Mai on why acting workshops are indispensable today

Atul Mongia, who pioneered acting workshops in India back in 2000s, is glad the film industry is warming up to the concept now, especially with streaming platforms like Netflix gaining ground.

More than a decade before acting workshops became part of the pre-production process of every other show or film in India, Atul Mongia introduced or pioneered the concept back in Ruchi Narain’s Kal: Yesterday and Tomorrow (2005). But he admits acting workshops broke through in a major way with Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010) five years later.

Since that seminal film, Mongia has become the go-to guy for conducting acting workshops on every film, and on every show since streaming platforms made inroads into India in 2016. In fact, Mongia believes streaming services like Netflix India are the reason why the Indian film industry has started warming up to acting workshops, a phenomenon that remained largely alien for the longest time.

“There are many directors as well as actors who want to do acting workshops now. If you do it with the right intention and the right people, it helps them to create a language for each other. As someone who conducts acting workshops, you’re just a facilitator helping them to make the process easier in whatever limited way you can,” says Mongia in an exclusive interview.

He adds that a big marker for the industry acceptance of acting workshops came a few years ago when there was a separate budget allocated for the workshops. “When I started out, we didn’t even have budgets for casting. The director would just tell the AD (Assistant Director) to do the casting.”

Phillauri director and former model Anshai Lal, who has collaborated with Mongia on multiple acting workshops, adds, “When we started, there used to be no casting director. We used to check Bombay Times and see who we’ve to send our applications to (laughs).”

Lal reasons that the need for acting workshops also stems from the kind of storytelling that streamers like Netflix have been pushing and positioning. “They’ve enabled character-based storytelling, as opposed to just a hero-and-heroine-based story. When you have so many characters, you want everyone to be well-prepared. It’s like an army. You’re dealing with about 10 characters in a day on set. It’s not possible to go to every character then and brief them. So I think workshops bring everyone together. It sets the tone. There are no surprises on set. It’s really a healthy practice that’s happening more now because of the streaming platforms.”

And then come in the actors who’ve to mouth those lines, live those lives.”

She adds that the democratic nature of filmmaking, that is at its core a collaborative medium, lends more value to the acting workshops. “Actors are equal contributors to the creative process. They determine the behaviour of their character, the nuance, the attributes that we can build in. So acting workshop is a rich development of the script at that stage hands-on with the people who’re gonna embody those scripts. It’s an absolute must. Each one of our shows and films has that. A little trivia: even during the lockdown, we’ve had intense table reads on Zoom with upwards of about 60-70 people on an animated series in the US. So it’s that intense for us.”

While the newer crop of actors are all gung-ho about workshops, it can be presumed that the same would be quite a leap for yesteryear actors who aren’t well-versed with that idea. But Mongia, Lal, and Bami insist that’s not the case. “In fact, on the contrary, when an actor does a workshop, their usual reaction is, ‘Oh, wish we had this 15 years ago!’ Yes, some of them may not want to get into intense acting workshops because they’re very experienced but that’s very rare,” says Lal.

Mongia agrees. “Ninety-nine percent of actors have no hesitation in doing acting workshops. In the last 10 years, there may be only seven or eight who’ve showed some resistance. But even once they do it, they want to do it again.”

Bami also attributes their willingness to the demanding nature of storytelling today. “Making a series is such an immersive process that actors also realise well what they’re signing up for. As opposed to a film that gets shot in a drastically shorter duration, series goes on. They also face a lot of scrutiny when they try to fulfill those characters so they immerse themselves as deeply.”

All three of them have collaborated on the show Mai, produced by Karnesh Ssharma’s Clean Slate Films, which stars Sakshi Tanwar in the titular role. Tanwar, most popular for her turn as the face of a saas bahu show, is cast against type to some extent in Mai, where she plays a mother who turns into an avenger after the mysterious death of her daughter.

Tanwar was selected for the part after she did a mock shoot and a couple of workshops with Mongia, who serves as a co-director on the show along with Lal. “The suggestion of casting Sakshi came from Monika (Shergill Vice President – Content, Netflix India). I almost feel embarrassed saying this now but at that time, I wasn’t sure if Sakshi could pull it off. I’ve always seen her as very contained and centred but the journey she had to take in Mai was a bit extreme at some points. So I asked her if she could do a mock shoot, and she graciously agreed. We picked two very difficult scenes from the show. But what she did in those three-four hours was unbelievable, and I was really taken aback.”

Lal adds that they went back to the writing process once Tanwar was signed for the part. “There’s an equity with the industry that she has. We saw her and we realised this is where the show needs to be pitched: Just about pushing it to hyperrealism at certain points that we chose to. But it’s a fairly bold story in that sense.”

Having watched Mai, this writer finds Tanwar a very curious fit for the role. Even in the most extreme or wild moments, Tanwar has an inherent grace attached to her demeanour. She would just not pitch it higher than that saturation point. And in that restraint lies the unique appeal of the show, or at least the character. Her primary identity remains that of a mother, and not an avenging angel.

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