Team Guilty Minds on creating a realistic legal series

Varun Mitra, Shriya Pilgaonkar, Shefali Bhushan, and others discuss their Amazon legal drama series Guilty Minds
Team Guilty Minds on creating a realistic legal series

Director Shefali Bhushan grew up in a family of lawyers. Her father, Shanti Bhushan, is a veteran lawyer and former law minister of India; her brother is lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan. Proximity to the legal profession has shaped Shefali’s worldview. Naturally for her, onscreen courtrooms—especially in mainstream Hindi movies, with their gavels and comical wigs—held little appeal. As a writer-filmmaker, she shopped around for a few years with the idea of an authentic legal show. “I wanted to keep it realistic,” she says, “from the arguments and legal points of view to the depiction of courtrooms and procedures.”

The result is Guilty Minds, a 10-episode drama series premiering this week on Amazon Prime Video. Shefali has co-directed the show with Jayant Digambar Somalkar; Manav Bhushan, a biomedical engineer with a law degree, and Deeksha Gujral, a human rights lawyer, are their co-writers. Together, they optioned some 20-25 real-life cases, the strongest among them forming the crux of a single episode. The protagonists, played by Varun Mitra and Shriya Pilgaonkar, are young lawyers in Delhi. They fight cases ranging from AI legislation to the water scarcity in Maharashtra. They’re ideologically opposed: while Deepak, Varun’s character, works for a law firm, Shriya’s Kashaf leads a pro-bono team.

“Deepak is expressive, out-there, aggro,” shares Varun. “What I enjoyed about playing this character is that I didn’t have to stick to one brief. He has an over-the-top quality but can shape-shift according to the situation.”

By contrast, Shriya, playing the idealist, had to pitch her character differently. “Kashaf is driven by her passion to help people. She’s stubborn and moralistic. I couldn’t judge her or let my own beliefs impinge on her character. So it took me a while to find that rhythm.”

As part of the prep, the actors visited district and high courts (“Where is the drama?” Shriya remembers wondering on day one). They also spoke to practicing lawyers across India, each with their own style, tonality, and politics. “One of them told me to always work the other side first,” Varun recalls. “It’s fun to anticipate how your opponent is going to argue and build your case from that.”

Jayant says they picked the cases based on relevance and contemporaneity. The first episode, for instance, tackles consent and rape. There’s one about a driverless car, and another on the influence of Virtual Reality gaming. Many of the futuristic ideas came from co-writer Manav, who runs the tech startup Fourth Frontier. Shefali hopes that, because there’s no AI-specific legislation in India, the show will be ‘food for thought’ for lawmakers.

Everyone we speak to from the Guilty Minds team points to a single episode as their best. It’s about a drought-hit village near Jalna, in Maharashtra, where protesters clash with a hoggish Cola company. The actors, representing various sides, came to euphoric blows. Varun calls it one of the most emotional experiences of the shoot. “There was mad energy on set. We were buzzing by the end of it.”

“Normally, we brief the junior artistes sitting in the courtroom,” Jayant says. “But on that day, we didn’t have to. People started responding on their own.” Namrata Sheth, who plays a Harvard-return lawyer in the series, and was present in that scene, confirms this. “The energy was palpable that day… it left an impact on all of us.”

Guilty Minds has a refreshingly young cast. There are, however, many veterans who grace the screen, from Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Girish Kulkarni to Shakti Kapoor and Satish Kaushik. Satish, whom it is easy to imagine as a lawyer (he played one in last year’s Kaagaz) is instead cast as a suspect. His character, Bhalla, is a liquor baron accused of the murder of a young boy. Satish says he drew on ‘businessmen-types’ to flesh out the role. “My character is entirely power-drunk. He has plush cars and plays golf. This also completes my trio of Punjabi names, after Handa in Bloody Brothers and Chaddha in Sharmaji Namkeen.”

Guilty Minds streams on Prime Video from April 22.

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