Why casting matters in cinema

From Shelly Kishore in ‘Minnal Murali’ to getting villagers to act in ‘Aelay’, there are many factors that filmmakers consider when casting for a film.
Sai Pallavi, Shelly Kishore and Manikandan collage
Sai Pallavi, Shelly Kishore and Manikandan collage
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In the newly released Netflix film Minnal Murali, the role of Usha is a pivotal one. The antagonist Shibu (Guru Somasundaram) is obsessed with her for 28 years, and the men of the village see her through a lascivious lens because she'd gotten pregnant and eloped with a truck driver years ago, only to be abandoned by him. By just reading the storyline, one may expect the role to be played by an actor deemed “glamorous” by film industry standards, adequately brown-faced to suit the village milieu. But 38-year-old Shelly Kishore, with her unassuming demeanour and quiet charm, defies the stereotype.

Speaking to TNM, director Basil Joseph says that the team had considered other popular actors at first. "We thought of Karnan actor Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli. But then we felt we shouldn't have both actors of a Tamil flavour (Shibu is a Tamil migrant man). It was an associate who found Shelly. We'd seen her in Thanga Meenkal and Eeda, and I thought she could play the role," he says.

Explaining that they didn't want an already famous face, Basil points out that Shibu, too, was played by an actor who isn't well-known to the Malayali audience. "We didn't want people to have preconceived notions about the characters. They had to grow in their minds organically. When it's a popular actor, people predict what they will do on screen. Guru Somasundaram is an excellent actor but people won't be able to predict why his role is getting so much importance. That uncertainty is necessary. Their off screen personality should not influence the characters."

This unpredictability was a key factor in Malayalam film Premam becoming a massive hit. Apart from Nivin Pauly and a few others in the supporting cast, the rest of the actors were new faces to the audience. Particularly Sai Pallavi, who played the role of Malar Miss and became nothing short of a phenomenon. The story of how Alphonse Puthren cast her in the film is well-known. The director spotted her in the dance reality show Ungalil Yaar Adutha Prabhudeva, and got in touch with her for a role in Premam six years later. However, Sai Pallavi was convinced Alphonse was a stalker due to his persistent phone calls. It was only later that she realised Alphonse was in earnest. Now a most wanted star across the southern industries, Sai Pallavi at the time was unsure that the audience would accept a heroine who had acne. But like Usha, Malar Miss too struck a chord with viewers because of her natural appearance.

Watch: Shelly Kishore and Guru Somasundaram in Minnal Murali

Looking the part

Compared to Bollywood and the other southern industries, mainstream Malayalam cinema is more inclined to cast actors who look the part and don't necessarily subscribe to standards of beauty prevalent in other industries. For instance, actor Parvathy received a lot of flak for playing the role of Rachiyamma, originally a dark-skinned woman in the story written by Uroob, in Aanum Pennum, but such outrage hardly happens when a Rashmika Mandanna in Pushpa or a Sayyeshaa in Kadaikutty Singam is brown-faced to play the role of a 'village belle'.

However, this doesn’t mean that the Malayalam film industry or audience is entirely free of prejudice. Most successful women actors in the industry have been light-skinned. An award-winning actor like Nimisha Sajayan is frequently trolled and abused on social media for not being “heroine material”. Thankfully though, Nimisha has continued to do excellent films, including Jeo Baby’s critically acclaimed film The Great Indian Kitchen that became a sensation with viewers across the country.

Casting director Varsha Varadarajan, who works across industries, says that ultimately, it's the director's vision and the producer's willingness to take a risk that influences casting decisions. "It's true that we're not very experimental here [Tamil industry] yet. People are afraid to use a comedy actor as a villain and vice versa. But I believe we will get there soon. We're moving away from complete star films. The concept of medium budget and small ones is just about coming up. I personally don't pick anyone without an audition. It's easy to have the conviction that someone is right for the role but unless you see them in it, it's difficult for them to be sure as well. Especially if they come with the baggage of having done a role earlier. Many actors are agreeing to audition today even if they've done a bit of work earlier because of the corporate structure that has come in and crossover films that are being made. They understand that it's not a measure of their acting skill, it is to see if they will fit in or not," she says.

Director Halitha Shameem, who is known for her slice-of-life and close to reality films like Sillu Karupatti and Aelay, is among the new crop of directors who are particular about casting actors who look the part. “I was very impressed by the casting in Priya Krishnaswamy’s Baaram. She used a casting director for the film who also trained the actors. As for me, I travel with my story. I go to the location where the story is set and write. I try to use people who are from the place. It’s more convincing that way. In Aelay, I got many villagers to act. It makes me fall in love with the story more when I see such people perform. As for the main actors, I only look at whether they’re true to the story. I don’t think about whether they’re fair at all,” she says.

Why casting matters

Casting goes beyond finding a suitable face to play a role; it is at the heart of the film's overarching scheme. In Minnal Murali, Basil says that everyone associated with the super villain Shibu had a different shade to them or were relatively new. Comedy actor Harisree Ashokan who plays Usha's brother, for instance, initially seems to be a helpless, kind-hearted person but later in the film, we see that he's also capable of being vicious. "Everyone associated with Jaison (Tovino, who plays the superhero), on the other hand, is a popular face. Like the police officers played by Baiju and Aju Varghese. We wanted to emphasise the sense of community that Jaison has while Shibu is forced to be a loner, an outcast. Getting the casting right is 50% of successful direction," Basil says.

Film critic Subha Rao cites Dia as an example of a Kannada film that worked mainly because of the casting. “To pull off two love stories and have you invested in both was possible only because of a good cast,” she says, adding that Teju Belawadi in Gantumoote, too, is an example of spot-on casting.The coming-of-age film from a young woman’s perspective won rave reviews from critics.

But it isn't always that a director has the freedom to decide on the cast. In an earlier interview with TNM, director Pa Ranjith had said that he didn't want to cast the light-skinned Catherine Tresa in the role of Kalaiarasi in his second film Madras but had to succumb to pressure from the producer. "Yes, this is among the compromises I've had to make because it's a business. My wish is to cast dark-skinned people and make films. In Madras, I couldn't avoid it because of pressure from the producer. I wish to speak about certain issues through cinema as a tool and to achieve that, I make some compromises – whether that's fair skin, heroism or unrealistic sequences. The situation is such that I can only make a film if I make these compromises," he had said. In his subsequent films, Ranjith has had strong women leads who are comparatively dark-skinned — Anjali Patil and Easwari Rao in Kaala and Dushara Vijayan in Sarpatta Parambarai. The choices are not just about subverting established standards but also an assertion of the director's politics.

How an actor looks on camera is not just about their skin colour, Halitha points out. “People have different skin textures. Some absorb light more, some bounce it. Some may have reddened skin. When we look at a frame, from a cinematography perspective, of course, it matters. So I do consider the looks of my actors, but I’m more interested in the texture and don’t consider skin tone to be a factor,” she says.

Watch: Song from Sillu Karuppatti

Many big budget films from the south that have come out in the recent past have been dependent on dubbing, especially for the heroine and villain roles. As a director, Halitha is particular about her actors speaking in their own voices, without depending on dubbing. “I like to capture the small-small reactions that the actors give in the shoot. It’s more realistic when they dub for themselves. If I use a dubbing artiste for an actor, I will feel like I’m watching someone else’s film,” she says.

The cast of a film often has actors from other industries who are roped in for their market value but look nothing like the part they’re playing. Commenting on this, Halitha says that filmmakers must pay attention to all the roles in a film, not only the star who’s leading it. “If I get to make a film with Vijay, for example, it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t put effort into casting others because people will go to watch it anyway. It’s not that only small films should look authentic. Casting matters for big films, too,” she adds.

Varsha points out that, unlike Malayalam films that tend to be realistic, other industries mostly make larger-than-life films that offer a form of escapism. "People want to watch a film for three hours and forget about everything else. These films are aspirational. Most people here look at cinema as an escape, and so they want to see someone who is aspirational in it. Actually, in Malayalam too, they seem to be taking a break from the sort of films they usually make and experimenting with Tamil-Telugu sort of sensibilities. Allu Arjun and Vijay are huge stars there. The audience watches the close-to-life Malayalam films but also likes films where they can switch off and not think about anything. The latter sort of film works with people who are considered aspirational. But when it comes to films that are closer to real life, we work according to that brief and balance both," she says.

Acknowledging that filmmakers are more generous when it comes to a male actor's looks but have stringent rules for what a woman should like, Varsha says, "Thankfully, this is changing. People have opened up to watching content in different languages with subtitles, particularly in the last two years. We didn't have access earlier. It isn't only about the directors and producers not wanting to cast someone in a role, it's also about whether they had the platform to showcase it for an audience that wanted to watch it. We're able to experiment more.”

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