‘Film industry is taking first steps towards inclusivity’

Casting director Anmol Ahuja, who won accolades for casting Surya Kasibhatla, a child with special needs, in ‘Jalsa’ says the OTT storm in India has helped bring lesser-known faces into the mainstream

‘Film industry is taking first steps towards inclusivity’

Garima Sadhwani

As someone who strongly believes in inclusivity, casting director Anmol Ahuja always knew that they wanted to cast a child actor with cerebral palsy to play the role, the condition with which the character Ayush is diagnosed in ‘Jalsa’.

But the team was also aware that it won’t be an easy task to work with someone who has special needs. However, that’s where Casting Bay’s expertise lay.

With their prior experience having cast Mairembam Ronaldo Singh in Paatal Lok, people from north-east to play north-eastern characters, and having worked with writer Nilesh Maniyar for Margarita with a Straw, they knew they had a good lead to start with. A few people were shortlisted, but deep inside Ahuja knew it wouldn’t be fair on his part to not cast a child already diagnosed with the condition.

A Literature graduate and theatre enthusiast from Delhi University, Ahuja --co-founder of Casting Bay-- first moved to Mumbai to become a director, but ended up launching Casting Bay with his old friend and long-time companion Abhishek Banerjee.

‘Film industry is taking first steps towards inclusivity’

Recently, they’ve received applause from all over the industry for their casting of Surya Kasibhatla in Jalsa, the Vidya Balan-Shefali Shah starrer Amazon Prime film.

When Ahuja emphasises on inclusivity, it makes one wonder how far India still has to go in casting the people the role actually requires. While a CODA (2021) might win an Oscar, a fair person is still puffed with makeup to play a duskier character in Hindi cinema.

But Ahuja doesn’t blame the industry, for he also knows that filmmaking is a costly business, the expenses of which are often recovered only by casting the big names. However, he does feel the need to thank the OTT storm in India, which increased the importance of good content. And brought along the lesser-known faces into the mainstream. “I think Permanent Roommates on TVF was the first show that made the slightly lesser-known faces of Mikesh and Tanya (played by Sumeet Vyas and Nidhi Singh) household names,” says Ahuja.

With a wide smile on his face, Ahuja recalls a Make My Trip ad, where they actually found a deaf and mute person to play that character on screen. So there might be a long way to go, but we’ve also come a few steps forward, he shares.

However, explains Ahuja, to be on the safer side, they took two routes-- finding a child actor who could be trained; and then the road less taken, finding a child with cerebral palsy and training them to act. A lot of workshops, auditions, videos, Zoom meetings, and a few months later, they found Surya, their golden boy.

What surprised Casting Bay the most was that not only did Surya actually turn out to be like Ayush’s character, he shared Balan’s (his on-screen mother) profile and features too. While usually working with child actors, Ahuja would conduct theatre workshops to make them familiar with the process of acting, getting them in touch with their surroundings. However, with Surya, the crew had to be more careful since this was a child who’d never acted or been on stage.

Ahuja credits the writer and director Suresh Triveni for curating the script to make it a perfect fit for Surya, making the dialogues shorter to better suit his way of speaking.

Who is Surya Kasibhatla?

Surya Kasibhatla, now known for his role in Jalsa as Ayush, is a 14-year old, eighth-grade student from Hays Middle School, Frisco, Texas. He grew up in Hyderabad, and moved to the US when he was nine years old. He is a big movie buff, who wishes to continue acting in the future as well. He’s big on computer programming and keeps learning about new technologies. He plays the keyboard, sings, writes poetry and prose, and is an artist at heart.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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