When Akarsh Khurana and the crew of his upcoming film Karwaan rode their ocean-blue Volkswagen minivan to South India, they were little prepared to witness how big a star their lead actor Dulquer Salmaan is.
“One day, we were shooting on a newly-opened bypass. There were just a few houses on that stretch. By the time we started shooting, word spread and a huge crowd had gathered near the location, delighted to see Dulquer,” Akarsh recalls. “I heard they now call the bridge on which we were shooting ‘DQ Bridge’!”
Karwaan (Travellers), directed and co-written by Akarsh, is about three people on a road trip to Kochi as the result of a major mix-up. The film treads a route that Bollywood has rarely covered – through the picturesque Western Ghats to Kochi, where the ancient and modern co-exist, a city close to Akarsh’s heart.
The film is a comedy, a genre Akarsh identifies as his home turf. “Not that I don’t want to try out anything else,” he adds promptly. “Karwaan isn’t just about laughs. It’s also rooted in emotions and their complexities.”
The team wrapped up the shoot in 35 days. “We were constantly on the move, from a city to a small-town to a village, and so on. Shooting a road movie is tough, but it is also a lot of fun,” he says.
Apart from Dulquer, the film stars Mithila Palkar, one of the country’s biggest Internet stars, and acclaimed actor Irrfan Khan. The diagnosis of Irrfan’s neuroendocrine cancer arrived a while after the shoot was over, says Akarsh. “There were rumours. During the post-production stage, we heard people talking about it. But, when he confirmed the news, we were shocked.” Khan had already seen the first cut before he departed for London. “We have been in touch. He is happy with the way the trailer has been received.”
Karwaan is Khan’s third road movie in the last three years, after Piku and Qarib Qarib Singlle. The actor, known for the fine ease with which he portrays any role – in Indian potboilers, international films and off-beat indie movies – has a steady fan base. “He is one of country’s best actors. He has a wide reach across the country, including the South,” says Akarsh, who hopes the film’s diverse non-Bollywood cast will work in its favour.
“Dulquer has a massive fan base in the South. There is a lot of curiosity about him in Bollywood too. Mithila, apart from being an upcoming star in Marathi cinema, has a major fan following among youth, thanks to her web-series Little Things. May be, it’s not a conventional cast, but I think it could help take the film to a wider audience,” says the director.
Akarsh admits he did fear how the film would be received by the regular audience. But, the response to the trailer overwhelmed him. “Honestly, I wasn’t sure it would be loved this much,” he says.
Karwaan is Akarsh’s second feature film; his first, High Jack, a comedy released in April 2018. The multi-faceted filmmaker-actor-writer has written screenplays for films such as Krishh (2006) and Kites (2010), directed a web-series TVF Tripling, and carved out a space for himself in the field of theatre, writing, directing and producing plays under his home banner Akvarious Productions.
Karwaan began as a one-liner that filmmaker Bejoy Nambiar narrated five years ago. “He had this idea of a film centered around two dead bodies that get swapped. Over time, the project evolved, and a new producer (Ronnie Screwvala) came on board. The film is now very different from how it was when first conceived,” says Akarsh.
The road plays a major role in Karwaan. “A lot of things you see in the film were not actually planned,” reveals Akarsh. “We got the idea for some scenes and passing characters from the sights we saw. Once, driving past a village road for a recce, I saw a folk dancer in his costume sitting by the side of the road, smoking while waiting for a friend. You can see that in the trailer. Also, the graffiti in Kochi is outstanding, and I had to feature it in the movie.”
Akarsh feels he couldn’t have found better locations for the film. “Bengaluru to Kochi via Ooty is a route I have traveled on so much as part of my life in theatre. I have performed in all these places. Oh, it’s a beautiful terrain!” he says. “When it comes to road dramas in Bollywood, I think we have seen enough of North India and the Goa-Mumbai route. But, while shooting, I wasn’t aware that Chef was also being filmed in Kochi.”
The director is full of praise for the people in Kerala who were “extremely well-behaved and cooperative” during shooting. “They always kept a distance from the shooting spot, so that filming proceeded smoothly. We shot using sync sound, and it mattered that they stayed quiet,” he says.
Using sync sound was a tough choice to make, says Akarsh. “Sync sound is common in Bollywood now, but it can get difficult when shooting a road movie. My adept sound designer Anish John, a National Award winner, was initially reluctant, but came up with quirky innovative ideas,” says Akarsh.
“The timing and interaction between actors on the set is very difficult to capture in a dubbing studio, especially when you have actors such as Irrfan, who improvises so much,” says Akarsh. “Anish finally worked it out ingeniously. My cameraman Avinash Arun and he put their heads together to shoot the road scenes most innovatively. They were completely invested in the script.”
Akarsh is one of the few people in Bollywood who also has an active career in theatre. Naturally, there was no ‘transition’ from one to another, he says. “Both (cinema and theatre) always go hand in hand. It’s all fairly well-connected,” he says. “Back in 2006, I was writing Krrish , working as an assistant director, and writing and directing plays. I have made web-series, worked in television and acted in films… For me, it never really felt like I had to switch from one to another.”
The acting career, although, happened accidentally, he admits. “I am a reluctant actor. I don’t really enjoy acting, I would rather direct or work behind the camera. The little acting I’ve done is for projects by friends. I never really look for an acting opportunity,” he says.
Karwaan’s trailer opens to a scream in Malayalam, “Pani Kittii“, which loosely translates to “We are screwed!” The line is part of a funky rap number composed by Slowcheetah, a young band that has worked in the film. Three others contribute to the film’s music. Akarsh cherry-picked them from his list of favourite artistes. “There is Prateek Khuhad, a wonderful indie musician, who has composed two songs that set the theme of Dulquer’s character. And, there is Anurag (Saikia), a very talented artiste from Assam, who has done a romantic track sung by Papon. I also wanted to work with Imaad Shah, who has a great band that does a modern take of jazz,” he says, adding that the album “is not within the realm of conventional Bollywood music”.
Bollywood is going through an interesting phase, he says. “A new kind of boldness that has come in lets you make the kind of films you want to, using an unconventional cast and music.”
Akarsh cites the example of Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death In The Gunj, a slow-burning indie drama that garnered highly positive reviews last year. “It’s the kind of film that gets made when you have so much love for the art, and conviction in your script. Or, take the example of Shoojit Sicar’s October, which is driven purely by the conviction of the director, writer and the lead actor. For me, October is, in the true sense, an indie film. And see, actors are also ready to take risks.”
This transformation has been happening over the last decade, he says. “I must say, commercial Bollywood cinema will never go out of style. There will always be potboilers and masala films. But now, they co-exist with off-beat films. That line between commercial films and art cinema is blurring. People are now taking risks. Actors such as Vicky Kaushal, who started out in indie films, are now mainstream film heroes, and Varun Dhawan, who began as a commercial hero is doing an October. With all the streaming services, competition has become stiff, and that is producing better content.”