How Paatal Lok got its Cast–from the transgender character to choosing Anup Jalota as a Politician

Casting Directors Abhishek Banerjee and Anmol Ahuja talk about making unusual choices in the Amazon Prime show, and why they changed a male character on paper to a female character on screen
How Paatal Lok got its Cast–from the transgender character to choosing Anup Jalota as a Politician

The raves are rolling in for Paatal Lok, the new Amazon Prime show. The title means people who inhabit the societal underground. And as if in keeping with the theme, the cast is made up of actors whose names you may or may not know but remember them for the characters they have played: The father in Taare Zameen Par (Vipin Sharma)! The boss from Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (Maneesh Choudhary)! The railway station mineral water vendor in Jab We Met (Asif Basra). The school principal in Koi Mil Gaya (Akash Khurana). Actors, who you somehow expect to show up in a series like this (Rajesh Sharma). With a cast full of faces you have seen long enough to develop a fondness for, Paatal Lok feels like a party thrown exclusively for under-the-radar character actors. Even the show's lead, Jaideep Ahlawat, who plays the down-on-luck, physically imposing cop with sad eyes, Haathiram Chaudhary, is a non-star.

And then you have uncanny casting choices, like that of Anup Jalota, as Bajpayee, who seems as at ease playing a politician as he is singing devotional songs. Or the actor playing Cheeni, the trans woman character who finds herself in the men's lock up. There seems to be a lot going on in the casting department of Paatal Lok—created by Sudip Sharma (NH10, Udta Punjab), and directed by Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy. One of the casting directors, Abhishek Banerjee, plays the psycho killer with a backstory (not for the first time).

I spoke to Banerjee and his partner at Casting Bay, Anmol Ahuja about how they got a Manipuri trans person to play Cheeni, the unusual casting choices, and why there is more freedom in casting for a web series than for a film. 

Edited excerpts. 

I would like to start with the casting of singer Anup Jalota as the politician Balkishan Bajpayee. How did that come around?

Abhishek: Sometimes you have roles which change the entire story: Log jo hai, us character ko dekhein, aur unke dimaag mein chhap jaaye (You want people to see the character and it'll be imprinted in their minds). In the casting world, this is the kind of character for which we look for Special Appearances, that is usually done by some big actor. But if you look at Paatal Lok, the actors in it are not big names. The cast is very grounded. We went through a lot of names. I don't want to discuss it. But one day I was looking at the Bigg Boss videos of Anup sir, and I saw that he has a character. We have seen Anup Jalota, the singer, the personality. But this time I saw someone who seemed like a very sorted guy in his head and he has that calmness which Bajpayee needed. Anup sir has this constant smile on his face and that worked wonderfully. Sudip sir was blown by the idea. We didn't even audition him. I think this is the first time he faced the camera as an actor.

Singer Anup Jalota as the politician Bajpayee in 'Paatal Lok'.
Singer Anup Jalota as the politician Bajpayee in 'Paatal Lok'.

Casting for a web series seems much more liberating than casting for a Bollywood feature film, where there is a commercial aspect to it. What's the main difference? 

Abhishek: In films, you have your hero, your star cast, you have some of those names who can come on the poster. And then you add to those names. Of course, things are changing and people are casting fantastic new actors, but there is still a guideline: The main actors in films are usually cast by producers. In Paatal Lok, that pressure was completely off because Sudip Sharma decided that Jaideep Ahlawat is going to play Haathiram. When you know the show is mounted on an actor, all you need to do is get other good actors and cast them as characters. Whether it's Asif Basra, Rajesh Sharma, or Maneesh Choudhary, they all leave an impact with their performances. They all make use of the experience they have and they elevate those scenes completely. 

Anmol: Series is a medium where popularity doesn't really play a big part because here things are not getting created according to numbers, which is how it usually happens in films, which is a star-driven format. 

Abhishek: There is a lot of credit I would like to give the makers. The mindset that the audiences don't notice character actors is changing drastically in the web platform. There are so many examples of actors who are not stars doing a tremendous job, and people are loving and appreciating them. We need all kinds of films: crazy action films, gritty realistic shows, comedies, thrillers. But some stories needs just actors. And Paatal Lok is one of those stories.

What was the most interesting casting experience in Paatal Lok?

Abhishek: Casting Cheeni, the trans woman character, was the biggest challenge. Her name is Mairembam Ronaldo Singh, but I used to call her Ronaldo. I don't know whether this is a spoiler, but she is a transgender. Our associate Nikita (Grover, who plays the scene-stealing lady constable in charge of frisking Cheeni) has done a tremendous job. Most of the times, the main casting directors get all the credit. But there are the associates who do a lot of groundwork. Of course, there is a vision that a casting director gives the team. But they actually go out and help you achieve that. 

We needed a trans person for this part and we needed a Manipuri. These things could be difficult for casting directors. I remember watching Mary Kom and being disappointed with the casting. I remember casting experiences where I just didn't know how to go about it: If you have to cast a South African team in Inside Edge, how do you cast the team? 

So Nikita went to Manipur, found out local theatre groups, and found this gem of an actor. It's the biggest win for us as a casting company till date. More than Mairembam, I think it's our pleasure to get her her first screen role as an actor. Of course, she had pressure from her family. We went and convinced them. Casting doesn't mean just getting an actor. Many of the times we have to convince the actor. It's not necessarily the case that the people we reach out to always want to act in films and web series'. They have their own lives. And suddenly you ask them to leave everything and come to Mumbai and do a show for us, that no one knows about, with no stars. 

Anmol: And the biggest problem is that person comes for 20 days of work, but then she has to go back to her city or village and she has to live there. Things are sensitive because we are dealing with people and their vulnerabilities. 

Abhishek: Sometimes you have to talk to the kid, husband, or wife. It's really getting somebody out of their comfort zone. And when you achieve that it is the high of casting. 

We are a country of 130 crore. If we say that we don't have such people in India to play that character then it's a problem.

What did her family say?

Abhishek: Her family was not happy that she has to come to Mumbai for a shooting. She stopped taking calls, but Nikita had her address, so she went to her place, spoke to her family, convinced her boyfriend. One special trip went into just getting her convinced, after which we got her to Mumbai. We tried to make her feel comfortable as much as possible. And she did a brilliant job. We are a country of 130 crore. If we say that we don't have such people in India to play that character then it's a problem. The responsibility of casting directors is not to cast only people who are working, or whoever is visible, or is in your circle. Their job is to find actors. If they are not doing that, then they are running a dukaan. 

Anmol: Once we were working for a Make My Trip ad. We had to cast this boy who was deaf and mute. And we actually cast a deaf and mute actor. 

Abhishek: Many would argue that why can't actors do it? But to play a deaf and mute convincingly you need to be a genius, like Nawaz in Talaash, who I don't think anybody could've guessed he can walk if he wasn't Nawaz. But our job is not to look for geniuses, or stars. Our job is to look for characters. And while looking for those characters, once in a while what happens is that you stumble upon a magic like Siddhant Chaturvedi. And you think: Who is this guy? Where did he come from? He is from Mumbai, speaks fluently in English and Hindi, writes poems also. 

Anmol: Dance bhi kar leta hai… 

Abhishek: It's not like we had to go to Manipur for every other actor. For instance, Jagjeet Sandhu (plays Tope Singh) from Punjab. Nikita found him and showed me his audition. He is a star there. He had 3-4 lac followers on Instagram already. When he got this role, he said I don't want to do it, because there is less money. Then I called him up, I knew he is from the pind. I can't talk to him in the language like we do dealings in Bombay. I had to talk heart. I told him why I think it's important for him to do the role, and why the money is not that important when we are beginning associations. He agreed after a long discussion. Today he says that I am his masterji, like Hatora Tyagi has a masterji. (Laughs)

Jagjeet Sandhu
Jagjeet Sandhu

Can you break down what's your casting process generally like? 

Anmol: After reading a script we create a mould for the character: this is how the character looks, this is how she talks, walks and things like that. For one character we audition at least 10 people, who we think might fit into the zone, maybe because of their physical attributes, acting skills, or maybe they belong to the space where the character is coming from. Now in auditions, we only work with people who fit that mould at least 40-50 %. And we try to get it to at least 75-80% in that audition room, and see how close we can get her to the character. 

Abhishek: An actor giving an audition is a performance. It could be that the performance is not correct for that film or that director, but you know that he is a good actor. So you keep making mental notes. After years of making mental notes, you come to a point when you can think of actors from your mental bank. For instance, Anurag Arora, who plays the Senior of Jaideep Ahlawat, I have been seeing him since Oye Lucky Lucky Oye. His scene was quite famous, the way he says: Shah Rukh Khan hai tu, you know he is a very good actor. And when you need an actor who will be in the same senes with Jaideep, who has to be a good actor, and will put his life into the scene and has played a cop before, you think of him.

Anurag Arora
Anurag Arora

Or say someone like Vipin Sharma, with who we have an old association. Sometimes he would come to office to check what's happening. And we would say: Sir, something or the other will work out. And suddenly you have this character and you think of Vipin Sharma and you lock him. You don't test him. We don't need to test an Anurag Arora. We don't need to test a Vipin Sharma. We know that they are perfect for the roles. And that is when the casting director comes in. We know who needs to be auditioned. 

Loveleen Mishra
Loveleen Mishra

I'd end this by asking how you cast a certain actor in a certain role. For instance, Loveleen Mishra, who plays the CBI head.

You always see a CBI Head as someone male. On paper it was a male character, and it was a casting idea that Why don't we cast a female? And why don't we cast somebody who is physically not matching your idea of how this person should be like. But she holds her ground firm because of her acting skills: somebody who you will never think can actually be a smart, cunning, calculative officer on face value. You cast them, and that confusion is brilliant for the audience. These are casting ideas when you want to confuse the audience, surprise them.

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