Over the years, courtroom dramas as a sub-genre have found a large audience. Guilty Minds, premiering on Amazon Prime Video this Friday, stars young actors Shriya Pilgaonkar and Varun Mitra fighting on opposite sides, as they wrest with different cases in each episode.
The show boasts a strong ensemble cast comprising Namrata Sheth, Sugandha Garg, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Satish Kaushik, Benjamin Gilani and Chitrangada Satrupa and features guest appearances from Karishma Tanna, Shakti Kapoor and Suchitra Krishnamoorthi.
The Telegraph chatted with the show’s leads — Shriya and Varun — to know more.
What about Guilty Minds interested you?
Shriya Pilgaonkar: Oh, the writing! All the way! I love courtroom dramas and I was blown away by how well the show is written, not just in terms of the cases and the range of cases, but also by the emotional graphs of the characters. Even when I first read the name of my character, Kashaf Qazi, during the audition process, I was instantly drawn to her. Before this, I had never had the opportunity to sink my teeth into something the way I have done here. This show gave me the opportunity to explore a huge emotional range. I also loved the cases that are shown and the questions that the show asks.
Varun Mitra: It was a lot of factors for me. I am at a point in my career where I need it to be the right project which matches my sensibilities, the right platform and the right director. I need to be creatively in sync with what’s happening. In Guilty Minds, the script, the writing, the character... Shefali and Jayant (the show is created by Shefali Bhushan and co-directed by Jayant Digambar Samalkar) made everything feel right. Amazon (Prime Video) has put out content like Mirzapur and Paatal Lok, which has really changed the game from the point of view of the audience. Everything on the project just came together.
Shriya: What also worked for us is knowing that our director comes from such an illustrious family of lawyers. (Shefali Bhushan’s father Shanti Bhushan is a senior advocate in the Supreme Court of India and was a former law minister of India, while her brother Prashant Bhushan is a lawyer and an activist). I had complete confidence that this show would be very authentic. Speaking to Shefali and Jayant and understanding their vision made me realise that we are headed in the right direction in an authentic way.
Even though a lot of what you had to do was in the script and your co-director belongs to a family of prolific lawyers, what kind of prep went in from your end?
Varun: There were a lot of nuances that we got from Shefali herself. She told us about her father, how he fought his cases.... She gave us another example of a lawyer who, when he took up a case, would blindly believe in it, no matter what.
Also, one of Shefali’s brothers has a crazy collection of cufflinks. My character, Deepak Rana, is a shaukeen kind of guy, and so we got a box of cufflinks from her brother, which, I am guessing, was his not-so-loved ones (laughs) and in each scene, we changed my cufflinks. Cufflinks are not really seen on camera, but these are the small-small things that make you really believe that you are the character.
I also have some lawyer friends and I picked their brains. I went to a trial court in Bombay and I happened to watch a guy arguing who was quite theatrical, he had a little attitude to him.
But for me, it was more about finding Deepak Rana personally than finding the lawyer in him. What makes him theatrical in court is that he’s a guy who feels a lot emotionally, he’s always out there with his emotions.
Shriya: Even for Kashaf, I had to first discover her inner world and build that. She only takes up cases she’s passionate about. She’s not guided by money or anything else... she only wants to help someone. Empathy is at the core of Kashaf.
She’s a very different person outside court, and that was very interesting for me to develop. Outside court, she has her boundaries, she is a private person who doesn’t open up very easily and she has gone through certain things in her life which have made her a very closed person. She’s not trusting of people, and she’s very protective of the people she loves. Inside court, she’s feisty and passionate, and also stubborn in a way. She has a very clear understanding of black and white.
I went to the high court, I spoke to lawyers. My worry always was that I didn’t want to come across as trying too hard to seem like a lawyer. Shefali told me: ‘Don’t be cerebral about it. You are Kashaf and play her like that.’ There are flamboyant, theatrical lawyers and then there are other lawyers who are more articulate and subtle. In that sense, lawyers are also performers. But as long as I was truthful to what I was doing on screen, I knew it wouldn’t come across as fake.
Varun and I had, thankfully, prepped so well with our lines that we could do long takes without any worries. Even the people sitting in court were reacting to us. It felt quite realistic at many moments and that really helped the process.
There are many preconceived notions about the legal profession. Have yours changed after doing this show?
Varun: I don’t know if it’s changed any notions for me as far as the legal stuff is concerned. But I do know more about the profession now. I now know why some of my lawyer friends are in office till 2am (laughs). When it came to certain cases on the show which are slightly more sensitive subjects, I was compelled to think more about certain issues. We all know that these problems exist, but until and unless you dive into it properly, you don’t feel it. There is definitely some kind of a shift within me, which I think is a good start.
Shriya: The show has different cases in every episode, and we have dealt with everything from copyright issues to rights over water to dating apps to the Bollywood industry.... As Shriya, my lens of looking at something is perhaps one-dimensional. But as lawyers, there is so much more.
I don’t know what has changed, but I can tell you that a lot of notions have been strengthened. This is a very stressful profession, you know. You never know how things can suddenly get personal and complex. Doing this show has made me realise that it can get very tough for honest lawyers.
Varun: And today, we are going to be in a room of about 160 lawyers watching the screening... and shitting in our pants! (Laughs) I told my director yesterday: ‘Please announce before the screening that we have taken cinematic liberties’ (laughs). I think I will have a drink and go for that screening!
What are your favourite courtroom dramas?
Shriya: I like the Marathi film Court a lot. I love Boston Legal, Suits, How To Get Away With Murder. The good thing is that all these dramas have a lot of humour even within the madness, and even our show has that.
Varun: Boston Legal is definitely a pick because I think it was one of the first that we were exposed to. And then there has been Suits, which was also the reference point, in terms of vibe, when we got the brief for the audition of Guilty Minds. What’s nice about Suits is that besides what happens in court, we also get to see a lot of the office politics. The human drama bit is really interesting.