A sports biopic, a political satire, a teenage romance, a family drama, a play on climate change. There seems to be nothing Akarsh Khurana hasn’t done in the last couple of years. Now on a sabbatical, he has written and directed a new play, The F Word, and adapted Anahita Uberoi’s As Bees In Honey Drown for the last Aadyam Season (an Aditya Birla theatre initiative). His theatre troupe, Akvarious Productions, has hit 100 shows with two of its best-running productions, Dekh Behen and Internal Affairs.
During this time, Akarsh has also produced two of his most political works— a play, There’s Something In The Water, and the OTT series Jugaadistan. Then there is Go With The Flow, their most ambitious production, with 22 new actors, directed by brother Adhaar Khurana. If that wasn’t enough, he has turned podcast host for the first time. Unscripted With Akarsh Khurana by Aadyam is a rare insight into the lives of theatre makers and actors, in an informal setting.
Khurana chooses to meet me in a bookshop in Bandra, Mumbai, arriving well ahead of time for a quick look around before he settles with his coffee. His book and film recommendations on Instagram have a following of their own.
Akvarious Productions, founded by actor Akash Khurana (Akarsh’s father) in the 1990s, is now helmed by Akarsh, with support from his younger brother, Adhaar. To say Akarsh Khurana is having a moment in theatre, film, and now podcasting, would be an understatement.
He tells us that the path to this success was paved during the pandemic. Mismatched Season One and Two, Rashmi Rocket, Jugaadistan were all in production and several online theatre events were conducted through Akvarious Live.
Whether it is the story of love-struck Rishi and Dimple in Mismatched or the political play There’s Something In The Water, there is one thing Akarsh, now in his 40s, never loses sight of: the youth. This is at the heart of Akvarious’ philosophy. “There is an entire generation, 8-10 years younger than me, who felt alienated from the theatre that was happening. I am trying to find stories relatable for the youth but also balancing them with a certain maturity of what we are telling. People now watch theatre on a date night,” he says.
“I was almost 40 when Mismatched came to me. I read the book and understood the appeal but didn’t know why they chose me; I was almost double the age of the characters,” Akarsh says about what is perhaps his biggest hit, adding, “The reasoning I got was how I depicted Mithila’s character in Karwaan. It was the first time a teenage girl was not irritating. She was spunky but she also displayed a certain maturity.”
He co-directed the first season with actor/director Nipun Dharmadhikari and went solo in the second. Then came Jugaadistan, a Lionsgate series set in Delhi University that digs deep into education scams and college politics. Akarsh rates it as his best work so far but says he nearly turned it down. “After season 2 (of Mismatched), so many of the offers that came to me were youth-related.... So, when Jugaadistan came, I said no initially because I was told it was another college story,” he recounts.
Akarsh tries to keep abreast of the needs of a Gen Z audience. “Interacting with the young keeps me grounded.... People stop being part of the conversation. Even if you are ignorant, you have to be in the room,” he says. And though he doesn’t always curate what he watches and reads on the basis of work, he confesses he has liked the odd youthful show. “I do try and watch content that is younger than my demographic from time to time. And I end up enjoying something like Dash & Lily and am shocked by myself. Perhaps because it’s set in a bookshop,” he says.
Theatre, he admits, is where he gets to say what he wants to. “It’s also the nature of things. Films are far more collaborative. There are so many moving parts. In a play, it’s a fairly tight unit, and it’s easier to have a common vision,” he says.
And the larger vision is what seems to drive many of his choices and work. When it comes to film-making, it is the post-production process that he enjoys most. “It’s there that you are able to realise your vision as a creator,” he says.
He keeps meticulous Excel sheets of every play, with percentages and occupancy to see what kind of growth it has seen. Though he can now foretell the future of the production with the first 10 shows, the success of Dekh Behen surprises him. “We have never seen anything like it. We started at Cuckoo Club with 60 seats and have now done over 100 shows,” he says. At the 100th show, he announced Dekh Behen 2, set to hit the stage in August.
Go With the Flow will be staged on 2 July at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai. Visit www.ncpamumbai.com for details.
Prachi Sibal is a Mumbai-based writer.