The bespectacled director Akarsh Khurana warmly enquires if I would like a cup of coffee, fretting about how I must be cold from the rain. We meet at The Cuckoo Café to talk about Khurana’s new film
, but the conversation easily shifts from the film, to his love for Kerala. Khurana is unfailingly polite, steering the conversation back to the question when he feels his answer has strayed too far.

Starting out

What soon becomes evident is that Khurana enjoys how the events of his life fall into place serendipitously. It is only a coincidence, he stresses, that
begins with a man stuck in a rut in a corporate job – much like Khurana once was before he made his way to theatre and films. Khurana, who runs Akvarious Productions, a city-based theatre group, worked for Columbia TriStar, before leaving his job to write. “After about a year of not having earned any money, I thought I should go back to my corporate job,” he says. That’s when he got offered the job as screenwriter for
(2006). Khurana soon moved to writing and directing online content for the creative independence the medium offered. All the while, he directed and produced plays, and occasionally, turned into a “reluctant actor”. About his appearance in
(2016) and
(2013) Khurana jokes and laughs, “With
it was 40 days in Paris, [and]
took me to Ireland. I am very shallow!”

Talking about the genesis of
, he shares that writer-actor Adhir Bhat and he were acting in
(2013), directed by Bejoy Nambiar. “Bejoy actually gave us the seed of this idea, about the wrong body landing up to a guy, who has to take a journey to exchange it for the right one,” chuckles Khurana while adding, “It was a really bizarre but lovely idea.” Bhat and he developed the script, which involves Avinash (Dulquer Salmaan) taking this trip with his friend Shaukat (Irrfan Khan) to retrieve his deceased father’s body (played by the director’s father, Akash Khurana). On the way they pick up 19-year-old Tanya (Mithila Palkar) whose grandmother’s body had accidentally been sent to them.

It was by fortuity that Khurana gathered such a diverse cast, “I would’ve never dreamt that I would be narrating to Irrfan,” he says. Then at the suggestion of associate producer Shubh Shivdasani, Khurana familiarised himself with Salmaan’s Malayalam films. Once they met, the filmmaker says, “I desperately wanted him to do it. I just loved the guy that he was. He said, ‘If Irrfan sir is doing the film, then my film is in safe hands.’” Salmaan assured Khurana he would pick up the language, and often ran through his lines with him to get his pronunciation right. “He picked up Hindi for
,” shares the director. Finalising on internet sensation Palkar was a longer process, because Khurana did not want to choose her on account of knowing her. But after auditioning around 40 women, he picked Palkar.

Dream team

Offering a glimpse into their dynamic, Khurana says that the cast’s age differences and varied backgrounds intrigued the actors. Their conversations would delve into Malayalam cinema, and the character of content produced on the Internet. Initially Khurana found himself star struck by Khan and Salmaan. “I had to keep reminding myself that ‘boss, you’re not a fan, you’re a director.” But the crew hit it off easily. “Mithila is young and bubbly, and sings all the time. Which is very cute for a while, but Dulquer and Irrfan would tell her to shut up,” Khurana recalls between laughs.

On the road

The film travels from Bangaluru, to Mysore, Ooty, Kottayam, Kumarakom and Kochi. “Kerala is very organically woven into the script,” says the director. “And it was really nice to revisit Ooty,” he adds, referring to how the hill station was a popular Bollywood setting in the ’80s and ’90s. Journeys seem like a recurring motif in Khurana’s works, especially recently. He co-wrote a web series called
about a road-trip that three siblings take, and his last directorial feature, the stoner comedy
High Jack
(2018), follows events that unravel on a flight to Delhi. While Khurana says it’s accidental, he admits to paying homage to filmmaker Alexander Payne through his work. “His films do have journeys,” he says pensively, listing Payne’s
About Schmidt
(2004), and
The Descendants
(2011). “I wouldn’t say that’s what draws me to them. It’s that he finds a lot of humour in pain,” says the director. Khurana is now shifting gears and writing a thriller — a web-series texturally inspired by the Bard’s tragedies. “But I’m craving to direct some theatre,” Khurana says as conclude the interview.

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