRAPAAN in collaboration with Kumud Mishraâ€™s D For Drama, and written by Adir Bhat, premiered at the Prithvi Theatre festival last year. It has now been nominated in six categories for the Mahindra Excellence In Theatre Awards (META) 2017 and will be staged at the upcoming META festival in Delhi. Akarsh is no stranger to META. His companyâ€™s works have been previously shortlisted and have won awards.
I met Akarsh at a restaurant called Doolally Taproom in Andheri at about noon. Doolally has this interesting listing called â€śBreakfast of the Championsâ€ť on its menu. That got me excited since I am a Kurt Vonnegut fan, and it gave me my opening question.
By Gaurangi Dang
Gaurangi Dang (GD): Have you read Vonnegut's book 'Breakfast of Champions'?
Akarsh Khurana (AK): I actually have. I've also seen the film, which is terrible. This year I've started reading a lot again. I realised that for the last three years I was reading only plays, which is good, but I was kind of missing novels. I have sort of done a transition to the Kindle, but there are a lot of books lying at home that I've bought over the last five years, so I'm trying to get through those first.
GD: What are you reading these days?
AK: I'm reading something called 'The Red House' by Mark Haddon. I've just finished this book by Bukowski called 'Hollywood'. Interestingly, at the beginning of this year I picked up a journal at the Paris airport by Roger Ebert.It was about the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, which was also the year that this film called 'Barfly' premiered at the festival. Bukowski had written 'Barfly', Ebert ended up dedicating two chapters in his journal to the film and the book 'Hollywood' is about the making of 'Barfly'. So it was a nice coincidence that I landed up having both these books around the same time.
GD: You were born in Bombay?
AK: Delhi, actually. I was born in New Friends Colony. My nana-nani were in Delhi, so mom went to Delhi for the delivery but I've only spent summers and Diwalis there. I grew up in Bombay in the Khar/Bandra area. I went to Arya Vidya Mandir for school, where we did havans every Tuesday. I was in the Dramatics Society in school and by the age of six I had already done two plays. One with Sunil Shanbag called CIRCUS, where I played my own father's son and the other with Motley directed by Bemjamin Gilani. It was Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT. So between the ages of six and eight I was doing these two plays on and off. It was quite strange, as I didn't have much awareness of what was really going on.
Dad was always at the theatre, so I've heard these stories of how as a kid I was pretty much at Prithvi all the time. I suppose these things kind of play a part in your life eventually, as one thing leads to another.
I did a fair amount of theatre throughout school. During my junior college at St. Xaviers, I was not very active. I was a bit of a nerd and didn't necessarily fit in well. However in senior college, things changed. I ended up doing 'Malhaar' (the college theatre festival) two years in a row. I ended up being vice-chairperson of 'Malhaar', the contingent leader to campus festivals like 'Mood Indigo', 'Kaleidoscope' and then in the year 2000, which was my last year in college, we participated in Thespo.
That year I met Arghya Lahiri, who's a schoolmate of mine. He told me ''there is a festival called Thespo,'' and made me meet Nadir (Khan) at Prithvi. So us Xavierite boys, we put a play together for the festival, and that is when Akvarious - our theatre company was born.
We did a play called BROTHERS for Thespo in 2000. It was Thespo's second year, and just as the brochure was going in for printing, they called and said that they needed a name for our group. Akvarious was actually a name of a company that my father had opened in the nineties, which was for a screenwriting workshop. I was inclined towards it because all the men in my family are AKs and Aquarians. So that's how it was born, with BROTHERS.
GD: What was BROTHERS about?
AK: BROTHERS was actually this royalty free thing that we had found on the Internet. The play is about these three brothers who don't get along and are forced to spend a weekend in a mountain cabin because it was their father's last wish, and only then they would get to hear his will. It was an out-and-out comedy about these three chaps that are put in an odd situation and how later everything spirals out of control. It had Shaun Williams, Karan Makhija and this boy called Dirk Roderick in it. Dirk was actually a star of the Bandra theatre circuit back then, and I believe he ended up going abroad and doing musical theatre. Karan got sick a few nights before the show, so I had to step in at the last minute. However it all worked out well in the end. People liked it. They came up to me after the show and said things like, ''I really liked your use of space,'' and I just thanked them and smiled back, acting as though I had done it intentionally.
ALL ABOUT WOMEN
So that happened, and we were very happy about it. Then we also got to perform the play outside, but it was still more of a hobby. However since BROTHERS had done well, and we'd gotten awards for it, we got foolishly ambitious in our next year at Thespo. We did a play called THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? and I believe that it is the only play in the history of Thespo, which has been booed off stage. It had 27 actors and 45 blackouts. Since BROTHERS had done so well, we had a sold out show of the new play at Sophia's, but most of the people left in the interval. I remember Naseeruddin Shah was watching the show. He is a family friend and he came to see what I had been up to, and I think he was greatly disappointed. He called me over the next day, gave me a copy of 'Towards a Poor Theatre', and said ''ye projector nahi use karo. Pehle basics ko theek karo.''
We were shattered. I was on the verge of quitting. This was my passion project - a complex period piece with a huge cast, a huge set and choreography. It was something I had put a lot into and it was a complete disaster. I thought I shouldn't do this anymore, but as luck would have it, Quasar (Thakore Padamsee) got in touch with me to do something small. We did THREE'S A CROWD, which was really four short plays, directed by four different directors, so the ownership wasn't only on me. We performed it at the NGMA and it did well, so that was a welcome relief, because I was already going through depression at the time.
Around the same time, one of my actors from THEY SHOOT HORSES... this boy called Apurva Kale (he was at the Xaviers Institute of Communications with me), started writing a play called PIGS ON THE WING. I really liked the script and so we decided to try it out for Thespo and see if we could bounce back. We won five awards at Thespo that year in 2002. We decided that we should quit while we're ahead, so that was the last year I directed for Thespo.
So yeah, PIGS ON THE WING was a huge hit, and it also kind of heralded the contemporary English writing that I enjoyed. It was about a guy in advertising, who is contemplating suicide and he calls his friends over. The play segues into their past. Shaun Williams, Rohini Ramanathan (she is an RJ now), and I were in it. We ended up traveling with it and that gave us some confidence. It also made me realise that we might now want to move out of the Thespo fold and try and do something on our own.
In 2004 we did our First Writers' Bloc where Apurva wrote ONCE THERE WAS A WAY, which was based on a Beatles song (also known as Golden Slumbers). PIGS ON THE WING was named after the Pink Floyd track and consisted many Floyd references, and similarly ONCE THERE WAS A WAY consisted a lot of Beatles references. It was about a kid who goes off to London in search of the Beatles. He runs away from India to find the Beatles' roots and instead finds himself living with an Indian family in London. I fell ill during this period, so my father ended up stepping in, and directing the play while I ended up acting in it for the initial few shows.
At this time I kind of took a break from theatre and started looking out for a job. I had been working with Columbia Tristar as their marketing manager for a long time, but I wanted to do something more creative, like writing a script. So, I became part of the writing team of the film 'Krrish' and I ended up assisting on the making of the film as well. That took up three years of my life, and it was my equivalent of going to film school. I was there for the entire process, which was great, but that also meant that I lost out on a lot of theatre time. So when I came back in 2007, I came back with a bit of a vengeance.
In 2007, we did our second Writers' Bloc, for which I directed a play by Manjima Chatterjee called THE EDGE. Then we did something for the Poetry Festival for Prithvi called WOMEN IN WAITING, MEN ON THE LINE, which had a huge cast with a lot of music and movement that ended up working out alright. One morning at Prithvi, while we were rehearsing THE EDGE, I saw a huge line outside the theatre. It was for a children's play. Makarand (Deshpande) had done this play called DHONI, DHO DALTA HAI with Vijay Maurya in it. So the next day I went and I saw the play, because I was amazed by the fact that people were willing to line up at 11 in the morning to watch a play. It turned out that I really liked it. It made me feel that children's theatre is something that we as a company should explore.
A SPECIAL BOND
So, in 2007 we did SPECIAL BOND - Part 1, which was a collection of Ruskin Bond short stories that we put together as a play. It was a game changer for us. We did 53 shows and travelled all over the country with it. We even went to Nainital and Dehradun, where Ruskin Bond himself saw the play. He liked it, gave me a stamp of approval and gave me further access to his published as well as unpublished works for the sequel. It was also the play where most of our future relationships were formed.
AK: As with Hidayat (Sami). He was in it. He had a big part in it, and then Hidayat eventually wanted to direct. He directed ALL ABOUT WOMEN for us, which went on to become our next big hit. Shivani Tanksale was in the play and she wanted to direct a play, so Sumeet Vyas and she co-directed NAMAK MIRCH (2008) for us. Purva Naresh adapted SPECIAL BOND. Later she wrote AFSANEH for us. We were so happy with our success in 2007, that in 2008, we ended up opening 8 plays, without any clue about where we'd perform them. AFSANEH and ALL ABOUT WOMEN, both qualified for the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) in 2009. In between the two plays, we had a total of sixteen nominations, but we came back empty handed. We were certain we'd get one, because all five best actresses were from our plays, but at the last minute the jury added a name and we ended up losing out in that category as well.
But it was all a big change for us, because suddenly things were beginning to work out and SPECIAL BOND really helped us get our foot in the door. ALL ABOUT WOMEN became massively successful; it was our first trip abroad with a production. It did 61 shows before it finally shut down.
In 2009, we consciously slowed down. I directed Shernaz Patel and dad (Akash Khurana) in BLACKBIRD. I remember being really nervous on the first day in the rehearsal room- it was just the two of them, and they were stalwarts, and I was trying to direct them in this serious play about pedophilia. Yet they were so kind and giving. They came in prepared with their homework done, ready to work, and completely open to ideas...so that immediately put me at ease. Besides this, I think we did a few children's plays in 2009 as well.
I think 2010 was the first year of the NCPA Centrestage festival. Deepa Gahlot had joined the NCPA. She invited us. We ended up doing two plays at the Centrestage that year- one was REBECCA, which my mother (Meera Khurana) had directed, and the other was THE INTERVIEW.
THE INTERVIEW has a strange story behind it. Siddharth (Kumar) had acted with us a lot, and I was aware that he had some kind of writing dreams but I wasn't aware that he had taken them anywhere. He one day emailed me a script, saying ''I'm sending you a script as an application for Writers' Bloc.'' It had been lying in my inbox for a while, till one day I finally opened it, and then ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting because I loved it so much.
THE INTERVIEW was huge for us. It had done only five shows when it got selected for META, and then subsequently ended up picking up four awards. The play has done about 111 shows to date. I think one very important thing that the play did was, that it became our crossover into Hindi dominated venues that had evaded us until then. It was our first play to travel to Hissar. I think because it was a simple concept, people could relate to it. With a cast of five people, it was also an easy piece to travel with. I don't think we knew it then, but THE INTERVIEW in one way defined what Akvarious was to become. It was contemporary Indian writing in terms of its language and setting- funny with some sort of a serious undertone. THE INTERVIEW was also a big inspiration for DHUMRAPAAN. I wanted to do a Hindi play that had the tonality of THE INTERVIEW.
2011 was also the year I picked up BHAGDAD WEDDING. I had actually picked up the book while traveling because I liked the blurb. I read it and loved it. I carried it around with me for three years till I finally felt that I was ready to take it to the stage. It's weird, but I was making myself good enough for the script. The play is about three friends in Iraq and London. It deals with the American invasion of Iraq- themes that we don't normally deal with in our country, and I didn't have the right cast, that is, till we did a series of shorts called CLASSIC MILDS produced by Tahira Nath.
Karan Pandit had worked with us in THE INTERVIEW. Faisal Rasheed had also acted with us before and had done a great job in CLASSIC MILDS. Nimrat (Kaur) had been with us in ALL ABOUT WOMEN. I thought that these three actors would make an interesting combination, so I handed them the script in the hope that they would do it. They loved the play. I honestly didn't expect it to run for more than ten shows, because it's about a milieu that we didn't really know much about, but maybe because at it's base, it's about friendship, it went on to do about twenty-six shows. We only had to stop because we all got busy and didn't have any dates.
(At this point we decided to take a break and divert some of our attention to the lovely food on the table)
GD: You do know and enjoy your food.
AK:Oh yeah, food is important. Two things were important to me when I was setting up my theatre company. When I was eighteen, I had acted in a play that Naseer had directed called ROMANCE FOR RUBY. It was a small part and I had one scene in it. We did about 50 shows and travelled a lot with it. Motley would, at the end of every show, come and give me five hundred bucks, which was called ''conveyance'', and I had never seen any other theatre group paying. I remember feeling, ''Wow! I've gotten money for a show after walking on stage for precisely five minutes.'' And then when they would go out of town, they would get a lot more money and gave me a thousand bucks. There was no other feeling that matched that appreciation, that they were not taking their team for granted.
So the one thing that I wanted to do when I started Akvarious, was to make sure that everyone got paid. I was told by a lot of people, and was also very shocked to find that the concept of paying in theatre (until very recently), didn't exist. I made sure that I paid my actors from the very beginning. It was not a great amount but I paid whatever I could. Eventually my mission became to do enough theatre so that by the end of the month, my team would have enough- well, not enough to may be run their house, but atleast enough that they don't feel like they've wasted their month for nothing. That was something I knew I wanted to give them.
The other thing was that I'd been a part of many rehearsals that had chai and Parle G biscuits that I decided, ''no Boss. My rehearsals need to have good food,'' primarily to keep me happy, but an army needs to be well fed, after all.
Nipum Dharmadikari had wanted to act with me for a while, so I asked him if he'd be willing to act in STAND-UP. The first thing he said to me was, ''I've heard the snacks are great.'' I felt happy that was my reputation.
GD: Your actors have been loyal to you in production after production.
AK: When we began to do well, a lot of people recommended that I get my actors to sign contracts. That just seemed preposterous to me, because I'd rather that they go out, learn new things and bring those things back to my table. I don't want to tie my actors down. It's funny how a lot of my actors kept coming back. They wanted to, and I'd rather they do that than feel tied down to me.
GD: What kind of stories drive you?
AK: I am driven by good stories, good characters. I like simplicity. I won't pretend to be something I'm not. A lot of people might think that it's similar kind of work but I don't care. I don't want my plays to ever alienate an audience. I don't want to display some scale of mind that the audience doesn't get. At an edition of META I was watching a play by Baharul Islam. There was one sequence with a wedding procession. There was a ramp that went across the stage. All that the actors did was dance from one side to the other in slow motion for six minutes, but it was the most riveting thing that I had ever seen. It completely moved me and I couldn't take my eyes off of it. The one thing that I have learnt from watching a lot of theatre in India and abroad is that everybody has their own style and aesthetics.
GK: Your brother Aadhar has created an impression of his own in the last few years, hasn't he?
AK: My brother is eight years younger than I am. I am 37. I feel much older; he is 29, and behaves much younger. I was on the train to Dehradun with Adhir Bhat, with whom I have frequently collaborated. I told Adhir that I wanted to write a humorous play about the younger generation. I wanted Aadhar to direct it. So we took a crack at writing something about these young people in our group that we were consciously/subconsciously feeling disconnected with, because they were the 'youth with the bad habits.'
GD:How did Adhir (Bhat) and you meet?
AK: In college. We hung out a lot together during 'Malhaar'. Then he went off to Cardiff to study and we lost touch till I randomly met him at an airport. He was looking for acting work and I cast him in THE EDGE.
We wrote this play called SOMETIMES and Aadhar sort of of directed it. Suddenly our original writing had a much younger voice. The plays that have defined us in the last five years have been plays like INTERNAL AFFAIRS, BOMBED, JUMPSTART - plays with a contemporary voice and language that young people like my brother actually speak.
I was having this conversation with Rahul Da Cunha (of theatre company Rage). I think the interesting transition that happened post 2011 was that a lot of young people were beginning to come into the theatre because of the kind of plays that we were doing, and those that other people were also trying, as well as the growth of Thespo into a fairly strong voice/medium. Theatre before 2010 used to be a very elite thing; an intellectual activity, but as younger people started doing it, their friends also began to come in, and realised that it could also be fun and entertaining.
It's all evolving. I think when we started about fifteen years ago, theatre people were still pretty feudal. You could only work with your theatre company. With Thespo, young people began to move around and work with each other, which is great. People are now beginning to put money into theatre. We see that happening with Aadyam, Zee... Once upon a time, alternate venues used to be an experimental thing, now they're the norm. We perform regularly at spaces like Brewbot and The Cuckoo Club. I also curate for The Cuckoo Club. This kind of accessibility is great.
GD: So tell us about your star play of the moment- DHUMRAPAAN. How did it happen?
AK: Kumud (Mishra) had acted in a play called BOMBAY DYING with me, which didn't do too many shows because it's stuck in a squabble with the company Bombay Dyeing. However, when we were working on the play, Kumud told me that he was looking for other directors to work with his theatre company D for Drama, and that he would like me to be one of them.
I was at the smoking room at the Delhi airport, observing people and watching them talk to each other. Then a girl walked in and suddenly I saw everyone change. When she left the room it was as though everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief and went back to being themselves. I knew then that I wanted to work a play around this moment. I found the smoking room to be such an interesting setting for a play. So I met Adhir (Bhat), and I told him that I wanted a play with just men talking. I told him that I wanted a 'Hindi Mamet'. I also had a story that I wanted to put in: that of an older man losing his job because of being unable to cope with technology.
Kumud was at that point working on a play with Irawati Karnik. Kunal Kapoor had asked me to do a play for the Prithvi Festival. However I wasn't in a viable place financially to produce the play on my own. So I asked Kumud and he said he'd love to, but he had to wait for the decision on Ira's play. Ira's play didn't get the rights, hence this project got green-lit. It was kind of symbiotic - I had a date and an idea, and Kumud wanted to produce. I gave him the idea. At that point, I didn't have a story. I only had a title. I told Kumud, ''It's called DHUMRAPAAN and you'll have to wear a suit. Will you do it?'' He said, ''I'd love to.'' He told me that he'll bring some of his actors and I should bring some of mine and the two groups could collaborate. One thing led to another, and the play happened.
*Gaurangi Dang is an English Literature graduate from the University of Delhi and a student of The Drama School (DSM), Mumbai. She likes to tell stories :)