Akarsh Khurana on his troubled play Bombay Dying, and how wit finds a way into his writing
'While writing, it is very important to be true to your own voice,' says Akarsh Khurana. 'Write what you know and what you have researched.'
Editor's note: This interview is part of a series where playwrights talk about the struggles of writing and staging their script/s.
The urge to tell a story is strong in Akarsh Khurana. Be it for cinema or for theatre, this playwright/screenplay writer/director/producer/lyricist/actor thrives on being the raconteur. His debut film High Jack may have missed the mark at the box-office, but he followed it up with Karwaan, a delicious dark comedy that is both poignant and hilarious — a bit like Akarsh. To those who barely know him, he wouldn’t qualify as a very funny person until you pay close attention to what he says. A great deal of his writing too is representative of who he is. The humour and the layers are subliminal, but when you spot them, you can’t unsee or unhear them.
We meet at a coffee shop in Khar at a time when Akarsh is having the best of both worlds: being the director of a hit film and still enjoying the distinct obscurity of a theatrewallah. He’s observing the world around him even as he speaks with complete attention. It’s almost as if his mind is working doubly faster than the words that leave his mouth. He’s grateful for the response to Karwaan, delighted that a script which gave him his voice has been so well-received.
That hasn’t always been the case with Akarsh. A script he wrote a few years ago even made its way to the stage before it was abruptly pulled off. “I had been managing the company (AKVarious Productions) since 2000, adapting various scripts for stage, producing and directing plays while also writing screenplays for cinema. Bombay Dying was my debut as a playwright from start to finish. It opened the Prithvi Theatre Festival in 2015 and was widely appreciated. It had an ensemble cast starring Kumud Mishra, Ayesha Raza Mishra, Siddharth Menon, Shriya Pilgaonkar, Anand Tiwari, Tariq Vasudeva and Ira Dubey. In fact, the play even ran a few shows after the festival.”
The play’s theme, treatment and performances resonated with the largely Mumbai audience. From the time he watched Sunil Shanbhag’s Cotton 56, Polyester 84 (written by Ramu Ramanathan), Akarsh had been intrigued by how people’s lives changed when the mills shut down. Simultaneously, he was keen on doing a Mumbai-centric play that was connected by geography. “Not just have the play set in Mumbai, but literally connect the sub-plots through geography. When we were working on another play, A Special Bond — a comedy that addresses racial stereotyping — there’s a line about how today we are so disconnected from those who live close to us. ‘Here we know our neighbours, it’s not like those buildings in which if you smile at your neighbour in an elevator, they think you’re mad’. That really stayed with me,” says Akarsh.
He was keen on playing with a couple of things while working on this theme. For starters, he wanted to write a play that had a non-linear narrative. Coupled with intersecting plotlines, Bombay Dying started to take shape almost as soon he had the title in mind. From the start of his research to opening day, the process was swift for Akarsh, running for almost three months from start to finish. During his research of the Dadar (E) locality, he noticed that there was an abandoned, unfinished monorail line in the area. “It was almost like the land that time forgot. And that as a motif to me was very interesting. The play was set among locations that really exist. While I wanted to set the play in the same area, Bombay being Bombay [sic] has so much variety of cultures even within one sq. km. Meanwhile, a variety of influences were permeating into my writing. I wanted to try a Crash or Amores Perros kind of structure. Hussain (Dalal) told me to bring in the riot references. It became a play entwined with the lives of those who somehow are related to the displacement of the mills shutting down, connected my geography and, umm, death. Hence the title.”
DEATH OF A PLAY
While the play received wide appreciation, it also caught the attention of the owners of the now-defunct mills — Bombay Dyeing. Prithvi Theatre as well as Akarsh, received legal notices that the play has the potential to bring disrepute to the brand. The mills may have shut but the brand remains in various avatars even today. “We got a notice from Bombay Dyeing that stated that the company owned not just the name but the nomenclature as well. I thought it was a pun and that dropping the ‘E’ would be enough. The company held that the play is called Bombay Dying and even without the E, it is giving the brand negative connotation,” says Akarsh.
Akarsh knew he couldn’t hide the fact that the play was indeed about the mills and the theme of death was omnipresent. Besides the prominent mill references during the play, he decided to screen a documentary on mill workers before the play, showcasing a series of interviews with those who were displaced by the closure of Bombay Dyeing Mills. This was set to the soundtrack of city-centric songs playing on loop. “The mill references are subliminal but they’re there if you look out for them. The play isn’t about the mills closing but about three different people connected to the fact that the mills closed all those years ago. There are two urbane characters who are staying in a building that has come up in place of where the mills once stood, incidentally owned by the same mill owners.”
Akarsh went to Prithvi Theatre’s Kunal Kapoor, who too had received the notice. Kunal had done a documentary for Bombay Dyeing and volunteered to mediate between the two parties. He spoke with them and came back to Akarsh with an offer: Change the title and ensure that there’s no negative connotation regarding the brand name. “At first my cast thought I was married to the title, which may have been so, but I knew that changing the title robs the play of one very strong binding factor. Even if I had to do that, I couldn’t remove the mill references. The context was everything, and removing the context renders the story irrelevant. We had a series of meetings with the cast and all those who were working on the play. Somehow, I felt (and this is where creative people tend to be eccentric) that it was compromising the sanctity of the play. These changes would make it just another play. I didn’t want to lie and I didn’t want to court controversy either. It was a tough decision to make but I finally realised that I’d rather be with the memory of staging six shows the way I’d want the play to be, than a compromised kind of play.”
The play may have seen short-lived success, but it happened at a time when Akarsh was already becoming a name to reckon with in the world of cinema. With films such as Krrish, Kites, U Me Aur Hum, and Krrish 3 already in his kitty, Akarsh was also working on the TV mini-series, TVF Tripling. Spearheading a production house that has had five nominations for the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (including All About Women and Blackbird), bagging two (The Interview, Baghdad Wedding) for Best Play, has been monumental.
Through all of this, his writing process has remained largely similar. He tries to read and watch films in the genre that he’s writing. While he makes notes constantly on his phone, he can only sit to write at his desktop computer. “Most importantly, I don’t think I can write without knowing roughly what the story’s end would be like. Not the exact ending but something that drives me to write the rest of the story, almost leading to it.”
Karwaan, he says, was a story that worked because he found his voice in it. “While writing, it is very important to be true to your own voice. Write what you know and what you have researched. And if you choose to go out of your comfort zone and write, make sure that you’ve researched it thoroughly and you’re ready to write about something that doesn’t naturally come to you. Another very important part of my storytelling is the music. I pride myself on the music that we use and know that music can aid a scene greatly. That said, I first write the play and then factor in the need for music.”
His brand of humour, he admits, is reflective of his personality. He prefers understated wit to the in-your-face guffaws because that is who he is. AKVarious plays resonate this dry humour, oftentimes interjected in inappropriate situations. He laughs, “That’s just who I am. And weaving wit into the plays is another extension of finding my own voice.”
This Life at Play: Read an excerpt from Girish Karnad's memoir on how he transformed FTII's acting course
This Life at Play has been translated from Kannada in part by Karnad himself and in part by award-winning translator Srinath Perur.
How a reluctant Russian singer became the poster boy of China's Sang culture, hero of young pessimists across the country
Feelings such as dejection, frustration, along with self-deprecation and pessimism, have in the last few years come to be unabashedly celebrated in China in a distinct youth subculture known as Sang culture.
The comfort of reading in World War I: The bibliotherapy of trench, troopship and hospital magazines
A deep dive on how these magazines cared for soldiers, considering their significant psychological and emotional benefits.