Director Akarsh Khurana is no stranger to road trips. He’s written four of the five episodes of TVF Tripling, a 2016 series about three squabbling siblings who travel across Rajasthan, Manali and a slew of other places, mend their frayed bonds and rebuild relationships.
In Karwaan, his latest release starring Irrfan, Dulquer Salmaan and Mithila Palkar, the action moves to the South – the three leads drive a Volkswagen mini van from Bangalore to Ooty to Kochi after a consignment mix-up results in one of them receiving the body of an old woman, to be swapped for that of his deceased father.
While Khurana credits Bejoy Nambiar with the idea behind this black comedy, he says he looked to American director Alexander Payne for inspiration. “I’m a big fan all his stuff. Each of his films have a sense of a journey – whether you look at Sideways (2004), or you look at The Descendants (2011), which is one of my favourites. Or even Nebraska (2013). All of them are not necessarily road trip films, but they have that mood. Karwaan has his style of humour and pain, bittersweet comedy, weird people that you meet along the way. And at the base of it, there’s a fairly emotional story.”
Khurana also spoke about the challenges of shooting on the road and how Dulquer found adoring fans even in the most remote areas.
How did the film go from one line narrated by Bejoy Nambiar four years ago to a full-fledged production?
The screenplay is written by Adhir Bhat and I. Around five years ago, both of us were acting in a film that Bejoy was directing – David. We were also writing some other projects for Bejoy and one of the ideas that he suggested had something to do with two bodies getting swapped. No other characters were fleshed out – it was about one guy getting the wrong body and then having to make a journey to set things right. He gave us the seed of this idea, which we really liked. We developed it, added characters and narrated it to him. The script was in a fairly ready state for the past two years.
The three lead actors – Irrfan, Dulquer Salmaan, Mithila Palkar – met for the first time on your set. Was this done intentionally so as to let the camaraderie between them unfold naturally onscreen?
Dulquer and Mithila had done one two-hour-long reading in Mumbai and then left. They hadn’t interacted much. All three of them met at the Ooty set for the first time. We shot the film chronologically – from Ooty to Kochi. And it helped. Dulquer and Irrfan’s characters are supposed to be friends, but Mithila getting to know them worked out like a natural progression. As we progressed towards the latter portions of the film, you could see that their equations had improved, as actors and as people. It helped the scenes as well.
You travelled from Bangalore to Ooty to Kochi. What were the challenges of shooting on the road at a stretch?
Our entire shoot was 35 days. For the bulk of it, about 29 days, we were based in Kochi, but shooting all around Kerala. There were locations that were, say, two hours away so we would leave at the break of dawn. There were certainly challenges. It was a sync-sound film so every location posed a new challenge. Kerala has a huge Dulquer fanbase so we could be shooting in the most remote areas and within half an hour people would find out.
We were driving from one location to another and we saw this bridge, which was a newly built and in the middle of nowhere. It was just two fields and a bridge. I liked it and said, ‘Can we shoot here?’ And they said, ‘Yeah sure, we’ll find out.’ As far as the eye could see there was just one house, nothing else. But within half an hour, there were 500 people, 1,000 people running through the fields and coming to see Dulquer. They were a fairly well-behaved crowd though – if you told them to be quiet, stay at a distance, they were co-operative as long as you promised them that they would get to meet Dulquer later.
It was also a nightmare for the sound department because you’ve suddenly got 500-1,000 extra people and they have to be quiet. Our sound designer Anish John is a National Award winner and the most fantastic sound designer out there. He’s phenomenal. He was a little hesitant when I told him this was what I wanted to do, but then he immediately started working out practical and innovative ways of doing it. He and Avinash (Arun, DoP) knew each other so they would sort out things between themselves.
The genre seems to lend itself to a lot of improvisation. Did that make its way into the film?
We never considered not shooting on location. When you’re making a film that’s got a journey in it, I feel like that journey becomes a really important part of the film. If you look at reactions to the trailer, a lot of people have commented on how nice Kerala looks or how beautiful the locations are.
Avinash made a film called Killa(2014), which had a lot of open spaces and nature. He has a wonderful understanding of light and what it does. He’s shot at particularly nice times, he’s shot early so he can capture Kerala at its best. Another advantage is that when you’re driving around, you spot stuff that you like and want to bring in to the film. We were driving to a hotel for a recce and I saw this dancer sitting by the side of the road in full traditional attire, smoking a cigarette. I said, ‘That’s such a bizarre image, I want it in the film.’ And it’s in the trailer. That comes out only when you’re on location – the local flavour, local culture.
As a director, I really enjoy it when actors improvise, as long as they do it within the realm of their character. It gives the dialogue a natural quality. Irrfan’s improvisations are usually spot-on. I think Mithila and Dulquer also slowly started improvising once they got into the skin of their characters. They started doing instinctive things. Some of the funniest stuff in the film is what they came up with on set. It just came together nicely.
This has been a busy year for you – you’ve directed two movies (High Jack and Karwaan), starred in TVF’s web show Yeh Meri Family and you’re also doing a play. What’s a typical day of work for you like?
If I actually were to sit down and kind of break it down, I’d probably get too intimidated myself. I curse my life quite often. It has been like this for me since the beginning. When I was setting up my theatre company, I was doing a 9-6 job and then I would come to the theatre and rehearse till 2 AM. So I don’t think there’s ever been a point where I don’t have so many things going on.