Rachit Gupta (BOMBAY TIMES; August 3, 2018)

Akarsh Khurana is having a busy 2018. His first feature film as director High Jack, with Sumeet Vyas, released a few months ago and his second film, Karwaan, featuring Irrfan, Dulquer Salmaan and Mithila Palkar releases today. He’s also a very popular face on the digital medium, where he writes, directs and acts with quite a lot of success. He’s written movies like Krrish (2006), U Me Aur Hum (2008), Kites (2010) and Krrish 3 (2013), while he’s also acted in Bejoy Nambiar’s David (2013) and Aditya Chopra’s Befikre (2016). Akarsh has also been heading a popular theatre company along with his family, for nearly two decades. With years of experience behind him, he’s now gearing up for a successful innings as a Bollywood filmmaker. Excerpts from a free-wheeling chat with the multi-faceted man.

You’ve had two back-to-back releases this year – High Jack (debut film) and now Karwaan. It looks like a busy year, especially for a first time filmmaker.
That was never the plan. I shot High Jack in May-June and Karwaan in September-October in 2017. Last year was a bit hectic. I’m just thankful that they haven’t released in the same month.

You must have been disheartened to see your debut film, High Jack not doing well at the box office.
It suffered from a very bad release. I don’t think a lot of people even knew that a film like that was playing in theatres. Bas woh aake nikal gayi, which is kind of sad because I still feel it’s a very enjoyable film and once it releases online, I’m sure it will find its audience.

Karwaan has an impressive ensemble cast. How did you manage to bring together stars from three different platforms – Irrfan (Bollywood), Dulquer Salmaan, (Malayalam star) and Mithila Palkar (internet sensation)?
Shubh Shivadasani, our associate producer suggested we take the film to Irrfan. Hum toh utna bada soch bhi nahi rahe the. Hamare liye toh Irrfan ke saath narration milna hi badi baat hai, unhone haan bol diya, woh toh sone pe suhaga tha. We met him when Hindi Medium was being shot. He was interested almost immediately. Once Irrfan said a ‘yes’, we went and locked Dulquer for the film. I’ve known Mithila before she became an internet sensation. I’ve known her for a long time, but I didn’t want to cast her just because I knew her. So we did an audition with her and then we did two months of auditions with other girls but Mithila’s audition was still the best one.

How did you zero in on Dulquer Salmaan?
Again, Shubh suggested Dulquer for the role. I had just seen one film of his – Charlie (2015). I couldn’t cast him on the basis of that one film, because his role in Charlie was very different from what I had imagined for the character in Karwaan. So I watched two more films and I realised he has an incredible range as an actor. When we met him for the first time we knew he was the perfect choice. Dulquer’s sensibilities as a person and as an artiste are special. He looks for these off-beat subjects and unique perspectives. His response to the project was, ‘If Irrfan is doing this film, then I am in safe hands.’

Sumeet Vyas, your lead in High Jack and Mithila Palkar, one of your leads in Karwaan, are both internet stars. You have been acting, writing and directing on the digital platform, too. Is there a pattern over there?
It’s a mere coincidence. When we were casting for the character of Tanya in Karwaan we looked at actresses from all walks of life and from all mediums. You know, that’s how the cookie crumbles. A new medium becomes popular and since we’ve all come up via the digital platform, our paths tend to intersect. I’m acting on the digital platform as well. Working with Sumeet and Mithila is like having a crossover; we’re all growing and exploring these opportunities together.

What was your reaction when you found out about Irrfan’s neuroendocrine tumour?
First, there were these rumours floating around and before that he’d seen the first cut of our film and he’d given his feedback and he was generally very happy about it. Then, once we got a confirmation of his illness, we were all just very shocked. Just a few months ago we were shooting with him. During the shoot he was perfect, he was travelling between to Chandigarh for some work. He was attending film screenings and everything was looking great. But once we got the details and the confirmation, it just jolted us. I mean, we spent 40-45 days working with him and that’s enough time on a film set to form an equation and an attachment with a person. I just hope he makes a full recovery soon and returns to the movies.

High Jack was a stoner comedy while Karwaan is a road movie. Do these offbeat subjects excite you as a storyteller?
I like real comedy and emotions. I like stories like Karwaan that are rooted in reality and a slice-of-life space. High Jack wasn’t too realistic, but it was still about people being in real world situations and things going wrong for them. Having worked on films like Krrish, Kites and Krrish 3, I have had a tryst with larger-than-life cinema, but it’s the small stories that resonate with me. Karwaan has a wonderful journey from Cochin to Bangalore and it puts these quirky characters in the most bizarre circumstances. They’re driving around with a dead body. That’s the sort of humour that works for me. That’s my voice as a filmmaker.