Anmol Ahuja casts with an eye for detailing and a heart for inclusion. Part of the Paatal Lok team that went to Manipur to find Mairembam Ronaldo Singh to play the role of the trans character, he believes in a more professional, more responsible casting process. "Casting as a department is not very old. Excel Entertainment, Anurag Kashyap, and Vishal Bhadrwaj actually brought this whole concept of casting. So when there is a specialized job, it must be done in a more professional manner."
For Jalsa, he and his team scouted for a child with cerebral palsy to play the role of Ayush, the neurodivergent son of Maya, the journalist played by Vidya Balan. They found Surya Kasibhatla, who was not only confident and fit the bill, but to Ahuja's joy "even had a similar profile to that of Vidya Balan". (He mentions the same trivia about Rohini Hattangadi who plays Maya's mother, looking very similar to Vidya Balan's mother)
When Kasibhatla was 4-years old, he had told his parents he wanted to be an actor. It took a few years and a few videos before his paths crossed with that of Anmol Ahuja and team Jalsa. In this conversation, edited for length and clarity, Ahuja goes into the details of casting someone from the community that is being presented on screen.
What was your initial brief for casting the character of Ayush?
Inclusivity is something I am a firm believer of. When we read the script, we knew casting someone for Ayush won't be easy.
So we thought why not look for a child who has this condition (of cerebral palsy), but we work with the child and see if we can get the right performance out. Deepak Agarwal, a team member, helped look for kids with this condition. We found some in Doha, South Africa, a few in Mumbai also. Before auditioning them we would do a workshop where they become familiar with the process. We made it seem like we are playing a game, so there isn't heartbreak if they don't get selected.
Parallelly, we were also looking at kids who are doing theater, without the condition, as a back-up plan. We were auditioning both sets of kids. It wasn't easy, but because of the second wave of COVID-19, we had a lot of time which we made use of.
How did you come across Surya Kasibhatla?
Bade mazedaar kahani hai iski. He is a Hyderabad-born child, son of two techie parents. When he was 9-10 years old, they shifted to Texas. He has his own website and everything. He is into software development at the age of thirteen!
If you remember the first scene of Jalsa, Ayush is making a video on how to bowl. Surya had done a similar video, which is there on YouTube, giving tips on how to play cricket. The moment we saw that video, we knew we had to get him. We auditioned him and sent the video to Suresh sir who also agreed after doing a video call with him. But he also wanted to see how close Surya is to the character of Ayush. So we gave Surya little exercises — for example, what his dreams are, etc. — and he would send us these videos.
When Surya came to Mumbai we started off with film-based workshops conducted by Pooja Swaroop and Suresh sir. Suresh sir also has a family member with this condition, so he knows how to handle such kids. He also rewrote the character as per Surya's personality.
Rewrote in what ways?
For example, initially there were long dialogues. While we were auditioning we realized that a kid with this syndrome cannot speak this much. So how to say the same thing with fewer words was something he thought of.
It took us close to about 2.5 to 3 months to cast this character.
Usually, how long would it take to cast a child actor?
Maximum 20 days. But because we were clear that we wanted to be inclusive in the casting process, it took longer.
How many people did you audition?
About 150 kids without the condition, and 40-45 kids with the condition. Both processes were going parallely because of the scare of the second wave, as a solid back-up. But from the starting, it was clear that we must try and find a kid with cerebral palsy.
What were these workshops like?
My team, including (casting director) Abhishek Banerjee, come from theater backgrounds. Before the play starts a director does a workshop to understand the space, the character, not by giving you a bhashan, but by playing different games and exercises through which one understands how to get into the character easily. That is the idea. For example, we used to get 10 kids in a batch, and for 2-3 hours everyone would introduce themselves, and the next person would have to fold the previous person's name into their introduction.
This whole idea of competition generally comes into play, which we were trying to avoid. For us, at the end of the day, we can only cast one kid. But no child must feel less important. They must enjoy the whole process, learn something new.