Director Shefali Bhushan, and lead actors Shriya Pilgaonkar and Varun Mitra discuss the making of the legal drama, casting, conceptualisation, and more in a chat with TNM.

Shriya Pilgaonkar and Varun Mitra in Guilty MindsAmazon Prime Video
Flix Entertainment Tuesday, May 10, 2022 - 12:18

Devoid of melodramatic monologues from rival lawyers, loud gavels, dramatised clinching testimonies on the witness stand, and judges who are either morally corrupt, or have a holier-than-thou attitude, Amazon Prime Video’s recently released legal drama Guilty Minds has opened to critical acclaim for its nuanced portrayal of Indian legal circles and criminal justice system. Helmed by Shefali Bhushan, who grew up in a family of lawyers (her father, Shanti Bhushan, is a veteran lawyer and former Law Minister of India, and her brother is lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan), and co-directed by Jayant Digambar Somalkar, the series offers a refreshing and realistic take in a cliche-ridden genre.

Speaking to TNM about the conceptualisation of the series and its writing process, director Shefali Bhushan says, “It started with Manav Bhushan (a biomedical engineer with a law degree) and me in the writers’ room. Manav had a special interest in the artificial intelligence and technology domain. When Amazon came on board, we were joined by the co-director Jayant, who took care of detailing. He really has a penchant for scaling up,” she says. “We would brainstorm the cases and the characters’ personal tracks. I had developed these concepts and figured out how to create the world and build the arguments. Deeksha Gujral, who is a practicing lawyer, and one-of the co-writers, added authenticity to the arguments and locations. That is the beauty of the writers’ room where people come in with different life experiences and enrich the output.”

Guilty Minds has ten episodes, each having a run time of close to 50 minutes. The creators unravel the nuances of multiple cases and prod the audiences to think about the dilemmas presented before of them. The cases span issues like the role of technology in driverless cars, bots in dating apps being programmed to lure young men, and the idea of originality in music, without demarcating either side of the arguments as black or white. “We were definitely looking for cases which will lend themselves to being grey, and cases where the arguments could be equally interesting on both sides. At the same time, we were also looking for contemporary and relatable subjects which would spark a debate,” says Shefali.

Contrary to the judges we’ve seen on the big screen who wield limitless power, here, the judgements are presented in a calm, and composed manner. Further, the makers also take a critical look at the judiciary when required. The case that the first season closes is one such instance where an old case resurfaces unprecedentedly when there is a change in power, thus reflecting how the change in governments affect judicial proceedings.

Reminiscent of American sitcoms, we find scenes at restro bars and cafes where the makers explore the personal relationships of the characters. The parallel social commentary from a stand up comic who performs at the restro bar owned by the protagonists’ friend, and usage of internet lingo, suggest that the makers might have made a deliberate effort to add these parts to  appeal to audiences from the younger demographic.“There are no experts involved but we reached out to people to retain the tonality and the lingo. These are instances that happen around us and I think you just pick up those things as a writer,” director Shefali comments.

Watch the trailer of Guilty Minds here:

From the district court in a drought-hit village in Maharashtra where the court is illuminated by streaks of scorching sunlight, to the spacious Supreme Court; or rival lawyers standing too close to rivals at a sessions court to be able to communicate with members from their own team — the set design adds authenticity and palpability. “A lot of effort and thought went into the production design. Our DOP, production designer, and production team visited several courtrooms: the supreme court, Tis Hazari, Patiala House Court, to recreate them as close to reality as possible. We wanted to retain the authenticity. The same goes for costumes. The clothing is very typical on screen. Usually lawyers wear black and white but there can be splashes of colour. There is a certain decorum but it is not so rigid either. All of these things helped in having that realistic touch,” she says.

While the show delves into legal battles wherein the judges find it difficult to find relevant sections of the law that would be applicable to the present case in season 1, would season 2 focus more on the loopholes in the legal framework? Shefali points out that the creators aim to strike a balance between adding technically enriching legal details about the cases, and making it engaging for viewers. “We are already in the process of collating feedback from lawyers, experts and regular viewers. It's a hard balance. You can’t get too technical, but also have to ensure that it is authentic and engaging,” she says.

Casting

The series is led by Shriya Pilgaonkar, who plays the principled-to-a-fault Kashaf, represents an ethics driven law firm along with her partner Vandana Kathpalia. Kashaf hails from one of the renowned legal families in the family.  They are mostly seen taking up cases against an ambitious Deepak Rana (Varun Mitra) who works in a family-run law outfit Khanna and Khanna. Deepak is the only outsider in the family-owned firm and has been made partner in it. Law school friends Kashaf and Deepak are almost but never quite lovers.


Kashaf and Vandhana's characters in Guilty Minds. Source: Amazon Prime Video

Speaking about the representation of Muslim characters, Shriya observes, “I did not, in my mind, register Kashaf as a Muslim character. To not go about overly addressing it is a way of normalising it. I also like the fact, the show touches upon that diversity and inclusivity in a way. Kashaf’s background does not affect what her ideals or morals, or how she feels about the profession. I did not overthink this or feel the need to break it down. I am glad that Shefali wanted to portray it like that.”

Speaking about the layers in his character, Varun tells TNM, “I loved how the character was very dynamic even while I was auditioning. I loved the energy of the character. When I read the whole script, there is a beautiful graph for someone who is lost in the materialistic world and eventually, to a certain extent, finds himself. As an actor, showing those extremes is very satisfying. I enjoyed digging deeper into what makes him the way he is and what makes him change. Once this transformation starts, the character changes very minutely and I enjoyed showing that on screen.”

Both Shriya and Varun point out that the research and preparation for the show involved speaking to practicing lawyers with different styles, approaches, and politics, which helped them get into the skin of their respective characters in the show.


Varun Mitra as Deepak in Guilty Minds. Source: Amazon Prime Video

While the romantic dynamic between the lead characters gained praise from some critics, it also opened to mixed reviews from some who felt that the show could have solely focused on the courtroom cases. However, filmmaker Shefali Bhushan points out that they wanted both the emotional dynamics and the legal cases to be the focus in equal measures. “For it to hit home to a viewer, I firmly believe it has to involve them emotionally and mentally. We need a combination and right balance of the two. We did not want to either intellectually or emotionally stimulate the audience, but rather have both,” Shefali remarks.

The supporting characters, too, steal the show in different episodes, and don't fit into binaries either. Some of the scenes that leave a mark include an emotional sequence where Vandana’s (an invetigator played by Sugandha Garg) Bengali girlfriend Sunanda Bose (Chitrangada Satarupa) talks to her mother about same-sex relationships; and a conversation between Shubhangi (Namrata Sheth, one of the two Khanna siblings) and Deepak — whom Shubhangi is also attracted to — where they interpret the meaning of a portrait titled ‘The Honest Lawyer’.


Shubhangi's character in Guilty Minds. Source: Amazon Prime Video

When asked about the characterisation of actors playing supporting roles, and particularly about the pleasant relationship between Kashaf and Shubhangi shown in Guilty Minds, as opposed to being reduced to romantic interests of the male protagonists who are pitted against one another, Shriya remarks, “I think a lot of this has to do with Shefali’s own way of looking at things and that’s very beautiful.There could have been very obvious ways of showing how Shubhangi reacts to me or talks about me, but the show did not go down the path. I think it has tried to break away from such cliches.”

Shriya adds, “It also has to do with the fact that a woman director thinks about these things much more deeply. I could see that in my director where there was thought and discussion about not being insensitive. Even with the way intimate sequences were dealt, a woman’s gaze definitely helps and makes a difference.” Shriya says that she is keen to know the trajectory of Kashaf's character in season 2 given that the first season ends with her in a personal and professional crisis.

READ: Guilty Minds review: Shefali Bhushan’s legal series starts off slow but draws you in

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