Interview American Hindi

Dinaz Stafford on casting: Not only look for just talent but for a range of talent


The casting director and filmmaker spoke with us about entering into films, working with children and how she cast newcomer Madina Nalwanga in Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe (2016).

Sonal Pandya

Filmmaker Dinaz Stafford made her first short film in 1993, Kisses On A Train, filmed in Matheran, Maharashtra. But before that she learned the ins and outs of the film business on Salaam Bombay! (1988), the second Indian film to be nominated for Academy Award and winner of the Audience Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Stafford has been instrumental in many of Mira Nair’s films beginning with Salaam Bombay! to Queen of Katwe (2016). From costumes to casting, she has worked across many departments on films like Mississippi Masala (1991) to The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012). In a telephonic conversation, we caught up with Stafford, who is busy at work on her next film, as she visited Mumbai. The warm and eloquent filmmaker shared her experiences of working in the film business, working with child actors and what she looks for during auditioning.

Excerpts below:

A still from Salaam Bombay!

Being a psychologist, how were you drawn to the medium of film 30 years ago with Salaam Bombay!?

Being from Bombay, I had gone to the US and studied child psychology. When I came back, I heard about this film and naturally because I was a child psychologist, Mira [Nair] was very interested in my take on how she could make this film using street children. One thing led to another and she asked me whether I would devise a workshop in order to be able to work with the children, to teach them about acting and how would we go about it. So we came up with this plan, which actually turned out to be incredibly successful and not only in attracting the children’s attention but actually training them. Subsequently, after the film, we used that model for Salaam Baalak Trust that works with the children from the streets to put them through a system of education and turn them into productive adults. This is the 30th year that we established the trust.

Did you know Mira Nair already or you met her through the film?

I met her through Sooni Taraporevala, who was the scriptwriter [of Salaam Bombay!]. [She] is an old friend of mine, and she introduced me to Mira. We became a sort of core team and then went to work together on many other films.

Would you say that the film changed your life?

Yes! I was about to go do my PhD in anthropology (laughs). I was going to go to Cambridge. It was a whole different story for me. I got involved in the film business instead and then that changed the course of my life.

I think it is that kind of a film.

I think it changed many people’s lives. It was a groundbreaker for all of us.

You began casting with Mississippi Masala. How did you make the switch from assistant director to the casting department?

In those days, there was no clear delineation of [what I did]. I think I ended up getting five different credits on Salaam Bombay! including something like costumes. I even ended up acting in a small segment of it. You just did what you had to do, in order to make the film. We later on delineated what kind of credits you would get for it. I think that then has dictated the way Mira and I have continued to work over the years. For want of a better term, they began to put me down as an associate producer.

I was not a producer, but I was definitely part of the process from the beginning to the end. I think the advantage of having one person who can actually go in and research and embed into a location, in order to be able to maximize the amount of value that you can put onto the screen, is invaluable.

In 1993, you produced and directed your film Kisses On A Train. I found the film on YouTube. The film is a sweet story about the friendship of two girls from different backgrounds. How did that story come to you?

I have a vivid imagination. (laughs) I like Matheran. There’s a funny story behind this because I’m one of those people who always stress on education and it seems odd that I should land up going into the film business. I had not actually studied film. I had gone into graduate school and was doing my masters in psychology and I was going for my PhD in anthropology. I was really into academics. And after I got introduced to the film business, I told this good friend of ours who was the executive producer for Salaam Bombay!, Anil Tejani, ‘Listen, I think maybe I should go to film school’. He started to laugh.

He said, ‘What will you learn in film school? You’ve already made Salaam Bombay! and Mississippi Masala. Why don’t you just make a film? That will be your film school.’ His only advice was, don’t put your money in it. Make a film and get somebody else to invest in it. So that’s what I did. I wrote a story and I submitted it to Channel 4 and I got the funding and made the film.

You've worked on the large Hollywood productions like Vanity Fair (2004) and Indian independent films like Little Zizou (2008). What were the different challenges on both productions, abroad and in India?

Life is a challenge. I think the adventure of one’s experience is when you work in film is what propels me in the work that I do. Any of these subjects whether it’s the tiniest film based in India or whether it’s Vanity Fair, if the story has a point of view that resonates with me, then I feel ready to embark on that adventure, because making a film is a lot of hard work. It’s not a glamorous enterprise. It’s all about attention to detail and when you’re actually on a project, with a fine-toothed comb you have to go through the process and try to make sure that you cover all the bases, because at the end of the day, the amount of work that you put into making the film, is finally what you see on the screen.

And whether it’s a Hollywood film or whether it’s Midnight Embers, a tiny film that I did with a friend, it’s what is exciting is that it’s all-consuming. And that is what for me, people always say this to me, oddly enough, it makes no difference to you whether you go from a small film to a big film. It makes no difference to you whether you’re working with street kids or whether you’re at some fancy Venice film festival. And I say, no, it doesn’t. It literally makes no difference because finally it’s the adventure that you’re on.

I think the task is the same, naturally, you learn very fast on a small film. You learn about the bigger lessons of filmmaking, because there are few people to absorb the shock or the stress. You have to take that on yourself. While if you’re on a big film, there are a lot of layers. There’s always somebody to pass the buck to, to shield you and support you.

On a smaller film, there’s no net to hold you.

There’s no safety net, exactly. It’s very immediate. It’s about being very aware and conscious that you can deliver in that short amount of time.

New York, Delhi, Kampala: Three cities that shaped Mira Nair's films

For Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe, how did you cast an unknown like Madina Nalwanga for the lead? She lights up the screen.

Isn’t she wonderful? I came late to that show. I had promised Mira that I would get to Uganda but I was in Goa, India. So when I arrived, they had already chosen somebody else, and Mira said to me, ‘Make sure you fall through and [see that] you’ve found everybody. And the person I was looking for, the role actually required somebody slightly younger than her. But I sent out my assistant, one of them returned and told me about this slum where there was this Sosolya Undugu dance academy. I went over there and all these kids were out over there, dancing [an] African dance. She just shone. You know star quality when you see her. You knew she was going to be the one.

There was a lot of attention because I had come and they were showing me their selection. They heard that I was doing the casting. And I just thought, this is the girl. I just kept quiet till the very end and as I was leaving that place, I said, ‘Can you call that girl? I intend to find her.’

The problem with her was to turn her into an actress. That was quite a task, so I worked with her, and even after I worked with her and we finally auditioned her, she still didn’t make the cut. They were like, no, we’re not sure about her. I said, ‘Look, I just need more time.’ The secret of acting is to allow somebody to be comfortable in their skin, especially if you’re casting like this, you find somebody who fits the role, or you get an accomplished actress to act a role. There’s two different ways you can go about it. I was lucky to find somebody who fit the role. So all I needed to get her to do really, was to become comfortable enough in her skin and in front of the camera and with myself and Mira that she would open herself up and reveal herself. Because she, in her personality, was right for the role.

Did you do workshops like you did for your other films?

Yes, I found this wonderful lady, Ise Piankhi, from Ethiopia. She was doing theatre workshops and I worked with her. I used the same format actually that I learnt from Barry John. All those years ago, John had worked with Mira when she was a young person. He had started this TAG (Theatre Action Group) in Delhi. [He] had a particular workshop method which I was exposed to in Salaam Bombay!. That pattern which has now evolved over the years. I used it in Little Zizou, we used it in this film, Queen of Katwe.

It’s the idea of allowing the theatre actor or the actors to reveal themselves, to build a group where there is a certain openness and inhibition and a trust factor between the participants which allows them then, to allow them to be creative together. So that’s what we used as part of the workshop and a lot of those children in all the small roles [in Queen of Katwe], they all were different kids who came from this workshop, were chosen and connected within the workshop.

What do you look for when you audition an artiste for a role? What are the mental notes you take?

I think what’s important when you’re doing an ensemble piece, there’s a lot you have to take care. One, of course, is the natural talent. To be able to see that the person has the natural talent to be able to act, then you also have to look at conglomerate of people. When we put all these pieces together, do we create and expand? Finally, what is in the frame is what is important. If your frame provides you that diversity, then that variety, in a way, reflects life. Because that is what life is about. At the end of the day, what you’re trying to do, is you’re trying to capture the magic of life and put it in cinema. And so you not only look for just talent but you look for a range of talent.

I’ll never forget, I was making Salaam Bombay, and there was this one particular child who was terribly naughty. I was very young, like 25 years old. They were driving me crazy these kids and I said I’m going to get rid of this kid. I remember Sooni Taraporevala, the scriptwriter, said to me, ‘No, Dinaz,’. I said, ‘He’s so naughty, he’s disrupting my whole class.’ And she said, ‘Keep him because he is so naughty’ That was a good lesson for me to learn. And I said to her, you’re right, because he is naughty, let’s keep him in the film. It just adds that chalu dimension. If you’re able to handle him and if you’re able to catch it on screen, it just gives it one extra special component. So I think that’s the secret. To look at not only talent, but look at diversity, and of course, keeping the film in mind, make sure you’re casting for the different characters.

What do you dislike about auditioning sometimes?

It’s having to turn children down. It’s very hard to be able to tell them. And as much as possible I try not to do that but it’s very disappointing and very traumatic, for me also, to tell a child who’s worked hard that they’re not going to get the role. But I think that children bounce back quite fast. [The] second big thing is to make a child realize even if they have set their heart on acting, they have to live a well-rounded life and [that] being in a role of an actor is often not the most easiest and, not correlated with talent.

It depends what roles you get accepted for, what you’re right for, and on what you’re exposed to, it depends on the breaks in life, [there are] so many different chances and things that happen. To try and make a child realize that they are not being judged when they are auditioning that they might, in fact, be perfectly fit for a role, but if a role is not right for them, then it’s better that they don’t land up in it. I think that it is often easier in a way to work with adults. Right now, I’m working on a film which is only about adults and people keep saying to me, don’t you miss having the children around? And I’m like, ‘No, no, I enjoy having just the adults.’ I think with children, you have to be more sensitive.

Of all the films you’ve worked on, what’s been the most memorable time that you’ve had on set?

Well, I think the most traumatic was Salaam Bombay! (laughs). Because, it was children from the street and I think that was one which will never leave you. We will never be able to shake that experience. I think that was a very strong film, in my experience. I think every film is different and I’ve only had a lot of fun. I truly enjoy the process and I think that’s probably one of the reasons why I’ve made so many and people always want you on a set is they can see that I’m having such a good time. (laughs)

But Queen of Katwe, this last film that we made in Uganda was definitely a strong experience, one which was incredibly enjoyable, because the children that I worked with were just remarkable. I can see the benefits that a lot of these children have accrued, in terms of the education. One of them is just becoming a doctor. These were children who were dropping out of school and things like that, so in that respect, to be able to see the effect of the intervention when it came through has been very satisfying.