If you don't think the casting couch exists, ask someone who's faced it many times...
I was more than a little nervous when Sharika Raina, a film and television actor, greeted me at her front door. It's not every day that I get to meet cute, on-air personalities (or any women in general), but my anxiety wasn't about that. It was about the 'why' of the meeting. I was here to talk to Sharika about her casting couch experiences.
As I entered, the first thing that caught my eye was her 'Bar Council of India' Sanad (certificate), neatly framed over a sofa. “Of course, I've practiced law. I used to work with my father. I was a corporate lawyer!” You're wondering, right – how does one go from corporate law to acting? “By auditioning, auditioning, and then auditioning some more.”
We both knew I was here to talk about the casting couch, but I wasn't sure how to probe the subject. Auditions made for a good start. I needed to know what actually went down at these 'auditions'. “Haha, nothing ever goes down at an audition. It's just an audition. It's exactly what you would think it is. They give you the script, you study it for a while, then they tell you what the character is all about. They'll describe what they want – 'Bubbly like Kareena from Jab We Met. Middle class, and fun'. You memorise the lines, and perform.”
The voyeur in me was hoping for a different sort of performance story.
“These are just auditions. What do you expect? They take place at production houses and offices. It's only after the audition that they sometimes call you to a hotel, or a house. Further discussions...”
Finally, some sleaze. She discussed further...
“It's been sleazy from my very first audition. I was a kid at the time, just about 16, with big dreams and I had just met this casting guy. He asked me to go to this pub in Pune for an audition.” She admits, she didn't really know the place, but dreamy-eyed, she went there anyway. She entered the shady pub, and her jaw dropped. “It was the same casting guy, he was lying down, and was surrounded by girls. He asked me to get into a bikini right there because it was a beer brand shoot, and that justifies what was needed. I was 16! I said I needed to go to the bathroom and quickly ran away.”
She laughs and tells me I seemed too 'shareef' to talk to about the casting couch. Was I taking one for the team? I said yes. She went on...
“Once, I was called by a director and he told me to come to his place for a 'look test'. He asked me to stand straight, checked me out from head to toe, and then told me that there's one scene where the character has to wear just a towel around her. He told me to strip down and wear a towel so he can see how I look. I told him I can't do that. He said, 'It's just for a look test, baby'. I kept refusing, and he kept insisting, kept trying to convince me by telling me I almost have the role, but they need to know how I would look for that particular scene.” She excused herself by faking a family call, and bad network. “I ran away again,” she laughs.
Hardened by numerous similar incidents, these cautionary tales are now humourous anecdotes for Sharika. Her worst, and most 'casting couch-ish' situation so far, was about two years ago...
“I went for an audition to a production house. A few days later I got a call from the producer. Apparently, I had gotten the role, and all I had to do was sign the agreement. I got a message, the very next day, from the producer's office saying I had to go meet him at a popular hotel in Mumbai. Why a hotel, I thought, and tried to get the meeting changed to an office, or the production house itself. They replied, 'Sir is busy and flying out straight from there.' Fair enough, I thought.”
“At the hotel, I waited at the lobby and called the producer, but there was no answer. About 10 minutes later, I see a 69-year-old man, in shorts and a bandana, sweating like a pig, walking towards me. 'I'm sorry, I was at the gym. Let's go back to my room so I can freshen up.' I politely declined saying I don't want to intrude into his personal space and I could wait. He insisted I come, and that it was no problem at all.”
“Back in his room, he drew the curtains open, asked me how I like the view, the setting. He then showed me the agreement and told me it's mine, but there were still some things he was unhappy about. Apparently, I had a great body that could make him happy. This was all happening so quickly. My dream role had turned to a casting couch situation. I was angry, but I started crying. He started pacifying me. I excused myself and went to the bathroom. The first thing I see on the sink is a pack of condoms. This was all an elaborate plan. I washed my face, stepped outside and thanked him. Told him I'm happy he's trying to give me a shot, even though I'm a junior, but I can't do it like this.”
“Everyone does this,” was his reply. So much for subtlety.
“Most are direct like this, few leave hints. Some used to be okay with just a kiss, now they all want to bang-bang.”
Surely, anyone would bang-bang for a dream role. “Never. No role, script, or money will get me to say yes. There is no dream role that will make me stoop to this. I work hard, not to sleep with people. I've had some great roles, without having to do all this.”
She advises the girls (and boys too, I'm told – the couch doesn't discriminate): “Just go slow, there is no need to jump at opportunities when there are 'terms and conditions'. Be patient, trust your talent and you will shine. Never do anything you are not comfortable with.”
“Any actor can go from the bed to the screen. But the performance in bed cannot be better than the performance on camera. At the end of the day, the viewer will decide what works, and who they like.”
From reality shows like Splitsvilla, to playing an antagonist in the Rani Mukherjee film 'Mardaani', Sharika has really opened her portfolio, and without any compromise. Ironically, her current project, 'Dilli Kaand', is a movie about the Nirbhaya case from a few years ago.
I wonder, while Sharika bids me a warm good-bye, how many young girls are taken advantage of, every day, under the guise of 'hota hai', in our film industry.
She leaves me with a little something she wants to put out there, something she hopes the gatekeepers of on-air talent and the casting-couch-veterans will see:
“I'm Sharika Raina, and I've arrived. Let's do some professional work together.”
Photographs: Neville Sukhia
Words By: 101 Staff