As the NCPA prepares to present an adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s award-winning play A Small Family Business, to be staged two years after it was initially planned, we talk to director Adhaar Khurana about dramatic turns—onstage, in life and during multiple lockdowns.

By Akshaya Pillai for the May 2022 issue of the ON Stage, the NCPA’s arts magazine.

The date on which I speak to Adhaar Khurana—9th April—marks a coincidence that dawns on me only as I begin to type the story of a play that lay idle on the director’s table enduring its own version of a lockdown. We spoke on the very same date the play was supposed to have been staged two years ago without realising its significance, and spent a chunk of the afternoon discussing the sociology of humour and the essence of a good play.

A new direction
Khurana loves to entertain. This could be why he started off as an actor and this is definitely why he has done a lot of comedies. One of the most popular parts he has essayed is in the play Internal Affairs, which narrates the story of a guy and a girl who hook up at an office party. Like Jean Houston who famously said that at the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities, Khurana, who also directed the play, used the prism of laughter to speak his mind and explore the world around him. But something changed as he donned the role of this young spirited guy in an urban office day after day, eternally confused and consumed by boyish thoughts like ‘why do girls always think like this?’ Khurana realised that he wanted to work on something more significant. “I was getting a little tired of romcoms, and I wanted to do something slightly edgy. I wanted the audience to enjoy themselves but also take something home. I wanted more than just a laughter riot, something with an X factor,” he tells me over the phone.

But can humour be at once thought-provoking and entertaining? How can it have a profound effect? Sometime in 2019, when Khurana was plagued by such questions, he stumbled upon Alan Ayckbourn’s play A Small Family Business and in the protagonist’s meltdown, he found some answers. “The play was meaty and not superficial. It had the right amount of darkness. Having said that, the brilliance of the play is in how it is relatable despite tackling such a grim subject.”

A play of relevance
The Olivier and Tony award-winning playwright’s work is a dark humour-soaked tale of a man of principle living in a corrupt world. Having premiered in 1987, the original play comments on Thatcher-era ideals of capitalism, the erosion of moral codes and the idea that ‘greed is good’. Khurana’s adaptation is set in a universe of its own—present-day Delhi—rather than being a period piece. There are subtle but familiar references to protest marches and a character expressing resentment towards vast profits made by capitalist firms from selling basic necessities. Meanwhile, the collision of two distinctly different cultures by way of marriage is reflected in the modern, dysfunctional family. The script, adapted by his brother Akarsh Khurana, was three weeks into rehearsals when the pandemic hit.

The exact moment when Khurana realised that the play will have to be cancelled has been erased from his memory. But he remembers being at home, and what he remembers more vividly is the uncertainty. “We kept planning dates. Initially, we thought we’d do it the coming month, then the end of the year, then next summer and so on. What’s nice about the NCPA is they still wanted to do it when things finally got back to normal.”

I ask Khurana, in different ways, if the pandemic affected the play at all but he doesn’t believe in the need to stay true to our realities. “Culturally, especially in films and plays, it’s easier to behave as though it never happened,” he says. Our life for the past few years has become so bizarre and surreal that creators everywhere feel the need to keep the pandemic details at bay in their work. In these difficult times, the main aim of art is to help escape. “No one wants to see a pandemic while we are living it. Everyone wants a break from it,” he believes.

Lockdown tales
As we discuss the lockdowns, Khurana tells me how the theatre fraternity was among the worst hit. 2020 was special for their theatre company, Akvarious Productions, as it marked the 20th year of existence. But while Akarsh was busy planning a digital celebration, readings and an online production titled Covid or Without You, Khurana was always questioning who they were doing this for. “It is for us,” Akarsh would say. Covid or Without You featured solos, musicals, new writings on topics like mental health, mythology, mask-wearing and short musings. “I was finding it hard because I believe theatre can’t function without a live audience. Doing something online just did not feel the same. It ensured that a lot of actors for whom theatre was everything had something to do and feel relevant and sane. These Instagram pieces we performed from the comfort of our homes helped us not get rusty but I couldn’t wait to get back to the stage,” he says. The cast of A Small Family Business stayed in touch through the pandemic. Some of the members were a part of the social media specials. Khurana speaks with much fondness about Keith Sequeira’s lockdown musical which was a part of the online production.

Khurana is excited about A Small Family Business. This is his second project at the NCPA after acting with his father Akash Khurana in the 2012 adaptation of Tuesdays with Morrie. “We didn’t have to change any references; everything still seemed relevant and that is an ode to Ayckbourn’s brilliance. The script still stands, works as much as it did then,” he says.

Akarsh’s adaptation follows the original’s theme, plot and structure but is slightly shorter and crisper. It narrates the story of a morally staunch man, whose father-in-law entrusts him with his family furniture business. Soon, he is faced with dishonesty, double-crossing, stealth and discomforting truths that test his scruples and push him to choose between compromising his ideals and destroying the family business. Driving the point home through farce, the original bagged the Evening Standard Award for Best Play.

This time around, rehearsals started from mid-March and coming back to the same play after a long gap felt strange and familiar at once. There was also a sense of newness that the new cast members brought. While some of the cast members are the same, Digvijay Savant, Preetika Chawla, Vrinda Kacker, Sarthak Kakar, Tanushri Jain and Jeh Alexander are the new additions to the cast.

“What is different this time is that I feel we have left uncertainty behind, that I can see the end of the tunnel. I am so happy that we get to perform for a live audience at full capacity again. As a performer, actor, director, the materialisation of this play after a gap of three years is special,” Khurana says. “For me, in this ever-changing world, this performance at the NCPA is a symbol of hope.”