Depicting the Hindu community in poor light is not the only controversy that bogs down Paatal Lok; the project of web series headed by actress Anushka was allegedly unfair even to the film fraternity, especially aspiring actors. And the main culprits, evidence and testimonies from the industry suggest, are the casting directors who, rather than roping in full-fledged actors, cast themselves in the web series.
Aspiring actor Siddharth Rawat said, “Sir, hamāra number hi nahin āta. Subah se shām tak ham khade rahte hain. Yahān’ mujhe vishwās thā merā ho jāyega (Sir, our turn never comes. We stand in queues the whole day. In this project, I was confident I would get a role),” adding that “ghaplebāzi” (sham casting) is ruining the careers of aspiring actors. He said that the wannabe actors were living hand-to-mouth and many could not afford to get their photo portfolios made by professionals.
Siddharth said he has even gone around telling casting directors he would not charge for his first project but even that did not work. Even assignments like featuring in a crowd is difficult to get as an aspirant has to pass through a maze of agents to reach the real casting directors. These agents, he said, embezzle even the commission meant for actors.
An actor who had played a role in the film Talwar and who suffices as a casting director had allegedly told Siddharth that casting the latter was not a problem if he was ready to shell out a bribe of Rs 1 lakh.
Actor Mahesh Sharma, who has worked for much-talked-about films like Sui Dhaga, Dum Laga ke Haisha and Aankhon Dekhi, said the malaise was spread across the domain of web series. “Everywhere, casting directors are casting themselves. To show that they are better, they insert a few clips of bad performances so that they themselves come across as better performers,” he said.
Mahesh was soon joined by another actor Abhimanyu Sarkar who related the story of a peer about whom the casting director of a film misled the producer. “The guy told the producer this actor was charging too much and then he cast himself!” Abhimanyu added, “This actor broke down, narrating what he had been through.”
Abhimanyu said most aspiring actors did not even come to know when the auditions for Paatal Lok started and ended.
Mahesh added that the casting directors of Paatal Lok not only cast themselves but also pooled in other casting directors who were friends with them.
Abhimanyu said that there have been casting directors who had admitted before them if they had to play favourites, they would obviously not cast the regular actors.
Both Mahesh and Abhimanyu have been in the industry for the past 12 years. “A lot of former aspiring actors turn casting directors to make some quick bucks and then retry their luck as actors,” Abhimanyu said.
Nikhil Pitaley said he was alleging nothing against the senior casting directors but their juniors cast themselves or their friends. “Their credibility is questionable. It is an unjust system for us, actors, that we need to compete not only with other actors in the queue but also with these new casting directors. If they are fancying their own chances, what are our chances of making it?”
Nikhil had not auditioned for Paatal Lok but is agitated about the treatment meted out to fellow actors. He has featured in biopics called Ghalib and Deendayal — Ek Yugpurush.
He pointed out that another problem with this conflict of interest situation was that these young players in the film market charge the producer fees for casting as well as for acting.
Theatre actor Mayank Malik, who had auditioned for the web series but was not included in Paatal Lok, said, “Mahesh Sharma and Abhimanyu have been accusatory in their tone. But I wouldn’t make allegations against a particular person but talk of the issues with the system.”
“The makers did not clarify the details of the project when I visited them initially. Later, after much follow up with the casting team, they handed me a script that was restricted to my role alone. The project was untitled as yet. I prepared for the audition based on their vague briefing. I had auditioned for the same, still not knowing what exactly my character’s importance would be in the project,” said Mayank.
Mayank added that later on the actors who had auditioned were stunned to see that the web series had several casting directors and they had cast none but themselves in Paatal Lok!
Mayank said while those who acted did not do a bad job — “they perhaps performed better than how I could,” he said — but what the casting directors of Paatal Lok did was misuse of one’s position. The theatre artiste arrived in Mumbai six years ago. On camera, Balaji Telefilms cast him in a lead role in a television soap opera.
Bharat Jha, who worked in the film Mulk featuring the late Rishi Kapoor, while saying that there is no hard and fast rule as to who should be cast, said, “Actors wait for years for a new project; this is unfair to them.” He said that an association of casting directors did not exist as such, explaining why no action was taken against the casting of people from the casting team itself. “Jinke hāth men sattā hai wahi durupyog karte hain’, (one who wields power misuses it)” Jha said, adding, “An association of this type would be helmed by the very people who are likely to be accused,” giving an example of the #MeToo movement that fizzled out.
Abhishek Banerjee, who is a casting director who played the character of Hathoda Tyagi in Paatal Lok that is also accused of defaming politicians, said in his defence that the whole system of the industry was responsible for what could happen in the casting for a particular project. Apparently saying that nepotism did not play a role in the selection of actors for Paatal Lok, Banerjee said, “You may ask around. Would anyone cast an actor because he or she is a relative or because he or she suits the role.”
Disclaimer: Not all faces seen on the featured image are involved in the alleged casting scandal