Before ‘Guilty Minds’ happened, Shefali Bhushan was best known for directing the much-acclaimed feature-length film ‘Jugni’ (2016). Though one would imagine directing a big series for a leading streaming platform would be a much smoother process than making an independent film by raising finances on your own, Shefali states that a lot of struggle goes into putting together every single project in the industry.
In this interview, she talks about the process behind making her successful Amazon Prime Video show, writing scripts based on the surroundings she has grown up in and explored, the challenges involved in making a legal drama, passion for acting and more.
Years back, you used to run a website called BeatOfIndia.com that was designed to popularize folk music. Working on that website and doing extensive research on Indian folk music led you towards directing ‘Jugni’, your first feature-length film. You come from a family of lawyers and that you must have, in some way, paved the way for putting together a legal drama like ‘Guilty Minds’. Would it be right to say that you derive your stories from the worlds you have been a part of?
Absolutely! When you observe your surroundings closely, you can attempt to bring some truth, honesty and authenticity to the stories you want to tell.
Your nephew Manav Bhushan, who seemingly has a good understanding of the legal system, was one of the co-writers on the show. Did your father Shanti Bhushan and brother Prashant Bhushan, who have been accomplished lawyers, help you with the research process or offer you some advice on how you should structure the different cases that you explored through the series?
We hear anecdotes and stories from the members in the family quite regularly. I did discuss some of the cases in the script with my father. Manav came up with the core idea for many of the cases, especially the ones involving technology and artificial intelligence. Jayant (Digambar Somalkar, co-director) and I did a lot of research on all the cases. Each of the cases was difficult for multiple reasons. The ‘Plan Your Baby’ episode required the maximum amount of research. It involved some complex questions which took us a while to get clarity on. Writing the first episode, which touched upon consent, was a little tricky. For that particular case, we put in a lot of effort to put across a balanced perspective. You have to be very careful while writing gray characters and situations.
Each of the episodes showcased the lawyers dealing with a new case. As viewers, we keenly looked forward to what the verdict of each of these cases would be. Since some of the cases, including the one involving the driverless car, have not been discussed or explored in real life, did you ever face a dilemma while deciding the verdict of a particular case?
Yes, arriving at the verdict of certain cases was tough. We would have extensive debates and discussions in the writing room. There would be disagreements between writers all the time and that was not a bad thing at all. There were times when I discussed the verdict we had decided for a particular episode with my father. My father still believes the judgment delivered in the second episode should have been different. I know of lawyers who have been discussing the verdicts delivered in the different episodes. At the end of the day, we must remember that these things are not absolute. Two judges can have completely different viewpoints on a particular case.
Among other things, the show has been lauded for its casting. What was the casting process like?
We had a wonderful casting director in the form of Gautam Kishanchandani. Gautam and his team auditioned a lot of actors. As far as casting the lead actors is concerned, we were looking for actors who would fit the part and have a certain charisma and screen presence. Varun Mitra and Shriya Pilgaonkar were cast based on the auditions they gave.
You started your career as a filmmaker by making documentaries. What, according to you, is the primary difference between making a documentary and directing a fiction show or a film?
While making fiction, you have to collaborate with a large team. It is not an individual’s creation. It is a team that comes together. Every creative decision you make is important here. While making a feature film or a series, it is important to work with like-minded people to achieve a common goal.
Is making a massive show like ‘Guilty Minds’ for a streaming giant easier than putting together an independent film like ‘Jugni’?
Nothing is easy in this industry. Every project brings its own set of challenges. Making an independent film involves several issues like arranging funds and securing a respectable release for it. When it comes to making a series, you are working on a much larger scale. You are working with a TV network or a streaming platform which, rightfully, has to say in every aspect of the show. You are collaborating with a larger set of people. The scale at which a series is mounted also makes the process much more difficult. We had just started shooting for the show when the first wave of Covid-19 hit us. We stopped the shoot in March 2020 and resumed shooting in December the same year. If anyone tested positive, the shoot would stop again. At one point, we were working with just half of the crew members as the rest had tested positive and were in isolation.
Before you turned filmmaker, you had plans of becoming an actor. You were a part of the Act One Theater Group in Delhi and had planned on studying acting at the National School of Drama. In ‘Guilty Minds’, you made a cameo as the head of a news channel. Is there a plan to act more extensively in the future?
I would not want to act in my own projects as it would be difficult to focus on acting and direction at the same time. I don’t mind doing a cameo though (laughs). Acting has always been a passion and I am not giving up on my desire to act yet. I would like to act in somebody else’s project. I am a trained Hindustani classical vocalist, so I also hope to sing for some project.
Have you started developing the script for the second season of ‘Guilty Minds’?
I am not at liberty to share anything about the second season at the moment.
Would you like to get back to making documentaries?
I don’t have any plans of making a documentary in the near future. I am much more in love with fiction now. I wish to explore this space further and make feature films and shows.