For an industry long been criticised for typecasting actors, it would seem Malayalam cinema has fared better over the past few years. Films with fresh faces and little-known names have managed to become sleeper hits at the box office. Characters played by new actors and even non-actors have translated so well on screen, as if the roles were written just for them. It was films such as Sudani From Nigeria, Angamaly Diaries and Kumbalangi Nights that got people talking about the relevance of finding the right people for the part, over having a starry cast. The role of the casting director opened up, and since then, we have been seeing how films with newcomers and lesser-known names become sleeper hits at the box office.
A still from Sudani From Nigeria, in which theatre artistes Savitri Sreedharan and Sarasa Balussery made their film debut
For Abu Valayamkulam, who has cast for films such as Sudani From Nigeria, Thamaasha and Argentina Fans Kattoorkadavu, nothing quite matches the joy of finding new artistes and helping them transform into film actors through workshops and classes. “Zakariya (director of Sudani) was my student and I was just helping him find the characters he was looking for,” says Abu, a veteran theatre actor, speaking about his debut as casting director. “Only after the film’s release did people really start talking about the role of casting in Malayalam cinema.”
In Thamaasha (2019), Abu cast around 10 newcomers, 46 in Argentina Fans Kaattoorkadavu (2019) and in Aanaparambile World Cup, a football-based film starring seven young boys, the lead roles are all played by newcomers. Through Operation Java, 20 more newcomers will make their official entry into the industry. In Aanaparambile World Cup, which also stars Anthony Varghese of Angamaly Diaries, one of the main leads is Dani PK, a class 5 student from Kozhikode, whose zero-angle goal went viral on social media. Abu says he is also working on another movie where the leads will be played by all newcomers.
Malayalam films with an entire ensemble cast of newcomers are rare. Some which managed it include Vineeth Sreenivasan’s Malarvaadi Arts Club (2010), Ganesh Raj’s Aanandam (2016), Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Angamaly Diaries (2017), Dijo Jose Antony’s Queen (2018) and Omar Lulu’s Oru Adaar Love (2019).
Vineeth Sreenivasan in an interview once explained that the trend of debut directors introducing fresh faces and making them stars began much before Malarvadi Arts Club — the film that launched Nivin Pauly, who recently completed 10 years in the industry and has grown into a star who’s also a performer.
For Angamaly Diaries, which starred more than 86 newcomers, several auditions were conducted in and around Angamaly and even in schools of theatre such as the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady, where one of the characters Appani Ravi was discovered.
Ganesh Raj, director of Aanandam, in which a group of friends goes on their very first, much-awaited college trip, points out that he decided to hold auditions in colleges and find newcomers, because all his main characters were below 20 years of age. “I did not want to want to cast 30-year-olds and make them look like 20-year-olds. This was the first criteria and I couldn’t find anybody in the industry who fit this. So, I decided to find newcomers,” he says.
The auditions were held without much hue and cry, says Ganesh. “We chose six to seven colleges in Kerala, besides an equal number in Bengaluru and Chennai, and got permission to hold auditions within the institutions. I have assisted in a few films such as Bangalore Days and Thattathin Marayathu and have been part of the normal, public casting process. But, even if I put out a casting call for an ‘18-year-old boy who is not very physically well-built but has a great smile’, a 50-year-old will still apply, and you can’t blame the person. It just makes the process more time-consuming. For Aanandam, we also got in touch with theatre groups in Mumbai — this is how we found Roshan (Mathew) — and in Chennai, we found Vishak. The others were all shortlisted in colleges — Annu, who played Devika, and Thomas, who played Akshay, were from auditions in Christ College, Bengaluru. I wasn’t looking for well-rounded actors. I knew my characters and was trying to find people who were like those characters in real life,” says Ganesh.
Kammatipaadam (2016), which had some casting choices that people later labelled faultless, had assistant directors doubling up as casting directors, while the team of Kumbalangi Nights (2019) held several rounds of auditions for many roles and the writers were also involved in the casting process.
The arrival of the casting director
What really spurred the need for casting directors in Malayalam cinema, says Abu Valayamkulam, is the emergence of region-specific films that called for distinct Malayalam dialects. As movies were being set in places like Kannur and Kozhikode, directors reached out beyond their existing network to seek help from theatre artists from these areas to bring their characters to life.
“When a director is doing a movie set in a region he is not from, it gets difficult. This is where I come in. Director Ahammed Khabeer (June) is directing his next movie Inshallah, produced by Joju George. I’m casting for it. The director is from Kottayam and the movie has characters from the Malabar region. Most directors double up as casting directors because they have an idea and choose actors from the industry. When it comes to new faces, that’s when casting directors are essential,” Abu says.
Vijay Babu of Friday Film House, which has backed films such as Angamaly Diaries, June and Sufiyum Sujathayum, feels that casting is a job best left to the professionals. For his next movie, the Sathyan biopic, the producer is considering roping in a casting agency from Chennai or Mumbai. One key reason, he says, is that newcomers feel more comfortable performing in front of a casting director rather than the director, writer or producer of the movie. “Casting as an industry must come up in Malayalam as well. Today, directors, writers and producers of the movie are closely involved in the casting process. This could end up making those who are auditioning a little nervous, especially if they’re newcomers. They may not be able to deliver their best performance. For instance, I was also present in the room during the auditions for June, and Sarjano Khalid, a newcomer who finally ended up playing the role of Noel, appeared flustered. So I asked him to take five minutes to relax and tried to make him feel comfortable. He came back and delivered a really good performance,” said Vijay.
However, not all upcoming films have casting directors. “I had five to six assistant directors who handled the casting process,” says Dijo Jose Antony, director of Queen. “Just like in Bengaluru and Mumbai, there are casting teams here that will send in images if you tie up with them. But in Queen’s case, I was very particular about not missing out people who may not be there in the list sent in by a casting team. So, we kept the auditions open. I was flooded with many applications and requests, mostly from male actors. For the female lead, we did not get any solid leads even after several rounds of auditions. Finally, an acquaintance messaged saying a girl might meet our requirements, and that was Saniya. The actors chosen through the auditions were accommodated in other roles in the movie.” Dijo Jose Antony’s next Pallichattambi stars Tovino Thomas. “However, if a new script demands freshness, I will definitely make a movie with fresh faces again,” he says.
Ganesh, who handled the casting for Aanandam, says the important thing is to create a friendly environment where the prospective actors can interact naturally and be themselves. “During the initial round of auditions, we just wanted to see how they are in front of the camera, how confident they are. Most of these kids are not confident, and that’s fine. Arun, who eventually played Varun, was not very confident when he came, but we saw the spark in his eyes. We gave him four auditions — he did extremely well in the last one.”
Jude Anthany Joseph, director of Oru Muthassi Gadha, says he will wait a while before doing a movie without a star cast. His directorial debut was Ohm Shanthi Oshaana, starring Nivin Pauly and Nazriya Nazim, and he is currently working on 2403 ft, starring Tovino Thomas.
Yash Nagarkoti, who has casted for films such as Shakuntala Devi and Chintu Ka Birthday, besides the series Little Things, points out that there are two ways to go about casting — finding actors who can play the character and finding characters and training them to become actors. “In the Malayalam industry, quite often, they try and get real characters and make them perform. However, a good actor can transform into any character if he/she is trained. In Chintu Ka Birthday, the kid who plays the main lead was a non-actor and we didn’t ask him to act because when kids act, they tend to do filmy stuff. So we asked him to just be, and react like he would in real life,” Yash adds.
Casting directors also say that a majority of scripts come to them with the male and female leads decided in advance. The casting director is most often only tasked with breathing life into the supporting characters.
Not all is rosy
While it may look like Malayalam cinema has finally opened its doors to newcomers and outsiders, there are issues too. Eldho Mathew, who got his first big break when he was cast in Queen, says that while things changed a bit for him after that, many actors are still trying to land their movie. In the process of landing his dream break, Eldho too came across his fair share of fake casting calls. Aspiring actors point out that the number of such cases have only gone up recently, with the most recent one being fake audition calls for a web series.
Following these cases, the Film Employees Federation of Kerala (FEFKA) has published helpline numbers through a short film titled ‘Act Smart’, starring actress Anna Ben and narrated by Mohanlal.
“I have been to more than 500 auditions, shortlisted in at least 400 and met the director in 350. I was promised a role in more than 100, but the truth is that I have attended only 10 genuine auditions in my life. The number of fake audition calls is on the rise,” says Mohit, an aspiring actor. What keeps these fake operators going is the passion these newcomers have. “I will continue to reply to casting calls, send introduction videos, travel all the way to Kochi and show up at auditions, no matter what my instincts tell me about their genuineness. Because, cinema is my passion, and I will keep coming back to it.”