Capturing the Essence of Punjab in Kohrra

Casting Bay's Nikita Grover has previously worked on Secret Superstar and Paatal Lok.
Capturing the Essence of Punjab in Kohrra
Capturing the Essence of Punjab in Kohrra

An actor turned casting director, Nikita Grover has been steadfast in her pursuit of realistic and authentic casting. She has previously worked on hit projects such as Ghost Stories, and Pataal Lok, and if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll spot her doing cameos in some of these projects. Grover spoke to Film Companion about the casting process for Netflix’s new show Kohrra.

Here are edited excerpts from the interview:

Were you given a brief when you started casting for Kohrra? What did you keep in mind while looking for actors? 

Yeah, absolutely. The brief was given. I read the script and there was a meeting and we had a discussion on what characters should be and how he or she should be looking. But after reading the script, the first thing was like, I have to go to Punjab. This cannot happen in Mumbai. Although there are a lot of Punjabi speaking actors in Mumbai. And obviously there was a team working in Mumbai also, but I had to go to Punjab. I am also Punjabi, but it's been seven, eight years in Mumbai now, so, you know, that authenticity is lacking because now I talk more in Hindi and English toh wo Punjabi wala cheeze nahi hai (that Punjabi essence is missing).

How does it feel when you have the freedom to suggest and select actors who aren’t well-known? Is it liberating? Can you tell me about it?

I actually love this space. I think I just want to be in this space where you don't need known actors and you don't need actors who have been seen before. I don't think I would want to cast for commercial films. … If my dad, who doesn’t watch a lot of things, is saying, “How is iska performance?” Who's teaching you all these words? I always relate with my family, they watch something and they start commenting on specific performances. Audiences have become really smart that way. A well cast show is a show where everyone's doing a very good job. These days, new people even in small roles, these small actors are doing so well. They are becoming the one thing you remember - becoming memorable.

Kohrra stands out for being an ensemble in which even the minor characters make an impression, like the forensic chief’s assistant who decides to leave the room when she hears the word “fellatio”. Can you share any stories or anecdotes about what made some of these actors stand out during the casting process?

Okay, first of all, she has a very small role and I'm very happy that you're talking about this character. And I literally had forgotten about this character. Iss audition mai toh first of all nobody knew what fellatio is! Then I had to tell them, “Pehle aap jao aur Google pe padh ke aao ki ye kya hai” (first go and look up what fellatio means). How will they give the expressions if they don’t know na? 

I had a ball auditioning for Silky. Oh, my God, I love that character. … It was written so nicely. That's exactly how these girls who run nail parlors in Punjab talk.

Nikita Grover in Kohrra on Netflix
Nikita Grover in Kohrra on Netflix

Anything that you were looking for particularly in Saakar, who is the wannabe hip hop musician?

When I started this character, first I was thinking of pitching these Punjabi music stars. These big, big musicians. That's how we started. But it was a big fail because first of all, as much as we think that Kohrra is a Netflix show and it's very big, but people in Punjab are much, much bigger than anybody else or they just think that way (laughs). 

Punjab has all these full swag singers, walking with four or five bodyguards and all of that. Obviously we couldn't reach out to these people and they were not interested and all of that. … So I decided to chuck all those plans – let's get an actor. 

Diversity and representation have become important topics of conversation in the entertainment business. Do you keep such things in mind while casting? Would you say it’s a challenge to maintain authenticity and avoid tokenism?

 Yeah, definitely. I do keep this in mind.

Do you think it is a challenge to maintain authenticity? How much leeway do you have to cast someone who is perhaps not conventionally good looking or not the right body type, et cetera? What kind of buffers do you have as a casting director? 

None, actually. I've been casting for seven, eight years now and only two directors/showrunners have given me any leeway;  one is Sudip Sharma and the other is Dibakar Banerjee (Ghost Stories).

I have loved working with them because there is no such thing with them. They give me freedom to completely do what I want to do and there is no such thing that this character should look like this only.

Nikita Grover in Paatal Lok on Amazon Prime Video
Nikita Grover in Paatal Lok on Amazon Prime Video

Do you think this is a rare occurrence and most of the time you don't have a lot of freedom?

It is. We are still casting typically fair and thin actors. Now this new thing has also come, Instagram followers. It’s becoming quite important – thodi following honi chahiye toh log show dekh lenge warna koi show dekhne nahi aayega (they should have a following on social media so that people watch the show for them, otherwise no one would watch the show). Oh, come on! Tumhari script mai wo baat nahi hai toh mat banao phir? (If your script isn’t good enough then don’t make a show).

So I don't think I want to work for anyone else. If Sudip Sharma keeps giving me work, I don't want to work for anyone else. I was in Punjab for three months. No director, no production house lets you be in a hotel for three months! (laughs) 

You did mention that you wanted to play Silky, but is there any character in Kohrra specifically, or any other recent show that you've seen that you would have liked to play as an actor?

I think Silky was one that I really wanted to do. I didn't tell this to anyone. I didn't even ask Sudip sir if I could audition for Silky, because obviously they were looking for someone who would stand with Barun Sobti, play his fiancée. But yeah, Silky. Also, I would have loved to play Indira Chhabra!

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