Screen, preen, routine

Are the days of the subtly portrayed Laajojis on Indian television over? Has physical perfection taken precedence over histrionic talent? speaks to various players in the industry in an attempt to analyze the casting scenario and the current trends in the industry.

The battle for the attention of the fickle television viewer seems to be driving software makers away from underplayed roles and subtle storylines towards loud characters and plots that can swing this way and that with every TRP-determining week.

Not surprisingly, the stress on looks that can hook the audience gets louder by the day. The demand for efficient acting abilities comes a poor second, although channels and production houses alike bemoan the fact that the marriage of the two is not easily found in the available talent pool.

So, what exactly goes behind the making of the television faces that are a household name today?

The faces of television

The right look and the right mix of faces that make up a serial is a mammoth task. With most shows on screen following a similar trend; casting has become one of the critical success factors of a show. Programmes now demand interesting and fresh faces all the time, to ensure an edge and creative differentiation over others.

The final act of seeing the glam dolls and hunks on air is preceded by a lot of effort that the production house puts in, agree all the casting heads of channels and software houses. The route of roping in artists starts from an audition process followed by screen tests to channel approvals and finally negotiations on rates and dates.

Producers are constantly on the lookout for fresh faces, which entails contacting model coordinators, talent agencies and theatre groups. Most producers spoken to say they rely on their database with the only exception being UTV.

"Considering the look factor has become extremely important in drawing up a cast and model coordinators not being very good at identifying interesting and beautiful faces, I tend to keep touring different cities and visiting college campuses to discover new faces for our shows," says UTV casting director Lal Vijay.

Having his cake and eating it too! Balaji Teleflims COO Rajesh Pavihtran

Interestingly, leading production house Balaji Telefilms uses a different strategy., a Balaji Telefilms subsidiary, is an attempt at creating a platform for artistes interested in working with the company. An aspiring artiste needs to register himself on the website, and only thereafter will he be considered for an audition. The interesting bit here is the actor needs to pay Rs 1,100 as registration fee. Balaji Telefilms is the only production house that charges an artiste for an audition. Says Balaji Telefilms COO Rajesh Pavithran, "There is nothing wrong in the website charging artistes to register, as the funds generated are used for the maintenance of the site."

On the other side of the fence, an aspiring artiste, Atrayee Lahiri says, "I think it is very unfair for an artiste to be charged an amount of Rs 1,100, as individuals have different kinds of financial pressures, and come from all over the country to Mumbai to try their hand at acting. Secondly, there is no real guarantee that this investment you make will reap returns. It‘s not worth it."

Nevertheless, Balaji still receives a lot of registrations each month and seems to have an organized setup and database when it comes to casting.

Talking to a number of production houses and channels, the trend emerges is that, today, while everyone sings paens to talent, it is looks that in reality carries more weight. This is precisely what makes or breaks an artiste‘s career. Not totally disregarding the importance of acting however, industry experts say emoting is as essential a quality as the latter. But if one questions the hierarchy of priority, it definitely is the skin-deep persona that emerges the winner.

Vijay says "If you ask me, I would definitely give more points to talent, but today‘s trend demands that the look be given the status of extreme importance and therefore so be it."

While some producers and channel representatives give a diplomatic response stating that the story demands what‘s essential, others are frank and vociferous about ‘the look‘ taking a lead among other facets of casting.

Want to be a highflying executive, get an MBA! Want to be an actor - don‘t bother with a degree!

"If you are from the NSD (National School of Drama) or the FTII (Film and Television Institute of India), then its worth talking about, all the others are humbug," says Siddhant Cinevision founder Manish Goswami.

With more and more acting schools popping up, aspiring artistes now get themselves enrolled to learn how to emote, face the camera and learn the basic technical aspects. A lot of producers however, feel that acting is an inborn gift. Most feel that drama schools today are money making ventures, providing no real value addition to the artist.

"Acting academies are sprouting up everywhere and misguided youth are becoming prey in the hope of getting a good break. Ninety per cent of these schools are commercial ventures and I have not come across any actors who feel they have gained," says producer writer Vipul D Shah of Optimystix.

Is there a dearth of talent?

There seems to be a mixed opinion on this one. Most casting directors claim that there is a definite improvement from the 90s, but the mass production of soaps, and the unremitting launches of more and more channels, has led to juggling of the limited supply of actors.

Another interesting point to note is that with more and more serials being launched, the current trend does not permit shows to go through a gestation phase and shows are expected to generate TRPs within an increasingly limited time frame. This puts a lot of pressure on the channels and production house‘s shoulders, who in turn try and limit their casting to bankable, established and popular names.

This boom in the television industry has in turn caused the dearth of actors, the number of which has remained constant resulting in only a limited supply of artistes to be played around with.

"A flood of people have entered the acting market, but the sad part is that they are very below average. It is very difficult to get the right combination of looks and talent," says SABTNL creative director Charu Singh.

To avoid the risk factor of playing with new names and faces, a lot of production houses abstain from casting fresh faces and stick with the tried and tested.

BAG Films Mumbai head Rajesh Chaddha states, "We only deal with known and established faces, we are not in the league of promoting new faces."

Sony executive vice president Tarun Katial

Sony Entertainment Television executive vice president, content and response, Tarun Katial says "There is a serious need for improvement in the ‘line up‘ crew. The main leads today have tremendous pressure as the track essentially revolves around them due to lack of supporting artists."

This is the primary reason why one sees so much of the protagonist on the screen.

What faces are production houses on the hunt for? What faces do channels want to brandish as their identity? Are the two talking the same language?

One major finding is that channels seem to be apprehensive in casting artistes who have struck a cord with other channels. The reason is that artistes usually tend to become synonymous with that channel. For instance, Mona Singh of Jassi fame has become a Sony icon, while Ronit Roy popularly known as Bajaj or Mihir Virani is a Star icon.

Another issue with cross channel casting is that a character is so deeply set in the minds of the viewers, that it would take time for them to accept the artiste in his/her new avatar. Breaking the rut would need the initial gestation time and as pointed out earlier, nobody has the time, money or the risk appetite to suffer this.

Mona Singh of the Jassi fame

Says Katial, "It is true that it is difficult to break the mould with strong characters on other channels, but this is definitely a bad trend in the business."

Chaddha believes that channels should look at this as an opportunity to gauge how that artiste rubs off with the viewers, its loyal viewer base and then it makes it easier to take a call.

This is a sad fact for actors, as fundamentally speaking, they are freelancers, whose future prospects often get tied to the channel they are associated with.

Are Indian soaps transporting us to our aspirational dreamlands? Does the pancake clad, glittering damsel on the small screen connect with the housewife?

Garment shops stock up on Kkusum salwar kameezes, Tulsi saris, Kumkum saris and Kasautii kurtas. The mangalsutra and stylised sindoor have come into vogue; intricate bindis and ornaments are a rage.

So yes, maybe television is becoming our audiovisual catalogue comparable to the likes of Elle, Cosmopolitan and Vogue.

The trend setters!
"TV is like a catalogue" - Star vice president Deepak Segal

Star TV senior vice president Deepak Segal says "TV is like a catalogue, comparable to any fashion magazine and one wants to be constantly updated on what the current trend is, what‘s in and what‘s out, so to give a realistic picture on screen would make the whole packaging very dull."

The template is set. Every show looks at making its look glossier and very up-market. This divorce from middle-class realities is more than evident today with lavishly mounted, upmarket dramas bombarding the tube.

The justification is the herd mentality among Indians. With one formula sending the adrenalin rush to the TRPs, others feel motivated to follow. The focus is on keeping the aspirational look intact, which viewers get glued on to.

Nimbus creative producer Mamta Patnayak says "This trend has trickled down from cinema, and secondly, considering the vast numbers of the female viewers, the shows are meant to touch a chord with the women‘s fantasies."

Does the casting couch exist in TV land?

Apparently, it does, but in a very small area of the television industry. As the industry evolves, more actors are willing to talk about this otherwise taboo subject. The couch does play a role in casting when the competition for the scarce lead roles gets intense, agree many artistes.

Saara Akaash actor Sai Deodhar told recently, "I have not personally encountered any whackos in the TV industry, but these things happen due to the fact that the stakes in this profession are growing by leaps and bounds every day."

Another artiste Rupali Ganguly who acts in Star Plus‘ Sanjivani says, "Luckily I have not been thrown into this predicament. But yes, I have heard weird stories from co-artistes. But who knows, it could be a case of sour grapes, for these co-artistes always talk about others and never about themselves."

Kkusum in her younger days!

22-year-old mothers followed by 30-year-old grandmothers? What has the industry come to?

Ridiculous? But as our family dramas get into their super fast forward mode, we see young stars in ancient roles. Production houses and channels say that artistes don‘t want to put gray in their hair and they don‘t want to look their character, so you have a mismatch between the role of the character and its look. Actors are also very reluctant to be put into this bracket, and justifiably so.

Hmmmm, any guesses on who‘s mommy ?

Why should an artiste be typecast into a mother‘s or grandmother‘s role, at the onset of his career? To this, Segal says, "The track has to go on, and one cannot be a 23-year-old for life."

The argument is that after one explores all ends of that particular role, there is no choice but to go forward in time. So, there are essentially two choices:

a) You change the whole cast

b) You allow the character to age with the progression of the serial.

A producer, on condition of anonymity says, "The fault lies with the channel, as they must take a call and bring the serial to an end. Placing such young characters in an elderly role only insults the intellect of the viewer."

Other industry representatives feel that as long as there is potential in the story, the show must go on. Judging by the TRPs, audiences are yet to give up on the long winding sagas, however.

Heroines are sugar and spice and all things nice, what about the vamp?

The small screen is flooded with shows where character differentiation between the good and bad is getting starker.

Sugar & Spice, can you tell the difference?

If one just takes a glance at the popular antagonists of today, you can‘t miss Komalika (Kasautii), Pallavi (Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii) and Sheetal (Lipstick) all of whom come under the ‘villainous‘ genre.

The character trademarks are playing up the glamour, loudness and the ‘modernity‘ in garb, so as to imply that a only a negative character subscribes to the outgoing, glamorous, sexy westernised look, and the protagonist continues to be demurely clad woman in a sari or a salwar kameez, exhibiting her naivete and always trying to do the right thing.

Producers say they look at women with sharp and striking features when on the look out for negative characters. The more outgoing, aggressive and vociferous a woman is, the more suited she becomes for the role.

Goswami says, "I first check out what the artist is wearing. If she is wearing a skirt or jeans and is very comfortable in it, then I would consider her more for the negative shade, but a girl who wears a salwar kameez is more suited for my main lead."

Pavithran says, "I need my villain to be bitchy, mean and flashy, and my main lead to be soft and innocent."

To sum it up, glamour is the key essential; the character needs to be very flashy so that it catches the viewer‘s eye. This is the stark reality of how India may shine but even 50 years post-independence the Indian mentality will remain true to itself.

Is it transition time?

Change is the only constant they say and if Jassi is anything to go by, the sands are shifting, albeit too slowly for some. Programming cycles dictate that a change is in the offing. By just how much though, the year ahead should tell.


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