Salman Rushdie recently wrote a column championing the film, Lion. If you haven’t read it, click here. As the Oscar buzz builds up for the film, we asked its India Casting Director Tess Joseph to write about her experience working on the film.
(click on any pic to start the slide show)
Since that afternoon in early June 2014 when we began casting for Garth Davis’ Lion to February 22nd, 2017, today, standing here at the at the Academy Awards Nominees dinner, it has been an unbelievable journey.
It began with a story, the unbelievable yet true journey of Saroo Brierley who found his mother after being lost for 25 years. The task was not easy, we had to find a Little Saroo, possibly 5-6 years with talent, stillness, depth and innocence. We also needed to find his teenaged brother Guddu, a nurturer and who would evolve into a beacon through the story, and a host of other characters. The casting processes were happening simultaneously: Kirsty Mc Gregor (Casting Director) and her team looking for the older Saroo while we searched for the younger one.
One thing was clear, this casting was not going to happen out of the hub of all things films in Mumbai – the suburb Versova or any audition room across the city. We needed to go back to our basics at India Casting Call, something we had done for Life of Pi and SOLD, we had to go back to school. We also needed the children to travel to Australia as part of the shoot so paperwork to support a passport application was imperative. Kirsty McGregor and I were on the same page from the moment we began: if my task of meeting and conducting workshops with classrooms full of children in India was daunting, Kirsty had to review each and every single audition in a language she didn’t understand. We did this together with almost choreographed synchronicity.
I had a team that was a force to reckon with – Karishma Mathur, an actress and drama teacher helmed the project alongside me. Her love and patience for working with children can beat anyone hands down. My young casting associates Aishwarya Amin and Bhawan Jha were invaluable. Then there was Vaibhav Gupta, who would go on to becoming Sunny Pawar’s acting coach on set and an integral of the film and production. We also had colleagues in Pune and Delhi helping us extend our search for the perfect Little Saroo. I will say, pick your team wisely, each one must balance the other and contribute something unique and valuable to the process.
Always, we tried out all the scenes as a team. Sometimes, I see audition tapes where Karishma is curled up like Little Saroo or Bhawan is desperately searching for Guddu. When your team has experienced the characters and the scenes, they understand on which moments the scenes pivot, they understand what it takes; they are always aware and looking for that during the auditions.
For this film we were working through schools with classrooms full of children. We used storytelling and games to observe the reactions of the kids. Each team member would pick potential candidates. We never shared who we thought might be right because that creates bias. With children the only way to unleash something special is patience and being completely non-judgmental. Don’t dismiss someone because you think they are not “right,” give them a chance and who knows they might surprise you.
Abhishek Bharate, who plays Guddu in the film auditioned with us on 7 June 2014 – if you have a good filing system it’s never hard to find anyone who has auditioned for you. Looking back at the tapes from that day I noticed something very special. Abhishek who lives between Pune and Mumbai had come in early that morning. He finished his audition quickly and he was on the top of our list from the start. But the thing that shines from that day was that Abhishek stayed for almost the whole day playing Guddu to so many younger boys who had come in. At one point when I asked him, “Don’t you have other things to do?” he replied, “No Didi, this is good. I get to do the scenes in different ways… I like it.” It’s that spirit that even Garth mentions about Abhishek, his generosity as an actor and to Sunny. A glimpse of that generosity was seen way before, even when he came for the audition. It is rare to see any actor offer what Abhishek did and I guess that is what made him the one actor I was willing to fight for if it came down to him and another actor. As a Casting Director, I feel you get to pick one actor who is worth fighting for on every film, someone you will come in with more than one reason to support because they bring more than just talent to the film.
Casting Saroo’s mom, also, was a moment of serendipity. We had many significant and amazing actors audition for the role but, even now, when I play back Priyanka Bose’s tape, there is magic. Garth and Kirsty did not know of her but when they saw her audition they felt it too – magic. Maybe, it was Priyanka’s own experiences as a mom that brought truth to the scenes, maybe it was her sheer determination, maybe we will never know what exactly she brought into the room that day but with it she ensured that no one else would play Kamla.
The entire India cast — be it Nawazuddin Siddique, Deepti Naval or Tannishtha Chatterjee— all came on board after reading and believing that there was something special about this story. They all had short yet pivotal roles and Tannishtha’s role evolved from a rewrite.
We were not only looking for a lot of young talent for Lion, my team was also pretty young. Aishwarya was all of 20 years and without her we would have never found Sunny. He was discovered in her school in Kalina from hundreds of students who auditioned. Sunny came to us after we had screened about 2,000 children from across three cities. We had shortlists and hopefuls, and Sunny was one among them. Kirsty, Karishma and I loved his face. He had soulful eyes, a certain stillness and husky voice. It was not until the September workshops did Sunny come alive as Little Saroo with help from acting coach Miranda Harcourt, who was assisted by Vaibhav and Karishma. I remember Garth’s face when we were looking at pictures of Sunny with Abhishek. Garth was in love. The team was heading next to Pune and Delhi for final workshops and callbacks but we knew we already had one solid choice for Little Saroo – Sunny Pawar.
I find it strange sometimes that we pick out “preparation for a film” as an exception to the rule. We rave about an actor making physical changes or building his body. Preparation is key to any film and it’s the little things that count, like requesting a school to allow Sunny or Abhishek to not cut their hair or reminding them to be careful about what they eat. These are things that every actor must do.
Similarly, the casting process demands time, a method and a great team. When you do have all three, you find Lion cubs with roaring performances like Sunny’s, Abhishek’s, Keshav’s and the many amazing children who are part of the film.
And in my case, I also find myself mulling over this whole process with a smile pasted silly on my face at the Academy Awards Nominee’s dinner, dressed in the fancy red and gold Sabyasachi ensemble, staring at the text message from my friend back home informing me that I am the first Indian casting director nominated for Casting Society of America’s Artios Awards for Best Casting and also one of the first (Indian casting director again) to be invited to the Academy Awards Nominee’s Dinner for extraordinary contribution to a Best Picture Nominee. I am not too sure about that heavy accolade but it definitely feels magical to be appreciated in La La La.