While casting is one of the most essential elements for creating good cinema, the idea of a casting director is unheard of or rather unspoken of in the Kollywood industry. In the industry there are middlemen who swindle money with no intention of helping budding talent or the notorious ‘casting couch’ or it’s a combination of the director and producer’s whims.
Nithya Sriram, who’s a popular casting director today, took it upon herself to eliminate intermediaries. She personally witnessed the problems artists, be it newcomers or those already in the industry faced and realised that casting was her calling in life.
Unexpectedly beginning her career as a casting director about a decade ago with director Mysskin after visiting his set as a proxy for a dance sequence her friend was originally assigned to do, she has been a part of several projects like Mugamoodi, Thupparivaalan, Savadi, and Adanga Maru.
Ahead of the release of Psycho, Silverscreen spoke to Nithya Sriram who has been a part of the project, she terms her favourite. Here are a few excerpts from the interview:
Why did you pick this film besides Mysskin? What scope did you see as a casting director?
Essentially there’s no reason apart from him. There is so much that you can learn from a director like him about casting and its intricacies. He taught me how a particular nose shape, let alone the skill of acting, plays an important role in the selection process of an artist. Besides this, I have never had an emotional side to myself, at least before this movie. No particular song or scene or even movie has made me tear up. My kith and kin have always wondered how I turned out this way. But the fact is, I can only enjoy or even be mesmerised by something but I somehow fail to attach myself to it. On reading the script of Psycho, especially the second half, I burst into tears to the extent of calling for plenty of tissues. Looking at me, Mysskin himself was in tears. He had just dealt with Nithya Menen who read the script just the previous day. The climax left me with a heavy heart and I needed a few days to get back to being normal. Psycho hosts more new faces than established actors, and the casting process for them was entirely different for me. The scene papers I used for auditioning aren’t like any other. They held an entirely different pulse. I realised that auditions should adopt such strong scenes to pick out real talent. If one could pull off such a scene, he/she is capable of anything else.
Earlier, artistes used to be content with the fact that they merely appeared in a Mysskin film. But now, they demand dialogues and decent screen-time. Most of the artistes in this film will appear only for a short period, but I can assure you they’ll make a mark. I’m so thankful for this film for the number of talents I could bring out. I am not able to put it exactly in words, but this film holds a special meaning for me in all aspects.
The main character (besides Udhayanidhi) seems to be a newcomer. Tell us a little about him and why a newcomer was brought on board for a crucial role.
Oh, the antagonist? There was no special significance in that decision. But I must say Rajkumar is a capable and wonderful performer. He was willing to do anything when it comes to acting. The crew of Psycho is actually very lucky to have an artiste like him onboard. We were clear that the impact created should be fresh without giving away any idea. When an audience looks at him for the first time, they should be shocked and worried. An established face would not create the same excitement and would not give us that impact. I can also say we were merely trying to experiment with this idea, but with a lot of confidence in the result.
I’ve known Rajkumar for quite a while. Not as a friend or acquaintance, but as an artiste. While I was going through the script, his face kept popping up in my head and we decided to go ahead with him after a short discussion. And just as we imagined, he carried the role excellently. He had the panache. To stay within character, he’d maintain that attitude at all points on set. Once, I had to commute by car along with him for some work and I was agitated throughout the trip. I would say the credit definitely goes to Mysskin sir because he designs his characters that way. He won’t influence their acting style but pays a lot of attention to the body language and mindset of the character.
How did the selection process happen? Were all the characters your decision or did Mysskin fix on someone in his mind already?
When I started with Mysskin sir years back, I didn’t have any knowledge about him or his working style to the extent where I asked him who Mysskin was. The fear prevailing around his name wasn’t there for me. I got along pretty well with the team. So that’s how I worked on Psycho too.
The co-director and I always decide on a rough list of artistes. Mysskin sir would already have someone on mind but he wouldn’t tell us. When the first level meeting takes place with the director, co-director, and cinematographer we’d keep giving options. If we mentioned an artist who was already on his mind, he’d be double confident with his choice. He’d wait for our opinion even if he had someone in mind. But it doesn’t just end here. Only if the artiste passes the other tests, especially the look test, he/she will be on board. The character’s mien is very important for him.
We even picked people off the streets for Psycho to suit certain roles. He’d personally meet almost all artistes and finalised on them. There have been instances when shooting was planned all of a sudden, that too outside Chennai, and they needed artistes for it. Once they required someone who’d essay the role of a doctor and I had to select someone suitable with all the features he required overnight and send them across.
All said, the final call will always be taken by the director for any movie. But Mysskin sir surely did give me the space to experiment and suggest artistes.
How challenging and different would this film be for an actor like Udhayanidhi who has done commercial roles?
Although his role or even the film isn’t for the mainstream commercial audience, they will be able to accept him in this character. After reading the script, none of us could come up with an artiste who would suit the lead. We didn’t know who would be able to create that impact. After witnessing Udhayanidhi in commercial ventures, we couldn’t visualise him essaying a strong role but Mysskin sir was sure that he could pull it off.
What I’ve come to hear of him from the people around me and the industry, in general, is that he has a thirst for impactful characters but hasn’t found the right project. I don’t know of him personally but I know he is passionate when it comes to cinema. He’s not one of those artistes who hit the high spot on his very first try but instead gradually rose. I really didn’t expect such an impeccable performance from him. After Mysskin sir suggested his name, I could visualise him only in a few scenes while the rest of it was blank for me. It’s not that he couldn’t pull it off, it was just that I didn’t know if it would work. After going through the rushes, I was completely convinced.
He’s blind in the film and he doesn’t have dialogues running to pages. He’s more of an intelligent character who only communicates through expressions and understands with ears. I’m sure that the audience will look at him and his acting skills with a different perspective after this film. He’s blossomed from a budding artiste to a performing artiste.
Our industry criminally ‘wastes’ the talents of good female actors. How important are Aditi Rao Hyadri and Nithya Menen to the film?
Mysskin sir’s films always have important and purposeful women characters. They aren’t just these “bubbly” ones who serve as eye candy. Aditi Rao Hydari‘s character is simple and elegant. She plays the female lead in Psycho. Though I can’t reveal much about her character I can assure you that this role is one that would stand out in her career. It will definitely please the audiences who haven’t seen her in such a shade.
There will definitely be a difference in the Nithya Menen you saw in Malini 22 Palayamkottai and the one in Psycho. She essays a lady with a disability in the film. Her character is fierce and one that a male artiste would usually be considered for to essay. Her eyes were magical and did all the talking right through the film.
Was there any specific reason for choosing director Ram for the cop role?
After reading the script, the team asked me who popped up on my mind for the role. I was sure that I wanted a director to take up the role but I hadn’t decided on who I wanted. I felt Ram sir would suit this role. We used to find him in Mysskin sir’s office often. Surprisingly, Mysskin sir also had Ram sir in mind while penning the script but didn’t tell us about it.
We didn’t know if he was available or if he was even willing to do the role, but we fixed him way before we approached him. Ram’s look will be different in the film. He’d sport a shaved stubble, buttoned-up shirt and won’t be seen with his glasses or curly hair. He’s, without doubt, a performer, and has done really well.
Tell us about your rapport with Mysskin.
Mysskin sir is always excited and enthusiastic like a child celebrating their birthday. His shoots go on without breaks, sometimes extending even for 48 hours. But the set doesn’t look at it as a form of torture and accustoms to it accordingly. We forged a father-daughter relationship. I say this to anybody who asks me about him. When he introduced me to Nithya Menen, she said she already figured it out because our features looked almost alike. We had to explain to her how we just saw each other that way and that it wasn’t the actual relationship between us. Anywhere I go, I’m always asked how my father is.
Before I took up casting, I worked in several films for the costume and art department. When I reached a saturation point and I wanted to quit the industry, I bumped into him unexpectedly at a home decor store and he asked me to visit him to talk about this. He asked me to take up something seriously in the industry and that’s when I opted for casting. He told me that the concept is non-existent down south and that it wouldn’t pay much. I still took it up as a challenge and worked in my first film Mugamoodi, without receiving any payment. He encouraged my sincerity and that’s where our journey began. It’s been more than 10 years and I’ll always stay under his wings.
Tell us about the smaller supporting artistes who play a key role in the film.
This film honestly does not have an actual lead character or anything of that sort. Every character holds importance in Psycho. Yes, we find Udhayanidhi and Rajkumar occupying most of the space, but it is something we tend to decide on our own. I’m not saying it’s not true, but in this film, it is otherwise. Nobody walks in just for the sake of it or to confuse. Every character would’ve conveyed something or the other.
Both the trailer and teaser had no dialogues, was there a plan to make a silent film?
Both the teaser and trailer were released in such a way only to make audiences understand the mood of the film. The feedback we received from everyone around was that the first teaser that was dropped left most of them horrified. The smell of the blood shown in the teaser wafted around me after I saw it despite the fact that I wasn’t on set for those sequences. To relax and ease the audiences, the trailer was released with a blue tone and Fur Elise’s background score. Every dialogue in the film is significant and linked with one another. So incorporating just one or two for these purposes won’t suffice. It would only confuse the audience more.
We heard that the film is based on the tale of Angulimala. But is there any mild connection to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho apart from the psycho-killer character?
I’m not being diplomatic, but there are only a set number of stories in this world. Angulimala is just a small tale in Buddhist literature and there might probably be references to it. But I’m sure the movie isn’t based on that tale.
Psycho is definitely a tribute to Hitchcock but holds no connection to his film. On one random day, when the shooting of Thupparivaalan 2 was underway and I was the only one at his office, he told me how fortunate he was to be able to acquire the title of Alfred Hitchcock’s film, a director whom he looks up to. It was as unexpected for him as it was for us. Everything automatically fell in place right from the music to cast. It is a magical project.
Did you get a chance to witness Ilaiyaraja’s composing sessions? We’ve been hearing the songs, but how has the entire album and background score come out? Tell us a little about their first association.
Yes! Once I went and heard the live orchestra and I was also there for about two days to listen to the background scores. He is so dedicated and brisk even at this age. I was so glad that I got to see the fun and childish side of him too. One incident I recollect is the day one of his team members was celebrating their birthday at the studio. Raja sir had secretly signaled to his composers to compose the ‘Happy Birthday’ song. While they were at it, he stopped them halfway and made corrections to their pitch about three times, until they perfected the song.
He is extremely diligent and never believes in doing a half baked job even if it takes hours together. The live orchestra was overwhelming to the extent that I did not know what to record or click with my phone camera. When I heard the final composition in his studio speakers, it was mind-blowing. I felt like someone was chasing me in real-life. I do love many of his earlier compositions but only at that point did I truly understand why he holds the brand of a genius.
Mysskin sir and his ‘Thaatha’ Raja sir, as he calls him, share a wonderful rapport. They’d both pitch in their ideas and somehow derive an output that works well for the two of them while also keeping the audience in mind. They don’t force or impose their choices on each other. They just make it work at the end. Sheer magic I would say!
What do you feel about the evolving role of a casting director in Kollywood? How significant will it be in the future?
It is a very significant role, not just because I’m one of them, but because of the ethics and responsibilities involved. Nobody down south, let alone Kollywood is aware of such a role. There are coordinators, which is an equally tough role, but it doesn’t involve the responsibility a casting director’s position demands. Casting involves perusing the script, knowing the artiste entirely and much more. We usually cast the same talents for multiple roles and end up depriving several others who are aspiring actors. The designation in itself will not help in changing any of this. The person taking up the role should take it upon themselves and change this. Back then, a bankable star or even a director would have only one or two films in the pipeline. But now, the number of films being churned out is uncountable. Both the star and director can’t keep looking into the smaller aspects with great attention when there’s a whole lot more to figure out. And this is where such roles find a place. It helps in cutting production costs and proves efficient.
Right now, more of close-to-reality films starring newcomers are hitting screens than commercial ones. You can’t train people for such roles. You need to find them and get them on board. More than a director or even producer, a casting director holds a lot of significance owing to one of the main problems prevailing in the industry, casting couch. Our work starts from there. A number of people should emerge after knowing these responsibilities and help talents out there. It’s something the industry is in dire need for.
In the light of #MeToo, how important a step is it for women to take on such roles like yours?
Honestly, I don’t look at the #MeToo movement as something that is helping our industry. Although it empowers women and even men, the harassment still continues to exist in the industry and the perpetrators are only looking at safer ways to carry out what they require. We can’t keep throwing stones at every barking dog. But I am proud of myself for taking up such a role. I can assure the safety of all the talents who come onboard through me. Even during the shooting of Psycho, which was at night almost always, I gave assurance to all the families of the artists. They fear Mysskin sir because of the opinion created by others and his films too. But knowing him personally, I can say his sets are one of the safest places to be.
Women, in general, should boldly take up such roles be it direction, production or even cinematography to give aspiring movie-buffs the confidence. If there are a slew of women technicians who are firm with their decisions, there’s no need to implore anybody. The problem is almost solved right there.
What are your upcoming projects? Are you a part of Thupparivalan 2?
I was a part of Thupparivaalan 2 but I dropped out later because I couldn’t make it to the schedule abroad. Till the time they boarded the flight, I was working for them. I had auditioned and selected most of the cast that went abroad. Although not officially from Vishal Film Factory’s side, I have been working from Mysskin sir’s side. There were times when I auditioned through video calls and selected artists for schedules that were planned all of a sudden. I can’t reveal much, but there’s a lot more to be shot in the film.
Apart from this, I have four more untitled projects helmed by prominent directors on hand as of now.