Casting director Sanjeev Maurya, who has worked on projects like The White Tiger, A Sweetable Boy, Extraction, Angry Indian Goddesses, explains that the casting process for Trial by Fire involved a completely different audition process. And how the team took over 3500 auditions. Actors for the minor roles in the Netflix series created by Kevin Luperchio and Prashant Nair. (Also read: Trial by Fire Review: The Netflix Series Based on the 1997 Uphaar Tragedy Is a Triumphant Reminder of the Cost of Resilience)
One of the strongest factors that made Trial by Fire work for me is the casting. How was the reception?
I will start with the journey that this type of project has seen. It was a very different process, which started just a week before the first lockdown. So, Prashant (Nair) comes to Delhi to tell the story and ask for information. I stood up and said, “Listen, I don’t see any stars.” I just want the right actors who I can believe in as the characters.’ He had the same thought and then the action started. He handed over the Bible, because the script wasn’t ready yet and I read it and then suddenly the lockdown started. No one in the world knew how long this lockdown would last. Meanwhile we were still doing our groundwork, and then came the audition stage. Zoom was introduced to the world and we thought we had to continue without a scene for the audition, so my team and I sat down and created. Scenarios for all characters. There was no limit to dialogue or timeline, we just gave them the situation and they had complete freedom to say anything and then we would give cues accordingly. It was a beautiful experience where everyone learned and grew with the team. Prashant liked the route because it was real.
Since Trial by Fire is based on a real-life tragedy, what were some of the methods of the casting process because you were also responsible for doing justice to the story.
Yeah, during the audition scenes my team and I knew because we had the story, we didn’t really focus on the specifics of starting at a point and then stopping there. We used to make sure that there was a sense of control through dialogues to bring them back to the scene. It was all happening in a very organic and natural way. In my 13 years of casting experience, I have seen very few projects where directors are so open to seeing what the best prospects are.
Rajshri Deshpande gave a terrific performance in the series as Neelam. How did she get on board? Tell us about her casting process.
So before Rajshri we auditioned a lot of actors who are big names in the industry, A-listers were also offered the part. We got numbers from a couple of them. Prashant and I wanted someone who could give time and space to the character. Neelam is not an easy character, her journey with this situation spans 20 years and she grows up with time. So, we were sure that we needed someone who could give it her all mentally and physically. It was a big challenge. We caught up with Rajshri, while she was shooting for another project. We sent him the material and gave him time to read it and told him we were going to audition live on Zoom. I remember she was in the hotel room when she auditioned! After her audition, Prashant (Nair) and I were very sure that she was the right person.
Another thing I want to add about this is that there are very few actors who can actually go through a process and work very hard to audition. Very few actors prepare themselves for the audition, which shows that they will give 120% on set if they are doing so much for the audition. He is one of them.
One of the standouts were the small arcs in Trial by Fire, particularly one involving actor Karan Sharma, who played Rajesh Telang’s wife. She was exceptional at it. How did his role come about, was it known in advance that it would be a supporting actor during casting?
So, we auditioned over 3500 actors for the entire show. The show has 76 characters including primary and secondary. The audition was much more flexible as it was via Zoom. We auditioned in South, Kolkata, Bombay, Delhi and Rajasthan. So Karan Sharmaji, I remember again she was in Delhi at that time, and I invited her to the studio and she agreed. She walked in, I saw her and I knew then how she had prepared so well for the part. We started auditioning and she was incredible in her presence in the small moments.
There is an interesting story about Vir Singh’s life. Prashant told us about the episode where he said he needed an actor with good body movement, as the camera moves from room to room at the same time. The actor walks behind the camera, changes clothes, and comes right after. It excited me since I had the freedom to cast a theater actor who could pull it off. Prashant agreed. So if you look, all the actors in this episode come from a theater background. Both Rajesh and Karan come from NSD, their son and daughter roles come from another batch of the theater company. I remember knowing that I had to prioritize belief in the characters first. This was the goal from the first day to the last. We focused on each character—even if they had only one scene. The process was the same for everyone, and we provided them with adequate information. So I think that’s why each of his performances is so true.
We usually get less time in the casting process. This is usually three months or less. There was something else that was something else, I keep telling Prashant that maybe the universe was kind that we had a year to work on Trial by Fire because of the lockdown. We were very confident that we should do it right as a team and hopefully it has paid off.