Flying High: Up Close With Akarsh Khurana
When I walk into Sitara Studio to sit in for a rehearsal of the stage adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, the cast is merrily trying out blood capsules. The set has mock rock structures, a table with decanters of alcohol in them and some glossy kites hanging from the ceiling. The production team is trying to get the amount and viscosity of the blood right. It is a casual Wednesday morning. As I sit down to chat with writer-director Akarsh Khurana, the man seems so chill, you wouldn’t guess that he was mounting a colossal text like The Kite Runner in a few weeks. “I read The Kite Runner as soon as it came out. I liked the book. It perhaps didn’t change my life, but it was a really good read.” Khurana tells me, as we settle into a back room at Sitara, amidst costumes and props. “Cut to, I think I was in a book shop in Dubai, and in the play section, I saw The Kite Runner. I couldn’t believe someone had adapted it. But I didn’t buy a copy. Then, I think about a year later, in Bangalore, I saw a copy again in a store. I was like ‘okay, it found its way back to me, I’m gonna pick it up’”.
This is not the first time Khurana is dealing with the Middle East. Almost ten years back, his theatre company, Akvarious Productions, had brought Hassan Abdul Razzak’s Baghdad Wedding to Mumbai with Nimrat Kaur in the lead. He tells me about how he has always been obsessed with the Middle East and has spent a lot of time reading and mulling over the socio-economic and political situations and affairs of the region. Hence, The Kite Runner didn’t feel like alien territory. “Mathew Spangler, a professor of Performance Studies in San Francisco, adapted the book into a play.” Khurana tells me. “I think, now he’s also done Thousand Splendid Suns. So, when I read it, what I liked was that it worked for me as a play. I didn’t remember too much of the book. And I liked that. It was also a Hosseini-approved adaption. So, it had his blessing and I didn’t have to worry about offending him. I very consciously stayed away from watching anything from actual productions that have happened. And Mathew Spangler, who I had been in touch with, was very liberal. The stuff I told I wanted to change, he said go ahead. And if there’s something he didn’t want me to change, then he was like, ‘this is for this reason’. He worked with me on edits. It was a two and a half hour’s play, and I told him what the Indian attention span was. He reduced it to about two hours and five minutes. It was great conversing with a playwright so candidly. But I knew I would need a larger platform. That’s where Adhyam came in. I knew it was going to be perhaps too serious for them. The entertainment value would be limited. But I think with Shernaz Patel being the curator, the good thing that happened is that she sees the merit in the fact that there’s a reputation the novel has. And there’s automatically curiosity of seeing something like that on stage. Then A Few Good Men happened. I mean, this is a fairly serious year and I was happy that they were letting us tell stories like this.”
Hosseini’s book had been a heart-wrenching experience when I read it. I was young, impressionable, and hence, naturally horrified. It was a time when a bunch of strong voices were emerging from the Middle East, in literature and cinema, who were telling stories that were filled with pain, pathos and the death of Innocence. I remember Bahman Ghobadi’s Turtles Can Fly that released a year after The Kite Runner. It was also a story of children brutalised and ruined by war and politics. Hosseini’s book, along with other books and films, was a unit in a Jungian exercise of painting a comprehensive picture of what the Middle East had been going through. The film, written by David “GOT” Benioff, released in 2007, re-introducing the book to newer audiences.
Clockwise in photo The lead cast of The Kite Runner – Nipun Dharmadhikari, Abhishek Saha, Kumud Mishra, and Akash Khurana
But how does Khurana intend to make they play relevant for an Indian audience in 2019? “Different audiences will come in with different mindsets. Either they’ll come for the nostalgia or they’ll come to judge it or they’ll come to see how it came to life here. But, the people who don’t have any point of reference, they are an important part of the audience for me.” Khurana adds, going on to say that Spangler’s script also decided on the narrative direction and treatment, balancing the reality of the text and also keeping it relevant. “I think what Matthew did was that he focused on Amir’s emotional journey. There are references to everything that is happening in Afghanistan’s political climate but it never gets pedantic. It’s never really going into the nitty-gritty about the Soviet invasion. But you know there was a Soviet aggression. You know it doesn’t talk about the birth of the Taliban but the characters refer to a before-and-after scenario. So while you are constantly reminded that this is the setting of the play, this is the social predicament of the place where class difference is so pronounced, he’s never letting that come in the way of it being a story about friendship and guilt and loss and betrayal. So I think there’s enough human journey for people to connect with and I think that the shock will be there, the grief will be there, and the relief will be there too, hopefully.”
One of the most powerful visuals from the film is — to not give away too much — that of blood trickling down young Hassan’s legs, after being devastatingly brutalised, leaving behind red drops on the snow. The play does not actually show that heartbreaking scene on stage, but informs of it from a child’s perspective (as it happens in the book, where the whole incident is described by Amir), which Khurana feels packs a stronger emotional punch than the film, which visually depicted everything. The play also refrains from having a younger cast, with the adult actors flitting between old and young versions of themselves. “That’s where there’s much more onus on the actors to be able to pull off the age difference and that innocence with fluidity. That was the most interesting part, honestly. It was tough and we had to spend a lot of time on that because it’s lightning-quick transitions.” Says Khurana.
While he might be dealing with such hefty texts on stage, Khurana’s filmography is quite the opposite. He has writing credits for films like Krrish, Kites and Humshakals and has directed Karwaan. More recently, he also wrote the web series, Tripling, for TVF, which has definitely garnered a lot of appreciation for him. “When we [co-written with actor Sumeet Vyas] wrote Tripling, a lot of people said that ‘I can’t believe that this guy wrote Humshakals’”. Khurana smirks. I had the same reaction too, I tell him. Krrish, Kites and Humshakals are really not film writing to be proud of. “When I started off, getting picked up by Rakesh Roshan was a huge opportunity back then. I was just starting off and I had no experience. I used to sit in rooms with Vikram Bhatt and Rohan Sippy and Raj Kanwar and take notes. That was the best I was doing. And when I left my job, I was desperately looking for something which justified leaving my job. And I wasn’t actually getting anything. I got a call saying that Mr. Roshan wants to meet. And I am a die-hard fan of Karan-Arjun. I walked into that office and I was like whatever he says, I will do it. And I always thought he was doing interesting stuff. I always thought he was breaking new ground in his own commercial kind of way. So Krrish for me was really film school. Because after I finished writing the film, he asked me to assist him. That was like three and a half years of my life. And I also got promoted to an assistant director. Eventually, I was the VFX supervisor from the direction team. I think there was also loyalty. Then I was involved in Kites. And Anurag Basu happened. Krrish 3 happened, in the middle there was U, Me aur Hum with Ajay Devgn. But when you come to something like Humshakals, I mean, see, a lot of those decisions were certainly led by commerce. The eight years in theatre, I was earning money and losing it all in the company. My father, who has been a part of both industries, actually told me that I need to set a deadline for myself and if the company cannot support itself, I will have to shut it down. I can’t keep earning money and losing it. Fortunately, in the eighth year, we managed to get pretty big hits. And they earned enough to make the company self-sufficient. I think that is when I started standing on my own feet and take decisions that were more in tune with what I wanted to do. When it came to Humshakals, I didn’t know Sajid [Khan] at all. But it was produced by Vashu Bhagnani, who was one of the first people I worked with, who had paid me even when a film got shelved. So, there was this fuzzy sense of loyalty. I was like I cannot say no to this man because he was good to me. And so, a lot of it happened because of relationships.”
And what kind of cinema does he consume? “I watch everything. I mean, now, time doesn’t allow you to watch everything. I had the big advantage of my father almost curating what I watched. I remember very clearly that I was in school, and back then there was just Doordarshan. There was a Raj Kapoor movie every night for like a month. And they were school nights and I should have not been staying up late but dad said that I have to watch them all. They are showing all his films in chronological order. My mom had an issue but my dad actually said ‘watch them’ and I did. And perhaps I was too young for it to have an impact on me, but it was having its impact. And being around the theatre and film shoots all the time, it fixes in your DNA a little bit. So I watch everything.”
I realise that I should let the theatremaker return to his rehearsal – his “happy place”, like he mentioned earlier. I quote Hosseini – “For you, a thousand times over”. Khurana smiles. Who are the people in his life he would say that for? “I mean, this is going to be a cliched answer. I mean, everyone’s going to say ‘family’. I have a unique distinction in my life that my immediate family — my mother, father, brother and my wife — are from the theatre. So we work together, live together — and at a point of time — I had to move out because we would only be talking theatre all the time and it was like I needed some downtime. They’re my strongest support system. And I think it really helps that they understand the choices I’ve made.”
That’s a sort of emotional luxury not people have, I muse, as I watch Khurana directing his father, veteran stage and film actor Akarsh Khurana, and his brother, Adhaar.