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Wednesday, December 08, 2021

The Third Eye

Assembling a line-up of actors requires a keen eye,passion and diplomacy and it's the perfect excuse to watch lots of films,say casting directors.

Written by Anita Aikara | Mumbai |
October 1, 2010 3:12:18 pm

Assembling a line-up of actors requires a keen eye,passion and diplomacy and it’s the perfect excuse to watch lots of films,say casting directors.

Casting the right actors for the right roles is getting half the job done. Just look at Ben Kingsley as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in Richard Attenbourough’s Gandhi or Ayesha Kapoor as Young Michelle McNally in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black. Can you imagine anyone else playing these roles?

Jean Luc Godard once observed that every fictional film is a documentary of its actors. Back home,Shyam Benegal,whose casting process has always been widely appreciated by the fraternity,finessed the aphorism. The director,who fell short of funds during his debut in Bollywood,emphasized on a well-rounded cast,mostly borrowed from the National School of Drama (NSD) and the Film Institute of India (FTII). A department dedicated to casting was a farfetched thought in Bollywood till the recent past. One of the most striking developments is the emergence of a casting director,with his team in tow. With ensemble screenplays ruling the roost in Bollywood,fresh faces and the casting directors have all become household names in Bollywood.

Look closely at the credits of some of the recent films and you’ll find dedicated casting directors for most of them,including films like Luck By Chance,Dev.D,Oye Lucky Lucky Oye. In the past,Dolly Thakore,known for her casting in Gandhi and Uma Da Cunha,who casted for Monsoon Wedding,Lagaan,Kama Sutra,Water,Earth and many more films, have helped with the casting of talent. But they were too few and far apart then.

“Directors are beginning to realise that the fate of the film also hinges on whether you’ve cast well,” said Amita Sehgal,who has been casting for the last 25 years. Every character on screen,whether in the foreground or background,matters because the ensemble sets the tone for the film,and the casting directors know it best. Sehgal added,“The casting director is a kind of conduit between the director,the producer and the actors. One needs to know what the director wants,which actor they’ll go for and you’re constantly on the look-out for new people,trying to think of interesting ways to cast people and seeing actors in a different way. That’s why it’s never ever boring.”

Earlier the people had no inkling of the role of a casting director and often used a random collection of photographs,to get their cast. The exact role of the casting director was simply lost upon such people. But that’s changing now.

The role goes much beyond showing photos. “We’re the ones putting characters to the story. Few directors are clear about who they want to cast,while there are others who need a third eye. For me,casting is another form of expression,” said Mohmmed Farooqui,casting director of Peepli [Live. “It’s not about choosing the quintessential model you would want for a Fair & Lovely advertorial,” added Sehgal.

Who’ll star in the film is the standard quest of any director. It’s the casting director who simplifies this quest. The casting director’s job usually is to follow the lead given to them by the director.  They then shortlist the candidates,after meeting them in person,and later inform the director about the shortlisted candidates. “At times he goes with my decision or else I have to shortlist a fresh set of candidates. When the competition among two candidates is close I try to understand the director’s sensibilities and requirements,before taking the final decision,” said Mukesh Chhabra,who has just finished his task of finalising the cast of Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar,which will release in 2011. Chhabra,a theatre person who moved from Delhi to Mumbai a couple of years ago has already casted for big films like Chak De! India,Chillar Party,a UTV SpotBoy film and Imitiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal.  

Recalling the time she cast for Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na,Pakhi,who will be seen in husband Abbas Tyrewalla’s next film Jhoota Hi Sahi,said “I had gone for the auditions with my friend (who plays Boms in Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na),when Abbas saw me. He called up my friend the next day and asked her for my number. He later called me up and asked me whether I would like to be a part of the film and what I do best. I immediately replied that I can write. So he asked me to come on board and told me to help him with the casting for the film. He also told me that he’ll teach me to write.” She added that she saw Pratik Babbar in a Cadbury ad and wanted him on board. Her assistants had a crazy time tracking the actor. “It was later that I realised that he was late Smita Patil’s son,” said Pakhi.

The top actors for the film are usually chosen by the director,as that’s a decision that eventually helps rope in the financiers. It’s the remaining cast that most casting directors have to get hold of. But that’s a huge responsibility too. “The supporting characters should be able to support the protagonist,challenge him without taking away from his role,” said Sehgal.

For LSD,the casting process proved a back-breaking one for Mongia,the casting director. To cast the 75 characters for LSD,Mongia tested 15 people a day for three-and-a-half months,screened almost 2,000 and eventually auditioned close to 1,000. Some actors were picked off the streets too.

Sehgal’s whose biodata boasts of serious films attempted a lighthearted film Aisha recently. After working for months scouting for the cast,she said the challenge came when she was looking for Shefali Thakkur’s character. She said,“I wanted an innocent looking girl from a small town who comes to Mumbai. But I didn’t find such a person. I guess after all the struggle small town girls go through to get a role in Bollywood,all the innocence is lost. For once I also thought of casting Lali from Agle Janam Mohe Bitiyai Hi Kijo.” When an innocent looking young girl with deep brown eyes,walked into Amita Sehgal’s office,the casting director couldn’t hold back her excitement. After all,Sehgal had spent the last few months holding auditions for the role of Shefali Thakkur. Even after meeting 400 girls,Sehgal hadn’t found the right girl for the role. The film was to go on the floors and even a search on the virtual world had proved fruitless. Until,Amrita Puri walked into her office. “I asked her,‘Where have you been all this while?’. She obviously didn’t understand the context,” laughed Sehgal. But she still had to scrub down Amrita,a South Mumbaite. They called in a woman from the National School of Drama to train her and Manu Rishi,dialogue writer of Oye Lucky Lucky Oye,trained her with her dialogue delivery. “That rounded her character,” said Sehgal adding that she doesn’t have a rule book. “I simply go by my instinct while casting.” Sehgal is one of the many casting directors,who are soon becoming Bollywood directors’ new third eye,scouring the country for little-known actors,for months,to flesh out the right actor for the right role.

Loveleen Tandan,who got a call from the production team members of Slumdog Millionaire to help in the casting,visited slums,streets and NGO shelters of Mumbai in search of the cast. It was then that she found Rubiana Ali and Azharuddin Ismail (the young Latika and the young Salim).

In Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal,to select the actors who would play Saif Ali Khan’s friends in the film,Chhabra travelled across the northern belt of the country,looking for actors who resembled men from the 70s,“I went looking for men who looked like the actors from the 70s with long hair and an awkward face,” he laughed. The casting of a film usually takes around two to three months,or longer. For Chillar Party,Chhabra auditioned 7000 kids over four months to choose four kids.

“Casting requires diplomatic skills because everybody’s highly charged. The actors want the job,the director wants the right cast and one of the things you’re always trying to do is keep everybody happy,” he added.

A casting director’s job is challenging and each casting director has their own way of working. Sehgal doesn’t maintain a database,as she hates casting the same actor twice. She doesn’t have favourites and once the job is over she completely detaches herself from Bollywood. Amazingly,her friend circle is also totally non-Bollywood type. “People tend to think they can easily cast actors. But that’s not true. Casting is like a kind of treasure hunt. It takes a lot of patience,” added Sehgal. Chhabra who maintains a database,is always on the look-out for interesting faces while travelling,walking or even shopping. “Sometimes when you’re looking for many actors simultaneously,you start to feel like you’re on the trading floor,” said Chhabra,who tries not to repeat his actors twice and will always pick an actor from the region the film is based on,for which he has to travel a lot. As for Nishant Mishra,an independent casting agent,it’s all about having the right contacts.

The casting directors tend to be choosy about their team and the directors they choose to work with. Sehgal who does two films a year said that she only chooses directors who give her creative freedom. As for Chhabra,his team consists only of people who have been associated with theatre in the past. “Theatre gives them the basic confidence to audition. Recruiting a person from a non-theatre background would mean that I have to teach them the basics. That’s time consuming,” he said.

One wonders what’s luring the casting directors to Bollywood. Surely it’s not the money involved in the business. According to Mishra,being a casting director for a film is a job that doesn’t pay well,“That’s why most of us also cast for television and ad films. There are more projects and more money involved in ads than films. I don’t expect much from my job in terms of money. I’m driven by passion.” But there are other perks too. For Gautam Kishanchandani,being a casting director was a stepping stone to direction.  Kishanchandani was the casting director for films like Aamir,Gulaal,Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai and is presently working on his own script. Loveleen Tandan in a recent interviews,mentioned how the experience of working on Slumdog Millionaire helped her to move closer to her own dream of directing films.  Another casting director,Pakhi,who casted for Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na will soon make her debut in Bollywood.

With the industry undergoing a tremendous change in terms of storytelling and as a new generation of Indians make their way into B-town to assist the director in his task of getting the perfect cast,there is every sign that the relation between the filmmaker and his casting director will go from strength to strength. “Nobody is grateful in this profession. It will take time for the casting director to gain recognition widely. Till then I’ll have to be satisfied with the rewards in the creative process,” concluded Sehgal.

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