Hope and disappointment hang in the air outside Mukesh Chhabra’s newly opened office at Aaram Nagar, Mumbai. A fair guy in a deep V-necked T-shirt, the sleeves of which dig into his biceps, nervously tries to tame his unruly hair. He doesn’t forget to take off his bright coloured shades to show off his light eyes, and run his fingers along his angular jaw. At the other end, there is another star hopeful, wearing a three-piece outfit that looks straight out of a song sequences from one of Govinda’s 1980s’ films. Both of them plead with the receptionist to let them meet “Mukesh bhai”. “Main UP se hoon,” says the Govinda lookalike. But that clearly doesn’t help. The secret password to step into one of Bollywood’s top casting directors’ office is to have a phone call or a message from Chhabra himself in your phone. Nothing more, nothing less. Three young men, who had apparently got past this screening process, looked on as the receptionist checked the message I showed him on my phone. Finally, after ten minutes, I am granted entry.
In a country where almost everyone is obsessed with stardom and longs for that big break in films, people like Chhabra are worshipped. Young men and women queue up outside his office, stalk him and bombard him with calls and messages. Having done the casting for films like Gangs of Wasseypur, Shahid, Highway and more recently, Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet and Raju Hirani’s Peekay, Chhabra is one of the most sought-after names in the industry. He has made many an unconventional decision while selecting the right faces for his characters. Sushant Singh Rajput, a TV actor, made it big with Kai Po Che! after Chhabra spotted him at a cafe. Rajkumar Rao, this year’s National Award winner, might have gone unnoticed in small roles if not for Chhabra who, according to director Hansal Mehta, “ate his head” to cast him in Shahid. He picked the gang of children in Chillar Party. The most unconventional of all was his decision to cast director Tigmanshu Dhulia as the spiteful Ramadhir Singh in Anurag Kashyap’s Wasseypur series.
In his cabin in his bustling office, Chhabra finds it hard even to complete his sentences because of the ever-ringing phone. “Sorry yaar,” he says every time this happens, and follows it up with “kya kare itna kaam jo hai!” An acting graduate from Delhi’s Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts, Chhabra was active in the theatre scene in the capital, where he also conducted classes in National School of Drama’s Theatre in Education company (TIE). It was by chance that he got the opportunity to cast for a few films which were being shot in Delhi. “I always wanted to and still want to be a director first,” says Chhabra, 32. “After being introduced to casting, I realised that this was the closest I could get to being a director. So I decided to take it up more seriously.” Chhabra, who is currently working on big projects like Abhishek Kapoor’s Fitoor, Vikas Bahl’s Shandar, Nikhil Advani’s Hero and Singh is Bling, says he is booked out for the next one and a half years.
Employing a casting director simplifies the pre-production process a lot, says Nandini Shrikent, who has worked on films like Life Of Pi, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Lakshya and Luck By Chance. “With a casting director on board, the directorial and production assistants can concentrate on the other important departments,” she says. Having just finished work on Zoya Akhtar’s ensemble film Dil Dhadakne Do which stars Farhan Akhtar, Priyanka Chopra, Anushka Sharma and Ranveer Singh, Shrikent says that Bollywood is still far from involving casting directors in the process of zeroing in on the lead cast. “We may be part of the discussions, but the main leads are almost always chosen before we are signed on,” she says. “In our industry, most projects revolve around stars. Sometimes even producers come in only after stars are on board.”
So whom exactly do these people cast? “All the speaking parts,” says Chhabra. “One line is enough to make or break a scene, so we have to be careful about the smallest of parts,” adds Shrikent. The process is fairly tedious. “There are people who come and meet me every day, but I make sure to travel to the places where the stories are based to get authentic actors,” says Chhabra. “If the story is based in Banaras, I go there. If the character is from Punjab, I go there.” Most often they scout for the theatre actors in those regions and audition them.
Honey Trehan, who has worked with Vishal Bhardwaj in all his films is currently casting for Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshi, Kabir Khan’s Phantom and Rahul Dholakia’s Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Raaes. The first thing he does after he reads a script is visualise the character and create a character sketch. He recalls the time when he was casting for Kaminey and how he just couldn’t get an image of the film’s main antagonist, Bhope Bhau, in his head. Till about ten days before the film’s shoot, there was no one cast for the part and Bhardwaj was in a sweat. Then he found a picture on the front page of a tabloid that made his day. It was a photograph of writer-filmmaker Amole Gupte, sitting on a swing, and talking about the recipe of his favourite mutton curry. “At that moment I knew that Amole was my Bhope Bhau,” says Trehan. Gupte, who was fresh out of the Taare Zameen Par fiasco, slammed the phone down on Trehan, thinking he was playing a prank. It took a lot of convincing to bring Gupte on board. Trehan is now working on Abhishek Chaubey’s latest film and is penning his own script.
While Chhabra says he has a team of assistants who aspire to follow in his footsteps and become casting directors, Shrikent says most of those who work with her are wannabe actors or directors. “Casting is really good training because it is a bit of everything. You get access to scripts, to equipment, you meet actors, directors, you are part of auditions, so it will definitely help you get the feel,” she says. “For instance, Varun Sharma, the actor who played Choocha in Fukrey, used to assist me. Once he got a hang of the process, he moved on to become an actor.”
There is undoubtedly good money involved, too. Vicky Sadana, the casting director of films like Special 26 and Bodyguard, recently said in an interview that within two years of his career, he could afford a house in Mumbai. Chhabra puts it in perspective. “I am no Mother Teresa. If directors and producers have money, they will pay me,” he says. “It all depends on a lot of factors. For a big film, I get Rs 12 to 18 lakh and for a small film, I get Rs 6 to 8 lakh.” Sometimes there are good scripts, but very little money. “I did Shahid for nothing, because I loved the script. I did another movie called Sidharth for just Rs 50,000” he says.
Trehan was amused by the infamous phrase “casting couch” and at one point thought of making it his email id. “Casting directors do not have that much clout,” says Shrikent. “Real power lies with the producers and then the directors, so if anything happens then it might be happening at that level.” Chhabra has installed 18 CCTV cameras in his office so that he can keep an eye on everything that happens around him. Trehan says sex and sleaze are part of a lot of other workplaces, too, but it just doesn’t come out in the open as they are not under as much media scrutiny as the film industry. “Which place in society is clean? It all depends on each one’s upbringing, their philosophies and choices,” he says. “And, it is not just physical relationships that are on offer, sometimes actors offer you a lot of money and other luxuries,” adds Chhabra, who was once threatened by an actor whom he had turned down after an audition. “People can do a lot and go to any level to break into the industry when they are desperate.”
What they all unanimously agree about is that acting is not something that can be taught. “Acting is about reacting and if you are a sensible person, you can respond well on cue,” says Trehan. “The best and most important quality an actor should have is good listening skills. Naseer bhai [actor Naseeruddin Shah] always says that if you are an actor naturally, then you have to learn from your surroundings and keep the craft in you alive.” As casting directors, they can only polish an actor, says Chhabra. “What we can do is help open them up, break their inhibitions and get them exposed to the camera,” he says. “I have worked with non-actors who were facing the camera for the first time, like the children in Chillar Party. But they acted after attending workshops and with a lot of practice. They even won the National Award.”
Talking of awards, even Hollywood is in a dilemma when it comes to the job of casting. According to The Hollywood Reporter, casting is the only ‘single-card’ opening credit that isn’t recognised by the Academy Awards. Last year, filmmaker Woody Allen expressed his solidarity with casting directors who were calling for recognition at the Oscars; he wrote in an open letter, in which he credited his casting director Juliet Taylor for the success of his films. “A number of discoveries and careers have been launched by the energies and resourcefulness of my casting director,” wrote Allen, going on to explain that it was on Taylor’s insistence that he cast Meryl Streep (who was a relatively unknown two-film old actor then) in Manhattan. Bollywood, too, doesn’t recognise this breed of artists who bridge the gap between good actors and good characters. “Everything takes time to be accepted in India,” says Trehan. “Most casting directors like Mukesh, Shanoo [Sharma, who works with Yash Raj Films], Abhishek Pandey and Anmol Ahuja have all worked with me. The biggest award is when people who have worked with you, under you or are cast by you, do well in life.”