Nidhi Bisht was rejected in acting auditions for not looking like a stereotypical leading lady. She turned the experience around to spot unconventional yet talented actors who are today headlining India’s leading web series
We are deep inside Film City, Goregaon. The Viral Fever’s (TVF; India’s most prominent production house for web content) crew is building a set outside a studio. The crew is young — 20-somethings armed with walkie-talkies and mobile phones frantically juggling simultaneous conversations.
This is the first time we’re meeting the TVF crew outside their Andheri office. And while the hipster office with bright walls, whiteboards and a cafeteria has a college feel to it, the vibe on the set is the opposite: it feels more professional. There’s no casual conversation over tea and cigarettes, no people sitting in groups laughing at a funny video.
But it’s only fitting that we are at this location. We are here to meet the most unlikely member of the TVF camp. Nidhi Bisht (31), the sole casting director, is the only non-IIT-educated core team member. The others are all IIT (Indian Institue of Technology) Kharagpur graduates: Arunabh Kumar, Biswapati Sarkar and Jitendra Kumar. She is also the only female core member.
If her Instagram feed (@ekthapatiger) is any indicator — with images of her wearing bright red sunglasses, pretending to be Indira Gandhi with a streak of powdered white hair, and sporting a beanie in the middle of Mumbai summers — Bisht is an uninhibited woman. In person, she doesn’t disappoint. She seems self-assured, admits to taking herself far too seriously, hopes to be India’s Tina Fey and have her own show like Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Bisht is close to achieving the latter: the sets we are meeting on are for a new web series — Bisht Please, and, as the name suggests, she is the lead. “This is my flagship project. I have loaned my surname to the show, and it’s based on my misadventures in Mumbai. The story is an exaggerated version of my personal life. It’s scary... and exciting,” she says.
Trial and error
For Bisht, the show is a realisation of a childhood dream. The Delhi girl grew up on a steady diet of Bollywood films, and gravitated toward acting. “My elder brother used to impersonate Amitabh Bachchan and Shatrughan Sinha. Everybody used to applaud him. So, in my own pursuit of gaining appreciation, I started copying my brother’s impersonations,” she says.
As a teenager, her understanding of humour came from American comedians Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, through multiple reruns of the American sketch show, Saturday Night Live. “Their self-deprecating and sarcastic humour resonated with me,” she says.
However, born to a middle-class family, Bisht knew that the prospect of her acting professionally would never be accepted at home. So, she pursued a law degree at Jamia Millia Islamia, and even worked with an intellectual property lawyer in Delhi for two years.
She did theatre on the side, though, with the Indian People’s Theatre Association. Things took a turn in 2008, when Farhan Akhtar’s Rock On!! released, and a newly inspired Bisht finally decided to pursue acting professionally.
Girl in the city
Bisht first came to Mumbai in early 2009, by her own admission, with unrealistic self-confidence. “I thought I would meet Anurag Kashyap in a few days, impress him, and be cast as a lead actor for his next project,” she says.
The reality, of course, was different. She had her share of disappointing auditions. But they gave her some bizarre insights into the industry. For instance, she was often rejected for having a round face. “I was told that lead actors should have an oval or a heart-shaped face to be more camera-friendly. I was apparently suitable only for secondary characters and elderly roles,” she says.
Looking back, the time spent in the waiting rooms at auditions was the making of Bisht, the casting director. She met several new actors here: Nidhi Singh, Maanvi Gagroo, Amol Parashar, Akanksha Thakur, to name a few. Today, all of them constitute the TVF actors brigade.
“I met actors who were being rejected from mainstream gigs for reasons that had nothing to do with acting skills. Today, when I am casting for TVF, I read a character, and I instinctively know who would work for the role, because I’ve met a lot of them in my own struggling days,” she says.
However, there is more to Bisht’s contribution to TVF than creating a bank of actors. Bisht also co-wrote some of the most popular sketches, and has starred in them — from playing a snarky girlfriend in TVF’s Chai Sutta Chronicles (1.2 million views), to some of TVF’s viral sketches, Caller Naina (a parody on call centre employees; 1.9 million views) and Ma ke Haath ki Cigarette (a sketch-comedy of a mother making home-made cigarettes for her son; 1.5 million views). Ironically, she portrayed motherly and middle-aged roles in both.
But her acting reel, so far, has been sporadic — only smaller roles in TVF’s popular web series, and sketches. She hasn’t yet portrayed a protagonist on any of the productions, something other core team members have already done. Bisht isn’t complaining, though. “I am not bound by the identity of one character. The audience will hopefully remember all the different characters I have played,” she says.