Makers of web series have been increasingly looking at including actors from the South too in a bid to augment the shows' national appeal
Samantha Akkineni's Raji and Uday Mahesh's Chellam sir were the two most celebrated characters in the recently-released second season of The Family Man. For those familiar with their filmography in Tamil and Telugu in the past decade, it was hardly surprising that their work in the spy thriller show was winning them praise. But what the Manoj Bajpayee-led series truly gave them was an opportunity to be part of a show that was watched by people across the country - a space that was sorely missing till the advent of OTT shows.
In recent years, big shows such as Breathe: Into The Shadows (Amazon Prime Video) and Ramyug (MX Player) have cast actors from the South in leading roles. But it was The Family Man, created by filmmakers Krishna DK and Raj Nidimoru, that set a precedent.
On being roped in to play the antagonist Moosa in the first season of The Family Man, Malayalam actor Neeraj Madhav says, "First, I think it lent unpredictability to the story because had it been anyone from Bollywood, the audience would have figured out from the start that this character had something up his sleeve. Also, there was a trend in Bollywood back then to cast someone from the North as a South Indian and get them to speak with a fake accent. But because Raj and DK were from the South, they took the effort to rope in Priyamani as a Tamilian and me as a Malayali."
The show's co-creator DK, however, says that it wasn't really about going against the trend. "There are a lot of talented actors in the South as well as Bollywood. But in films, there are also other concerns and considerations that come into play such as the box office expectations. But The Family Man was one of the first OTT shows in India and we weren’t afraid of casting actors from the South," he says. "Our aim was to do a pan-Indian show with representation from across the country. That’s why we had characters from Kerala and Kashmir. We wanted the marriage of the leads too to be intercultural; Suchitra (Priya Mani) is from Tamil Nadu and Srikant (Bajpayee) from UP. We wanted to show India as it is, a melting pot of cultures. Once we had the characters in place, then it was about casting true to form. This is what we did in season 2 as well."
Apart from Shahid Kapoor, Raj and DK's upcoming Amazon Prime Video web series also has Tamil star Vijay Sethupathi and Raashi Khanna, who has predominantly worked in Telugu films.
The extended shelf life of an OTT show, which can be rewatched by the audience or find new viewers on the same streaming platform, has also enabled the casting of actors outside Bollywood, say film experts. Bollywood trade analyst Komal Nahta explains, "In films, the star value matters for the opening-day collections. As an audience, when you are paying money for a ticket, you want to see a recognisable face. But for OTT shows, that is irrelevant. Hence the makers have the liberty to stay true to the story, have more room to experiment and can cast great actors rather than those with face value."
But marketing considerations also come into play for OTT shows. Nithya Menen, who has acted in all four South industries before her Bollywood debut in Mission Mangal, had played the female lead in the second season of Breathe. "Now, there is a huge South Indian audience that also needs to be catered to and South Indian actors are also cast keeping that in mind," she says.
A positive aspect though is that all these shows had directors and writers who are also watching content from across the country, something that OTTs have made increasingly accessible. "The team of Breathe had watched a lot of good films including South Indian movies and cast actors based on how good they are and how they fit the role. Its creator Mayank Sharma had seen me in OK Kanmani and wanted someone to get through to me for one of his projects and that's how I got the part for Breathe," she says.
Supporting her, Kannada actor Diganth, who played the role of Ram in director Kunal Kohli's Ramyug, says, "In the past year, I have watched a lot of shows on OTTs that featured actors from across the country including Karnataka. So, it’s not just Bollywood anymore. India is becoming one in terms of content that is being watched. That’s also one of the reasons why Kunal wanted actors from across India to star in Ramyug."
Being part of such shows have also opened further doors for South actors in Bollywood. Neeraj says, "I have been getting a lot of opportunities due to The Family Man. I had, in fact, agreed to do a project with Dharma Productions and I was in talks for a couple of other web series too. Last year, before the pandemic, I was in Mumbai having committed to a few projects. Even after the lockdown, I had shot for a Netflix anthology titled Feels Like Ishq in November."
Does this reinforce that only if actors star in a Hindi project, do they make it big in India? "I don’t think so," says DK. "There’s a target group for each audience. Tamil and Telugu actors will be big in their industries. It’s just that the Hindi audience is widely spread. But there’s no question of discrimination or superiority based on language."
In OTT shows, the audience too aren't concerned about where the actors are from, says Nithya. "End of the day, we have quite a large industry in the South and we make good films that are noticed. But OTTs make projects for a national audience and that does refer to Bollywood because it’s the most followed industry in India. That’s why actors who have a national appeal get centre-stage," she explains.
Neeraj, however, believes that in due time this could change too. "The biggest aspect of OTTs is that you don’t need to be a star with an established fanbase. On OTTs, you just have to perform and anybody can become a star. There is enough space for any actor to prove themselves," he concludes.