When terrorists attacked Mumbai on November 26, 2011, advertising executive Kavish Sinha had just left an awards function and was celebrating with his colleagues at the Gateway of India, right opposite the Taj Mahal Palace that was under siege. Nearly a decade later, Sinha, now a casting director, was asked to find actors for Mumbai Diaries 26/11, a semi-fictional retelling of that night. “It just hit home for me,” he says. “I had been living in Mumbai for a year when the attack happened. I remember being scared for myself, but also for the city. So when I got the brief for this show, I was determined to find the best actors.”
Sinha eventually moved from advertising to photography, getting his start in casting by assisting YRF casting director Shanoo Sharma in 2015. A year later, he began casting for films and web series independently and in 2019, he set up his own company, On-My-Kayroll. Since then, he’s cast for projects such as Hasmukh (2020) on Netflix, Unpaused (2020) on Amazon Prime Video, and The Empire (2021) on DisneyPlus Hotstar. He talks about putting together the sprawling cast of Mumbai Diaries 26/11, the hardest role to cast and the one medical term that actors found the hardest to pronounce:
When you’re casting for a sprawling show like Mumbai Diaries, where do you begin? Did you get to read all the scripts beforehand?
I had read all the eight episodes before we started auditioning. I got the scripts and the character sketches, the synopsis of the show and the beat sheets of each episode. This was a massive show to cast for. There were doctors, nurses, security guards, ward boys, cops and patients. Casting patients was an ordeal because these were non-speaking parts. It’s hard to cast anyone who doesn’t have a line but is in the frame. All actors are trained to deliver dialogues or monologues. So when you tell them that they have to only breathe in a scene, that they can only convey emotion through their body language, then it gets a little difficult. We ended up casting the first guy who auditioned as a patient. He sent us a self test in which he was acting as though he had met with an accident, was hurt and was being taken to the hospital on a stretcher with an oxygen mask on.
For the rest of the cast, we began pulling out options from our database. If there’s a Marathi or Bengali part, I usually look for actors who match that ethnicity. I would not cast a Punjabi for a Bengali part, even if he matches the look because I feel that the authenticity comes from who you are as a person. So once I saw that we had nurses called Anju Verghese and Sneha Cherian, I started looking for Malayali actors who were either from Mumbai or currently working here. We didn’t want to cast any outstation actors because the shoot was long and it wouldn’t have been easy for anyone to come here from another city and stay here for that duration. Once my research team found the right actors, they showed me their past work and then I selected the five people we needed to test first for a particular role. If you’re casting a web series, you can’t make your director watch 15 auditions for a particular character when you’re supposed to show him 10 characters a day. There’s only so much he’ll be able to process. It took us six months to cast this show.
My biggest learning has been that people who are good human beings, who have a story to tell, who have seen a lot of things in life are the people who are good actors. Acting comes from your inherent, lived experiences. You can’t learn everything from books. Someone who’s inherently funny will have great comedic timing. I wouldn’t cast a sad person, someone who’s hard on themselves, for a comedic part. I understand acting is its own thing, but I want people to feel those emotions inherently. For Mumbai Diaries, I didn’t want to cast people who didn’t show compassion, vulnerability and value for human life. When actors were being screen tested for the roles of nurses and interns, some of them started crying while looking at a dead body. That was my biggest clue that these were the kinds of people I needed in the show.
When you say dead body —
I had three of my assistants playing dead bodies for months. It had to be an experiential auditioning process, so if the script had the characters being brought to the hospital with injuries, breathing heavily and then passing away — my assistants did all that. I couldn’t ask the actors to stand in front of a curtain and say their lines, they had to feel like people were dying in front of them. The show deals with a crisis, it’s not a regular day at the hospital. The patients aren’t being brought in with a cold or fever, it’s a very gory picture. We made the auditions immersive. We used space, we used equipment, we gave the actors little scissors or torches as props.
The actors had to pull off the mental stress of going through a terrorist attack plus the physical stress of having to save lives. Those were very heavy auditions, they would take a toll on the people auditioning. The women would cry.
Did they have to get the medical jargon right?
We had sent the actors their entire character arc and the whole setup of that night so they could be well-prepared when they came in to audition. They had to use a lot of medical jargon so if somebody could not say ‘tracheostomy’ right during the audition, we would get scared — if this is one word in the script that they’ve been studying for so long, how will they perform on set? Every actor is important. I’ve realised that one bad actor in the mix can ruin the entire show. Even if it is a one-scene part, you can’t take it lightly, particularly when it comes to web series. A one-scene actor can’t ruin a Salman Khan film because it’s piggybacking on Salman Khan’s popularity. But on the web, everyone has such an important part to play.
‘Tracheostomy’ was a difficult one to get right. The people auditioning took time to get the hang of saying things like, ‘Scalpel dedo.’ A lot of it had to do with body language though — they had to be gentle even when they were giving patients chest compressions. One girl came in and immediately started pressing my assistant’s chest so hard that he started coughing. I said, ‘I understand that this is a high-tension situation, but you’re supposed to be saving his life. So be gentle.’ That was funny.
One of the most intense roles was that of Diya Parekh, the intern. She had to be professional but she was also going through a personal crisis because both of her parents were trapped at the Palace Hotel. Natasha Bharadwaj’s audition was one that was the most-loved during the entire process of casting this show. She had to act out the scene in which she’s crying on the phone and telling her mother to leave the hotel. The character has forgotten that she’s a doctor, right now she’s just a daughter. Natasha doesn’t have a dad, so she brought that experience of not having a father, and missing her mother, into the audition. All five of us watching her began wailing on the spot.
Was there a role that was the hardest to cast?
Paramjeet, the old grandmother. That was tough to cast because we wanted a woman who was frail and older than 75. We knew a lot of women who were in their 60s and are still working, but very few women older than 75. We needed someone who could showcase the vulnerability of the present and the anguish of the past. I found a lot of Gujarati and Marathi actresses in that age space, but my only problem was that they didn’t fit the name ‘Paramjeet’. If the character was called Sushila, I would’ve cast them. But this character’s ethnicity was significant because she was living with the past of the Sikh riots.
Most women who read the role were scared. They were like, ‘This is too much for us to handle at this age. It’s too painful, it’s too gory.’ A lot of actors said that and I understand — at this age, no one wants to go through that. Every character required immersion, but especially Paramjeet, who’s been lying on a bed for five years with no one from her family coming to visit her.
One day, I spotted Mohini Sharma in an ad and asked my team to find out who she was. I liked that she was a Punjabi-speaking woman, which lent an authenticity to the role.
How did you strike a balance between seasoned actors and the newcomers?
This was the director’s vision. We wanted to create stars out of the interns for sure, because we had an inkling that they would continue on to season 2. But having said that, none of them were newcomers. They had all worked before.
Mohit Raina was the first to be approached for the show. We just felt that he was Dr. Kaushik — a good-looking man with a lot of pain. I remember when I was briefed on the role of Chitra Das. Hearing the character’s name just made me think of Konkona Sen Sharma because who else can you think of for a Bengali part? We had the freedom to cast someone big because this was a senior doctor’s role so getting her was a dream.
What have been your biggest learnings from the past five years as a casting director?
The biggest learning is that actors are humans. We cannot treat them as commodities. You’re not working at a general store or at a bank where you’re dealing with money or computers or other inanimate objects. You’re dealing with human beings, just like you. They could be as eccentric or vulnerable. Actors are also the most hardworking people on the planet. I don’t know anyone who’s working harder than an actor in these times, because of how erratic the job is. It’s very difficult to deal with the psychological, emotional, financial, physical and professional aspects of it. I approach casting from a human perspective — I’ve realised that I have to find good human beings, then good actors will fall into place.
In terms of the craft or technicalities, different shows have taught me different work procedures. Casting for (the Indian adaptation of) The Office was difficult because it was a mockumentary format of filmmaking. Actors are always taught to not look into the camera and here we were asking them to speak into the camera, because the camera was also an actor in the show.
You spoke about finding good human beings first and then good actors falling into place. But considering how tight audition timelines are, how do you determine who a good human being is?
I meet every actor before I audition them. I ensure that I spend some time with them, either briefing them personally or chatting with them. I also ask them to record introductions before they audition. So when I tell my team to search for actors for a particular part, they pull out these introductions from our database, and I listen to each one. You are not born an actor, you prepare to be one and who you were before you decided to become an actor is an important aspect of acting. So I look at the actors’ backgrounds, I talk to them, I like to know their stories of how they became actors, their stories of accomplishments and their failures. They sit with me for 15 to 20 minutes. They have to be brief and know how much to tell me within that time. I think that brevity is gold dust on an actor’s resume. For Mumbai Diaries, we wanted to cast people who showed us that they were compassionate.