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IFFI 2017: If you are a good actor, a passport-size photo is enough, says Mukesh Chhabra

Hindi cinema's leading casting director advises actors to work more on their acting skills than on their biceps and portfolios.

Casting director Mukesh Chhabra at IFFI. Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Mayur Lookhar

In an industry obsessed with stars, a casting director making headlines comes as a breath of fresh air. Mukesh Chhabra, though, has earned his stripes, helping to find for many an ace director the perfect ensemble for his/her film. Gangs Of Wasseypur (2012), Masaan (2015), Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), Dangal (2016), Bareilly Ki Barfi! (2017)... one look at his filmography is enough to know that Chhabra is the man most filmmakers go to for their casting needs.

“A casting director is one who helps the director create his vision," Chhabra said. "After the writer and the director, I am the third person to come on board.  After writing the script, the director first shares it with us. We read every minute detail of the script, make an actor’s brief, then discuss it with the director before arriving at a common brief. I’m just a bridge between the actor and the director. I’ve done some 157 films till now."

A local journalist thanked Chhabra for bringing respectability to the profession. "I was tired of the clichéd casting in coffee shops," Chhabra responded. "I wanted to bring respect to the job. I wanted to do such a job that my mother and sister too would respect me.”

When it comes to the stars and reputed actors, they perhaps pick themselves, but doesn’t the success of a casting director hinge on how good he is in picking the supporting cast? “I totally agree with you," said Chhabra. "Whatever I am today is because of the supporting cast and not the stars. Had I not discovered those new actors with small roles, then I wouldn’t be here today.

"If you look at all my films, I work on the smallest character in detail, where every single person could come in and leave an impact on the audience’s mind. Today, the supporting actors are an important part of the film industry. Without them, you can’t make a good film.”

Anurag Kashyap, Imtiaz Ali, Raju Hirani, Chhabra has worked with most top directors. Asked which director he was most comfortable with, he replied, “I’m comfortable with the script, not the director. I like working with Anurag Kashyap though. He gives me full freedom. I also like working with Raju Hirani, Vishal Bhardwaj. I choose my script and then the director. But sometimes, I’ll choose my director. It’s a combination of both."

Casting directors have come into focus only now, but Chhabra was all praise for one actor-filmmaker who, perhaps, hasn’t got enough credit. "I’ve always believed that Tigmanshu Dhulia was the first true casting director we had," he said. "He did the casting for Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994). No one knows how all those fine actors came together. Most of the actors in that film came from the National School of Drama. He made me realize that I should take this job seriously."

Speaking of Dhulia, Chhabra shared an interesting story of how he cast him in Gangs Of Wasseypur. “Anurag Kashyap gave me the brief that he wants someone who looks like a local don and not an actor," he said. "When I told Dhulia about the role, his reaction was, ‘abey chal hatt, bhaag yahan se [get lost]’. The moment he said that, I knew I had found my man to play Ramadhir Singh. I requested him to at least read the script. He returned 10 days later, saying it’s a good script. I called Kashyap, and he shouted a few expletives out of joy, saying ‘maza aa gaya'."

With period dramas and biopics in vogue, Chhabra was asked if a facial resemblance is important while casting for a historical film. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I think the attitude of the actor, the attitude and character of the person are more important. For biopics, though, you would look for some resemblance.”

The standard method for an aspiring actor looking for a job is to create an impressive portfolio. Chhabra, however, is not a fan of this. “I don’t believe in pictures, portfolios,” he declared. “I don’t want you to waste your money on a portfolio. If you are a good actor, a passport-size photo is enough. Also, if you are a good actor then you don’t have to travel to Mumbai. It’s an expensive city. If you have talent, then stay in your city. Zaira Wasim has come from Kashmir. Keep doing theatre. We have social media, we will come to you."

Indeed, Chhabra's hallmark is that he taps into local talent for films based in a particular region. "My focus is only on local talent," he said. "For Kai Po Che! (2013) I went to Gujarat. For Gangs Of Wasseypur, I went to Benares. For Dangal, I went to Haryana. Local talent has more purity, they are more 'vulnerable'."

Asked what he looks for in an audition, Chhabra said, “We don’t audition to see how talented a person is. All we want is to know whether they are right for this part. I always say if you cast a bad actor in a good role, it becomes a superb act. There are bad and good actors. You take a good actor and give him a bad role, his career is over."

Working with different directors is not easy as each tends to have his own opinion. Citing one example of a difference of views, Chhabra said, “I proposed an actor to Nishikant Kamat, but he felt the actor’s face was not interesting. After 10 minutes, I showed the same actor to Anurag  Kashyap and he said, ‘What a face!’ One actor, different visions, all great directors. So, you can’t compare directors."

Working with known directors may be an advantage, but what happens when he joins hands with an altogether new director. "All I want from them is to be absolutely clear in their thoughts, brief," he said. "Tell me clearly what you want so that I can cast better. Sometimes, I’m given the brief for a requirement of Arjun Rampal, but then the director ends up casting a Rishi Kapoor. That creates confusion."

Aamir Khan’s Dangal introduced us to the talents of Zaira Wasim, Suhani Bhatnagar, Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra. Chhabra, however, does not think Dangal is his best work. “A lot of people say Dangal is my best casting, but it is not, for my best is yet to come,” he remarked.

Casting is a tedious process, and homing in on the best talent for the job can take a while. Rajkummar Rao has emerged as a critically acclaimed actor with films like Shahid (2013), Bareilly Ki Barfi!, and Newton (2017). He, however, had to earn his opportunity to play Shahid.

Chhabra recalled: “I always knew Rao is a great talent, but I wasn’t sure [if he would be perfect for Shahid]. So, from morning to evening, I auditioned him for 23 days. I got him to audition with other actors. Sometimes, you audition an actor and he fits into the character in a couple of minutes, but then he can also take a month to get into the skin of the character. It differs from film to film, actor to actor. ”

Chhabra then spoke about the casting of Amit Sadh for Kai Po Che!, which also had Sushant Singh Rajput and Rao in leading roles. “I had auditioned Sushant Singh Rajput 40 times, but I had no audition with Amit Sadh. I saw him, it took me 4.5 minutes to realize he is the best guy for the role. He kept looking here and there, and I felt he was a guy who would be friends with all,” he said.

At the beginning of the session, Chhabra was hailed as someone who had brought respectability to the casting director's job. Sadly, however, nepotism and the casting couch (offering roles for sexual favours) still plague not just Indian but world cinema. How does one change this?

Commenting on nepotism, Chhabra said, “Look, nepotism can help me get one or two films, but if you don’t perform, no one will cast you again."

An aspiring actor from the audience then pointed out that there is bogus casting happening in a place like Bhopal. How to stop it, he asked.

“Look, I’m just a single person, I cannot change the world all by myself," Chhabra said. "You guys need to support us. If you find any people like that, then please create social media groups, expose such fake people."

In October, Priyanka Chopra had opened up about her horror experiences with indecent proposals by unscrupulous elements. How does one avoid the Harvey Weinsteins of the world?

“It’s not right for me to comment on Priyanka Chopra’s experience," the former theatre artiste said. "I always advise [aspirants] to do research before. You are all educated people. Before you go, please research about the people you are going to meet. There are fake people everywhere. It is important to do your homework before you go for an audition.” Chhabra praised casting directors such as Honey Trehan, Shanoo Sharma, Shruti Mahajan and Anmol Ahuja as genuine persons.

There could be times when one gets stuck with a face who is a non-actor. Is it still fine to go ahead with that face? “If the script is good, and if you really want that actor, then you will stick with that actor," he said. "I remember Nawazuddin Siddiqui was reluctant to play second lead in Salman Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015). He didn’t want to do comedy. I told him it is a very important film, please hear out the character. Director Kabir Khan narrated the story to him and we convinced him. If you really want someone, you have to push really hard. We will run after every good actor. You don’t have to run behind a casting director.”

As a more fitting example, Chhabra narrated the story of casting a little boy named Irfan Khan as the lead in the Salman Khan-produced Chillar Party (2011). “I saw this kid on the street and followed him to his house," he said. "His mother thought I was a human trafficker. I thought this kid had the right attitude, right behaviour. I convinced his mother, he spent six days with me, we did a few workshops, and he was good to go. All child artistes from that film got the National award.”

There is also a possibility that some artistes do well at auditions and workshops but go flat during the actual shooting. Doesn’t the casting director draw flak then? “Well, what do I say? That’s my bad luck,” Chhabra quipped.

Asked for one important quality in a casting director, he said "Memory. I should be a Chyawanprash ambassador.” Chyawanprash is an ayurvedic preparation said to improve health and memory. “It is important that you remember every actor you have met. I remember meeting one lady, Baljinder Kaur, some 7-8 years earlier. While casting for Shahid, I envisaged her as the ideal face to play Shahid’s mother. We tracked her down in Haryana, she was teaching in a school. We got her to play the mother. Later, she got the National award for Best Supporting Actress!” Baljinder Kaur won the award for the Haryanvi film Pagdi: The Honour (2014).

For some time now it has been thought that an actor needs to look good and be in great shape to get roles. Chhabra dissed the myth. “Work on your craft," he said. "Keep doing theatre, short films, read the newspapers, pick an endearing story and perform it in front of the mirror. Keep great inspirational speeches by actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Manoj Bajpayee. Don’t worry about not going to the gym. Gym will never get you a role. It will boost your fitness but not your acting career."

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