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Casting is not a business, but a responsibility: Mukesh Chhabra at Jagran Film Festival

Casting directors Chhabra, Honey Trehan, Jogi Malang, and Janet Ellis Prajapati spoke about the art of auditions, dealing with actors, and more at the recently concluded film festival.

Honey Trehan, Mukesh Chhabra, Jogi Malang and Janet Ellis Prajapati

Sonal Pandya

The most popular event on the last day of the 9th Jagran Film Festival was the talk featuring casting directors Honey Trehan, Mukesh Chhabra, Jogi Malang, and Janet Ellis Prajapati. The line for the conversation, moderated by journalist Anuj Alankar, snaked all the way to the food stalls.

The conversation began with a look back at how the profession of casting was legitimized in India with Bandit Queen (1994) and Satya (1998). Earlier, the directors would cast the stars themselves, but now the system has changed. Now, there are casting directors and their assistants who finalize the whole process.

Alankar asked Trehan about the significant change casting directors have gone under. Trehan said in the 1980s and 1990s there wasn’t enough exposure. “We already had a great amount of talent at that time,” he said, noting there were different kinds of films being made and “new actors arrived then too.”

Bandit Queen (1994)

With Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen, in which filmmaker Tigmanshu Dhulia did the casting, it was likely the first time any credit was given to a casting director. This film and others like Ram Gopal Varma's Satya helped change the landscape towards casting and their directors, Kapur and Varma, deserve due credit for incorporating casting directors into their process.

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“There’s always a greed to cast big names in roles, which is good and practical, but [Kapur and Varma] understood the need of the scripts, that we need actors, but what if they are my characters who no one knows. We can create a whole world,” Trehan remarked.

It lead to the casting directors looking towards the requirements of the scripts, because eventually, it’s the script that is the boss.

Jogi Malang echoed Trehan’s thoughts and said it should all begin with the script, that’s where he usually gets involved in a project. “The director has a vision [that] my film is like this and everything has become so sorted but it begins with hearing the story,” Malang said, stating that their work begins nearly six months before the film begins.  

They note down the kind of characters in the script and align it with the director’s vision and the producer’s demands. Because, eventually, the film needs to work and be a hit.

Mukesh Chhabra (Photo: Shutterbugs Images)

When Mukesh Chhabra, who began his career assisting Honey Trehan with the casting on The Blue Umbrella (2005), was asked how did the casting profession turn into a business, he replied that it wasn’t a business to him. “Casting is my passion. You don’t begin work thinking what its end result is going to be,” Chhabra said.

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From his own experience, Chhabra noted that he had started small and built trust with directors over the years. He felt happy that the casting profession has opened up to include more people now, including those seated on the panel.

“We take our job very seriously and give it a lot of respect. I would also like that more casting directors emerge in India. It’s not a business, but a responsibility to bring new talent from this country,” he stated, noting the importance of an actor’s dream who auditions for them.

Chhabra is credited with bringing a professional look to casting, removing auditions from cafes to proper spaces where actors wait and audition. “There needs to be a proper way to meet people professionally,” he said. “From Lokhandwala to Aram Nagar, there used to be casting done on every corner. I didn’t like that system.”

Instead of going to producers’ offices like before, aspiring actors now go to casting directors’ offices.

“In my view, actors are not good or bad, their casting is important. Does the actor fit that character?” Chhabra noted, adding,  “I’m only surviving because of new talents, I’m not surviving because of any stars.”

The lone female on the panel, Janet Ellis Prajapati, who mostly works in television, said she also felt for the actors who auditioned for her. “When I see somebody, I try to work on that person. Some people come to acting who can’t act, but I’ve seen them working so hard on themselves, that they prove themselves in the end. They don’t have a place to go up to, that is when we casting directors [come in].”

Honey Trehan (Photo: Shutterbugs Images)

Trehan stressed that it was important to guide these young actors properly and channelize their emotions to make it into something substantial. He gave struggling actors some advice, saying that sitting at offices of production houses or at a cafe, doesn’t help much.

“It’s great if you go and sit in some library and read a play at least 10 times,” Trehan suggested. “You will get introduced to 10 different actors. As an actor, it’s a human tendency, when we read a play, we get associated with [a character].”

With each reading of the play, one will find themselves changing the character they associate themselves with. Change the character and read the play from their point of view.

“When you go out as an actor, we have so many things in our bag. The main thing is, how many characters are you carrying in your bag?” Trehan asked.

Janet Ellis Prajapati felt there was a lot of scope for new actors with films, television, and the digital medium. “We need actors. You need to be ready and prepare yourself for the audition. Understand the role that you’re auditioning for, if you don’t understand, ask the casting director. If you’re not selected, it’s not the end of the day. It means you’re not fit for that role, but keep yourself open and you can make it,” she offered.

Chhabra added that actors should stop going to the gym and stopping worrying about their hair and protein shakes. They should focus on the work. “Your obsession should be about acting,” he said to applause from the audience.

He is making his directorial debut with the film, Kizie Aur Manny, starring Sushant Singh Rajput and Sanjana Sanghvi, and felt alone making the casting choices for it, without a casting director to bounce ideas off of them.

Malang added that films about the stories from small town India, labelled realistic cinema, were more challenging as they carried more responsibility.

The conversation ended with a lively question and answer session, with a few attendees inquiring about their own prospects for auditioning. The panelists, all gave sound advice to them, stressing the importance of having patience and putting in the time and effort to work hard on their acting careers.

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Jagran Film Festival