Bollywood casts its net

Published: 11 December, 2011 00:05 IST | Dinesh Raheja and Krutika Behrawala |

As the Hindi film industry gets more corporatised, directors and production houses, looking to give their films a leg up, have begun to hire specialised casting directors so that finding the right face for a secondary but important role is no longer the unofficial job of a do-it-all, overworked assistant director, find Dinesh Raheja and Krutika Behrawala

As the Hindi film industry gets more corporatised, directors and production houses, looking to give their films a leg up, have begun to hire specialised casting directors so that finding the right face for a secondary but important role is no longer the unofficial job of a do-it-all, overworked assistant director, find Dinesh Raheja and Krutika Behrawala

Would Rockstar be as intense without the pretty face of Nargis Fakhri to complement the rawness of Ranbir Kapoor's character? Would Delhi Belly be risque and funny if the actors accompanying Imran Khan were not Vir Das and Kunaal Roy Kapoor?

Formerly, we had star-driven films, now they are concept-driven.
Earlier, an assistant director would be given the job of casting.
Now, a specialised casting director is important. 

- Atul Mongia who cast for Dibakar Banerjee's Love Sex aur Dhoka.
Pic/ Vishal Yadav

Probably not, and you have a new breed of casting directors -- a job description that the Hindi film industry seems to have rediscovered recently -- to thank. Want proof? Take the number of assignments bagged by Mukesh Chhabra, the go-to name for many a filmmaker, having cast actors for such top-notch directors as Imtiaz Ali on Love Aaj Kal and Rockstar, Nishikant Kamat on Force, and Anurag Kashyap on his forthcoming Gangs Of Wasseypur (348 actors, no less) and Trishna. Laughs the 29 year-old, "This year, five films that I worked on were released, and I am working on 11 films for next year."

Clearly, Bollywood, hitherto a haven for films populated by actors selected on the basis of their relationship with the directors and producers and little else, seems to have caught up to a credo that has long found favour in Hollywood. After all, "Casting is 65 percent of directing," as American director John Frankenheimer once said.

The couch is out of business
Thanks to corporatisation, an increasingly discerning audience and a desire to keep in step with the world, filmmakers are warming up to the idea of employing a casting director to ensure the right face for the right role.
"Changing cinematic sensibilities have brought in the need for casting directors today," observes Atul Mongia, the casting director for Love Sex Aur Dhokha, Shor In The City, Dibakar Banerjee's ambitious Shanghai and Vikramaditya Motwane's Lootera.

You have to stay well connected, because you never know who
may have a new face to offer. Read newspapers and magazines
religiously, because you might need to cast non-actors like a
socialite or an artist.

- Aadore mukherjee who cast Poorna Jaganathan as Imran
Khan's love interest in Delhi Belly. pic/ bipin kokate

The long-time acting workshop director should know. He was hired by Dibakar Banerjee to find all the lead couples in LSD. "Formerly, we had star-driven films, now they are concept-driven. People have realised that a good actor can make a big difference to a film. A specialist casting director, who knows even the lesser-known actors and can find the right fit for a type of role is important.

Earlier, an assistant director would be given the job of casting. But the last few years have heralded the arrival of a specialised casting director in Bollywood."
He's right. In the last four years, there have been significant additions to Bollywood's roster of casting directors, from Mukesh Chhabra (who worked on Rockstar) to Abhijeet Singh Baghel (who worked on Desi Boyz) and Aadore Mukherjee (who worked on Don 2).

Back in the mainstream
Not that the Hindi film industry has never employed casting directors. The '70s and '80s saw two major casting directors, Uma Da Cunha and Dolly Thakore, operating in Mumbai; who largely scouted Indian talents for international productions. Da Cunha cast for two Euan Lloyd productions: the Richard Burton starrer The Wild Geese, in 1978, and The Sea Wolves, in 1980, starring Gregory Peck. Thakore was responsible for casting the Indian actors in Richard Attenborough's Gandhi.

Closer home, in 1994, Tigmanshu Dhulia (who recently helmed the remake of Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster), was the casting director responsible for convincing director Shekhar Kapoor to cast Seema Biswas for the titular role of Bandit Queen. "When Shekharji came to Delhi, he came with pictures of big-ticket heroines, wearing bandanas. I changed the way he was looking at the lead by taking him to see Seema Biswas performing in a play at Mandi House in Delhi. He was immediately convinced."

So why the sudden resurgence? "Films in the 1980-90s had the same set of actors enacting the secondary roles. Even the junior artistes would be the same. That became boring. Today, casting directors bring in newer faces," says Dhulia, who hires a casting director for his films to conduct auditions. Casting directors flourishing in Bollywood today include a dozen odd names -- from old hands like Gautam Kishanchandani who cast for Black Friday and Dev D to Honey Trehan, who cast Shweta Prasad in Vishal Bhardwaj's Makdee and Usha Uthup in 7 Khoon Maaf.

Keep your eyes open
Before a casting director scouts for talent, a detailed narration of the script is essential. Twenty three year-old Abhijeet Singh Baghel learnt the ropes of film casting after working in the Dutch film Bollywood Hero. The lanky man finally got his big break in Bollywood with Rohit Dhawan's debut film, the recently-released Desi Boyz.
"Rohit narrated the story to me when I was casting Virej Dasani, who plays Akshay's nephew.

I went through the script, gave my comments on each character and then he shared the list of actors he had in mind. I met the actors who I felt suited the role, and then arranged a meeting between the director and the actor."

Apart from wading through a database containing taped auditions of actors, casting directors also employ word-of-mouth to zero in on the right find. Aadore Mukherjee, who cast Poorna Jaganathan as Imran Khan's love interest in Aamir Khan Productions' Delhi Belly after doing a commercial with director Abhinay Deo believes in staying up to speed. "You have to stay very well connected because you never know who may have a new face to offer. You also need to read newspapers and magazines religiously, because many times you might need to cast non-actors like a socialite or an artist."

Her finds include Prachi Desai and a few secondary characters in John Abraham-Chitrangda Singh starrer I, Me Aur Main, as well as the German and Malaysian actors in Farhan Akhtar's upcoming Don 2. She reveals, "I work a lot with existing model coordinators, agencies and managers."

Finding the right face
Casting a film can take anything from one to three months, explains Mongia, who cast Kainaz Motivala, who played the lead in Balaji's 2010 release Ragini MMS. "It took six months. Many girls didn't want to do the film because it had a sexual undertone. We had to find somebody who could understand that it is not the sex that is being sold, but the story. We finally found that sensible person in Kainaz."

How does he shortlist actors? "One needs to think laterally about possibilities that have not been explored before--like considering an actor who has only played positive roles for a grey character. Also, make auditioning actors feel at home and ask them to perform only when their nerves are relaxed."

For Chhabra, whose recent triumph has been half Czech-half Pakistani actress Nargis Fakhri, things were tougher when he was asked to cast the nine juvenile leads of Chillar Party. "I auditioned around 9,000 children by conducting workshops in 200 schools all over India, and finally settled on nine children who had personalities similar to their on-screen characters. For instance, the kid who played Silencer doesn't talk much in real life either."

Twist in the tale
Often, a casting director can change the complexion of a film, as in the case of Suguna Sundaram, who cast Jackie Shroff as Chunnilal in 2002 film Devdas. She recalls, "I have always thought that Jackie is an underused actor, he becomes his character very easily. I didn't see Govinda in the role at all but that was something director Sanjay Leela Bhansali wanted to explore. Jackie came prepared for the role complete with paan-stained teeth and kajal in his eyes; he was so adorable."

Mukherji, meanwhile, fished out Vir Das and Kunaal Roy Kapoor for Delhi Belly at a time when Das was not even acting in films and Kapoor was a director! She exclaims, "Vir was surprised when I decided to cast him, because it came out of nowhere."

For I, Me Aur Main, Aadore has cast Prachi Desai in a completely different avatar. She says, "Before we got her board for this film, her image was that of a girl-next-door. But in this film, she plays a very young, bohemian girl. For us to put her in that part was going against the tide."

What next?
While the industry has begun to recognise the need for a casting director, the profession has yet to assume lofty importance in the hierarchy of people who work on a film, mainly because producers and directors continue to play a part in casting the lead actors in a film.

Mongia candidly admits, "Decisions about casting the stars happen at the higher level. This decision is not based on finding a better actor, but on the budget of the film." Neither do all Hindi films have a casting director on board, yet. Mukherjee, who is one of the few planning to pursue casting as a full-time career, observes, "Today, we are working with a half-old and half-new setup. Assistant directors still do everything." She hopes, "Gradually, people will realise that a casting director can reduce a lot of burden."

Many youngsters are now taking up casting as a stop-gap arrangement, as they pursue other areas of filmmaking. Baghel says, "I want to be a producer," while Mongia hopes to become a director soon and is currently in process of writing his script. "I am getting to meet new producers, directors everyday which will make it easier to approach these people when I finish my script."  Chhabra plans to write and direct own script but won't stop casting because "it has given me name, money and respect."
The die has been cast... for the casting directors.

Bollywood News Service

The Handbook

What is the job of a casting director?
> Unlike specified jobs like editing and sound design, being a casting director doesn't require a specialised course. But Sundaram opines, "The casting director needs to have a sense of cinema. You need to stay in touch not just with the industry but also with the movies that are being made, so that you can make the best suggestion. You need to have creative sensibilities, it's not just a business. Otherwise, any PR agent can become a casting agent."

>Mukherjee feels, "The major difference between a casting director and an agent is that the casting director does not get paid by the actor. Ideally, you should not take a fee from the actor. I would never do that."

>The pay scales of this newbie profession are not in the same league as that of a cinematographer or a film editor. "You can make anything from Rs 3.5 to 6 lakhs on the film," says Mukherjee. As a fresher, Baghel is forthcoming when he chats about the money involved. "There is no flat fee for a casting director. For Desi Boyz, my casting fees was Rs 2 lakh, because I cast around 12-14 prominent characters."

"In India, you find people and somebody else makes the decision"

A chat with Uma Da Cunha, one of India's first casting director

What are the films you have worked on?
I started casting around 1977-78, when I was in my late 20s. Euan Lloyd was producing The Wild Geese and later The Sea Wolves. They wanted some Indian actors. I was just somebody who knew actors and could do the job quickly. I cast Victor Banerjee for Shatranj Ke Khiladi, which everyone liked. In the '90s, I cast Rahul Bose for Dev Benegal's English August after seeing him in a play. I cast all the European roles for Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan. Recently, I suggested Abhay Deol for Roland Joffe's Singularity and I have worked with Deepa Mehta on the adaptation of Midnight's Children.

How did you source your actors?
My husband, Gerson Da Cunha, belongs to a theatre family, so when I got married, I got thrown in with all the leading luminaries in theatre. I got an insight into acting and also an idea whether an actor was suitable for a role.

When did the need for specialised casting directors emerge?
It started in the early '90s, with directors like Dev Benegal. Usually, in commercial Bollywood cinema, once they get their stars they don't care about anyone else. The rest are all furniture. A good director like Anurag Kashyap will look at many actors for even a face in the crowd.

What are the challenges you face?
Today, everyone wants a star, including Roland and Mira. For The Namesake, Mira went to Rani Mukherjee, Amitabh Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan. Even for Midnight's Children we went to the top actors because they bring you a distribution guarantee. Consequently, the casting director's hands are tied from the very beginning.

Earlier, filmmakers would send you all over India to scout for talent, but now they want you to find somebody in their own city. I find that restrictive. Now we shoot people's videos and send it through Vimeo to the director. I can't work like that. Casting is considered very major abroad but not in India. You are just a scout, you find people and somebody else makes the decision.

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