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Amal Shah was returning from a wedding, doing a stunt or two on his cycle through the lanes of Mattanchery, when a passerby stopped him and asked for his contact information. Shah had seen the man before in Annayum Rasoolum, but was wary of being stopped on the road, especially since he had smuggled a few leftover chicken legs inside his shirt pocket from a wedding feast. 

Govind Pai had another similar encounter. He had fallen off his cycle and was abusing the vehicle in chaste Konkani, when the same gentleman was seated at his mother’s tea shop. That was how actor-director Soubin Shahir found the two lead actors for his debut film Parava (2017). “Govind’s leg was bleeding but he didn’t seem to care. I liked his attitude,” recalls Shahir in a television interview.

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Parava is one of the best examples of great casting in Malayalam cinema in the last few years. But in Parava, the casting wasn’t restricted to humans, even the pigeons in the film were cherry-picked. The fighter pigeons were flown down from Nagercoil. “We trained them for a year and the actors stayed with us for 9 months and we made them accustomed to the pigeons. They fed, cleaned and locked the pigeons. The birds were made familiar with their uniforms as they are sensitive to colours,” said Shahir, in the same interview.

More recently, the new actors in Kumbalangi Nights were picked after a rigorous round of auditions by Dileesh Pothan and team. The videos of these audition rounds are available on YouTube now. Grace Antony, who plays Simi, was selected after the film’s writer Syam Pushkaran noted her brief comic appearance in Happy Wedding.

Malayalam cinema has shown that a well cast film goes a long way. Take some of the popular films—Maheshinte Prathikaram (2015), Kumbalangi Nights (2019), Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017), Sudani From Nigeria (2018) or Kammatipaadam (2016). Not only are the lead and supporting cast (old and new) spot on but they are so meticulously chosen that it’s unthinkable to visualise any other actors in those parts.

We look at some of the best stories of inspired casting in Malayalam cinema. 

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The elderly mothers in Sudani from Nigeria

Last year’s Sudani from Nigeria, helmed by debutant Zakariya, is about an immigrant Nigerian footballer who comes to Kerala to play for the local Sevens team. An injury results in a lifelong bond with the team’s manager and his family. One of the high points of the film were two elderly characters played by veteran theatre actors Savitri Sreedharan and Sarasa Balussery. Savitri essayed the role of Majeed’s (Soubin Shahir) mother, while Sarasa played her friend and neighbour.

Zakariya initially approached established actors, but he got half-hearted responses. With the help of Abu, a veteran theatre actor, Sharfu (who was the associate director of Sudani…and is the co-writer of Varathan and Virus) and Pakru, they reached out to the theatre actors from Kozhikode.

Zachariah particularly recalls Savitri Sreedharan’s audition— “She was getting a bit hassled about finding the phone numbers we asked her. And we captured all that (on our phones).” Sarasa Balussery’s home was somewhere in the interiors of Balussery. She had almost retired from mainstream theatre and was briefly part of a drama troupe in Thriprayar.

But their first audition didn’t exactly turn out the way they imagined. They had to enact a scene inside a kitchen. There was no script and the results were disappointing. “They had over 50 years of theatre experience and have won the State Award twice. And we didn’t know what the issue could possibly be,” says Zakariya. The ladies called Sharfu and offered to back out. That’s when Abu suggested handing them the script. A week later, they called the actors for another audition. “The magic word was byhearted lines. That’s the 50-year-old habit they had picked from theatre,” says Zakariya. 

These veteran actors had to be handled with a lot of care, and some pampering. Even a dialogue out of the script would throw them off on set. Sometimes they were finicky about certain dialogues and would get upset if they were removed.

Grand mother in Oru Muthassi Gadha

For the titular role of a 60-year-old temperamental grand mother in Oru Muthassi Gadha, Jude Antony Joseph was initially looking for former lead actresses, who would now be in her sixties. But none of them were willing to play a grandmother in their comeback film. That’s when a friend suggested an aunt who would suit the role. “When I met Rajini Chandy we hit it off right away. It was like we had known each other for a long time. I gave her a scene to enact and she was great in it,” recalls Jude.

She was asked to do the scene where Leelamma’s granddaughter’s male friend comes to the house. “I wanted to see if she could handle the transformation from a loving grandmother to a harridan. Rajini asked me if I wanted her to perform immediately or later. I told her she could take her time learning the lines. Then she asked me sweetly if I wanted something to drink and went into the kitchen to get me some water. When she returned, she asked me where I lived? Pretty close by, I replied to which she responded with ‘Nee ithra aduthanu thamasikkunnathengil avada thanna angu ninna pore? Njangaley enthina budhimuttikkane?’ I was taken aback for a couple of seconds before I realised she was enacting the scene. At that moment I knew auntykku pani ariyaam (aunty knows how to act) I told her ‘Namukku ithu polikkam!’ (let’s kill it!)”.

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The boys and girls of Kammatipaadam

Rajeev Ravi’s Kammatipaadam had three casting directors on board. Anju Mohandas, who joined the film as an assistant director, and later took up casting, says finding a miniature version of Shaun Romy was difficult. The first girl they found was a fencing champion, who unfortunately had a championship during the shoot. “That’s when we found Sandra —at KV Port Trust. Shaiz (another casting director) showed the boys in that school Shaun’s photo and asked if they knew someone who looked like her,” says Mohandas. 

Ganga’s (Vinayakan) adolescent version was played by 17-year-old Praveen who was part of the NCC. They recall being taken in by his sharp stare that was reminiscent of Vinayakan’s. As for Dulquer Salmaan’s adolescent version, she found him on Facebook— “I thought he looked a lot like DQ. He was working as a DJ in Dubai, but lost his job owing to the film’s erratic schedule. But he is a happy man!” 

Other interesting casting coups

Director Alphonse Puthren saw this energetic dancer with freckles in Ungalil Yaar Adutha Prabhu Deva and cast her as his heroine in Premam. Even by Malayalam cinema standards, Sai Pallavi with her long wispy hair and pimpled face was a revelation. Similarly, Aparna Balamurali in Maheshinte Prathikaram.

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