Prajakti Koli, Rohit Saraf on Netflix series Mismatched and bringing gravitas to the young adult genre
In a lot of ways, it feels like Rohit Saraf and Prajakta Koli are at a similar juncture in their acting careers, in the sense that fame seems to be just around the corner for them. All they need is that launchpad. Netflix’s six-episode series Mismatched could be that leap of faith.
In July, YouTube sensation, Prajakta Koli, reputed as much for her 5.8 million subscribers as for her vivacious personality, challenged popular notion by making her acting debut as Asha, a quiet Haryanvi school girl in the short film Khayali Pulao. Koli’s Asha doesn’t utter a single word in the film’s first two minutes but manages to evoke restlessness and curiosity through her expressive face. Her eyes widen, fall, and twinkle on demand, enunciating varying facets of the desperation that accompanies small-town female liberation. Koli’s assured turn as someone who is more evolved than her circumstances is the backbone of the subdued film, elevating its social messaging from being a mere statement to a lived-in reality.
In those 26 minutes, it’s difficult to imagine Koli as that same person who playfully urges you to hit on the “subscribe” button in the beginning of innumerable YouTube videos, a mark of her tremendous range, if not, inherent craftsmanship.
If the 27-year-old’s acting career saw her square off against her own reputation, manicured to perfection by her brand of observational Indian comedy and a burgeoning online following (her Instagram account alone has 2.7 million followers), then Rohit Saraf had to contend with making a mark while being in the same frame as acting royalty, early on. The 23-year-old debuted with Dear Zindagi (2016) that starred Alia Bhatt, worked opposite Manisha Koirala in Dear Maya (2017) and Rani Mukherji in Hichki (2018) before stumbling onto his breakout role The Sky is Pink last year. In the supremely well-acted cancer drama starring Priyanka Chopra, Farhan Akhtar, and Zaira Wasim, Saraf played Ishaan Chaudhury, the level-headed older son and the devoted elder brother of a dying younger sister. The actor had probably the least flashier role and yet played it with a vulnerability that underlined the lingering trauma of being part of a family that’s slowly and steadily coming undone with a piercing clarity.
Both Koli and Saraf are considerably younger than the current crop of young actors, representing an influx of a generation of actors that have grown up with the internet to an extent that their personalities become a product of it. In a lot of ways, it feels like Saraf and Koli are at a similar juncture in their acting careers, in the sense that fame seems to be just around the corner for them. All they need is that launchpad – that one role that puts them in the spotlight, opening up doors that they would otherwise have had to knock on. Netflix’s Mismatched, a six-episode series based on Sandhya Menon’s 2017 Young Adult novel, When Dimple Met Rishi, could be that leap of faith.
Co-directed by Akarsh Khurana and Nipun Dharmadikari, Mismatched sees Koli play Dimple, a headstrong 17-year-old girl whose personal ambition is thwarted by her mother’s fixation with her marriage. Saraf’s Rishi on the other hand is a 18-year-old hopeless romantic who believes in the possibility of finding true love through arranged marriage. When they happen to attend the same summer program in Jaipur, Rishi thinks he is about to meet his “future wife,” unaware that it is that very future Dimple is running away from. At first blush, the plot might feel like it is built on the age old device of two opposing personalities bickering and then gravitating toward each other. But the screen adaptation (the writing team includes Gazal Dhaliwal, Aarsh Vora, and Sunayana Kumari) attempts to expand the scope of the source material beyond its brand of candyfloss romance and arrive at the idea of teenage self-assertion.
At the moment, we’re days away from the release of the show – Koli is currently shooting for her Bollywood debut (Raj Mehta’s Jug Jugg Jeeyo bankrolled by Dharma Productions) and Saraf is fresh off the release of Anurag Basu’s widely-anticipated Ludo. Things seeming to be looking up for the two young actors. Could Mismatched be the icing on the cake?
Edited excerpts from a conversation with the two lead actors.
What was it about Mismatched that drew you both in?
Rohit: I think it's the relatability. It’s the underlining of everything that it talks about: love, ambition, navigating through the college years of your life, and a kind of acceptance toward all that is going on in your life. But the biggest selling point was the romance. I loved the innocence of the romance that Rishi has for Dimple.
Prajakta: For me, I think it was just the fact that as an audience I would have wanted to watch a show like this. I mean, I'm all for everything that we are watching online right now. But I felt like we were missing a cute love story. In a way, I kind of fell for the show more as an audience than I did as an actor. Then there were the other things: the characters were beautiful and the cast was amazing. So for me, everything added up really, really well because this was always going to be known as my first show. Before Mismatched, a couple of opportunities had come my way but I wasn’t completely sure if I had wanted them to be my first show. But when this show came to me, I knew right away that I wanted to be associated with it.
Given that this is the first web-series that both of you are acting in, did you have an internal checklist of the things a show needed to be for you to sign on?
Rohit: Any project that I work on, I have to believe in it creatively before anything else. For me, it is very important to be on a set that is collaborative as opposed to me being a puppet on set. I'm not saying that on every set that I go on, I'll have something to add to it but at least, the places where I believe that I can add something to it. For example, on the sets of Mismatched, there were a lot of times that I wanted to bring nuances of my personality to Rishi’s character and Akarsh and Nipun, the directors of the show, gave us the liberty to be able to do that. There were also moments during the shoot when I didn't believe in a certain scene that I was doing but I could be convinced about it because it’s not just about my point of view, right? The fact that I was working with directors who knew the material inside out to convince me in such situations mattered a lot.
Prajakta: I’ve never been on a set before so I didn’t know about all these things that Rohit is talking about before I signed on, but now that I’ve done the show, all these factors have sort of shown themselves. The one thing that I had in mind before I was getting on board was: How is my audience going to like it? I’ll be honest, everything that I get to do, all these opportunities I get to live, is because of my YouTube channel. I have a loyal audience that spends time watching my videos, interacts with me, and shows me their love and support. So when I am taking up something so new, I don't want to shock them. That’s the one filter I have when I am looking at any new project. But I also did want to move a little bit away from my personality in my videos and try something new. So for me, that balance was very important.
I’ve seen two episodes of Mismatched and one of the things that the plot rests on is the relaxed chemistry between Rishi and Dimple. When you’re shouldering a love story, how much does having the right co-star affect what you can bring to the table? Did both of you find your language from day one?
Rohit: The greatest part about working with Prajakta was that at no point on set did I feel that she was not as invested as I was. When you’re performing a scene, it is imperative that your co-actor, no matter if it's one or five, should be as enthusiastic about it. I do not like it when actors stand and give cues when the other is performing just because their close-up is done. Prajakta never let that happen. I remember even in some scenes which were emotionally draining, she stood there and performed with the same intensity that she did for her own close-up. That just made me respect her so much more as an artist. Obviously, the fact that we get along so well off-screen massively helped to build that chemistry with each other on screen.
The show is based on a New York Times bestselling young adult novel, a hugely successful global genre that is yet to be explored authentically on the Indian screen. Shows or movies tend to deal in generalisations about 18-year-olds, either dumbing their anxieties down or romanticising them. Given that both of you are older than the characters in the show, how did you go about ensuring that you didn’t play Dimple or Rishi with the wisdom of an adult?
Prajakta: For Dimple, the directors played a massive role in getting us to understand what these characters were really thinking at that point in their lives. You also have so many young people of various age groups on the internet today...
But how a 27-year-old would react to things would be very different than how a 17-year-old would see it especially when it comes to matters of marriage...
Rohit: Yeah, so react differently, not so much physically but emotionally. Like Prajakta said, it was very important to understand the emotion behind the scene. You know, it was nostalgic as well because we've all been 17. We've all felt those things that these characters are feeling and it just happens that over the years, you kind of evolve and you forget those feelings that you have ever had which is when you see something on screen, you're like, “Ha, I've done that before, I’ve been there before.” That's what we tapped into while shooting. So I think the most important aspect of getting Rishi and Dimple right when it comes to actually the age was, I think, getting a hang of their thought process.
Prajakta: Once you’re in your 20s and mid-20s, your thinking becomes more complicated, you add more layers to it. But when you're 17 or 18, it is pretty straightforward. When you're 16 and you have a fight with your best friend, you feel like that's the end of the world. I remember when I had a breakup at 17, I just felt like I'm gonna die alone, no guy is ever gonna love me because this was the love of my life and he's dumped me for another girl. So I think for us, we didn’t have to build on the emotions Dimple and Rishi were meant to be feeling as much as break them down.
There’s a lot of talk about arranged marriage in the show as well as looking at romance from rose-tinted glasses which might be difficult to digest for some. Was that ever a concern?
Rohit: Yeah, one of the biggest challenges for me was to make this character believable. I don’t know how safe it is to say this but I feel like everyone’s becoming very cynical about love. Everyone’s become so practical about romance that we can sometimes forget to just dive into it. Even I had my fair share of questions about Rishi’s character and I would keep bothering the makers with questions but I think once I was convinced that okay, there can be someone like this, I was more comfortable with the show’s themes.
Mismatched will premiere on Netflix on 20 November.
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