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Meet the casting director who discovered Ranveer Singh

Shanoo Sharma, the reclusive casting director who has spotted the actor in Ranveer Singh and Parineeti Chopra and helped Alia Bhatt and Arjun Kapoor make their dream debuts, may look like a diva, but is a little girl at heart.

brunch Updated: Sep 25, 2016 13:17 IST
Shanoo Sharma, the reclusive casting director who has spotted the actor in Ranveer Singh and Parineeti Chopra and helped Alia Bhatt and Arjun Kapoor make their dream debuts, may look like a diva, but is a little girl at heart.
Shanoo Sharma, the reclusive casting director who has spotted the actor in Ranveer Singh and Parineeti Chopra and helped Alia Bhatt and Arjun Kapoor make their dream debuts, may look like a diva, but is a little girl at heart.

Bollywood’s best-known casting director Shanoo Sharma is telling me a story: “I was in my Maruti Ertiga, heading for a meeting, when I spotted this beautiful girl on the road in suburban Mumbai. She looked like Salma Hayek: lovely, luscious and hot. I was casting for a rock star. And I thought, wow – here she is! I stopped the car, pointed out the girl, and told my assistants, ‘Go!’ They ran after her.”

Everybody looking for a stairway to stardom has heard of Shanoo Sharma. She’s Aditya Chopra’s most important casting director at Yash Raj Films. And YRF, every wannabe actor knows, is one of the most promising entries to the glitzy world of films. But that’s only after they impress Sharma with their personality and talent. She’s reportedly Bollywood’s most imposing gatekeeper.

Sharma continues: “I’ve spotted talent at pubs, malls, college festivals, salons, coffee shops, gyms, in TV commercials and on stage at the theatre. The next big thing could be the girl in the autorickshaw next to me at the signal. Or the guy in the cigarette shop. I don’t like sitting at the office. My job is to be out, online, seeing what is happening.”

I sense an anticlimax. And here it is, straight from the mouth of Bollywood’s most sought-after casting director: “But that girl wasn’t interested. She was a fashion stylist and didn’t want to become an actor. Disappointed, I told her, ‘Okay, but in case you change your mind...’ It happens sometimes. Everybody is not Ranveer Singh, waiting to be discovered.”

Star cast

Yes, Sharma discovered Ranveer Singh. She’s also launched Arjun Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Parineeti Chopra, Vaani Kapoor, Bhumi Pednekar… the list goes on. And she’s helped Adi Chopra with ensemble casts for big-ticket YRF films such as Sultan, Fan, Ek Tha Tiger, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Mardaani, Gunday and Dhoom 3.

Sharma spotted Ranveer at a Mumbai nightspot. YRF wanted a lead opposite Anushka Sharma for its 2010 romantic comedy Band Baaja Baaraat. Sharma told the studio, “Ranveer’s your man”. YRF’s response was disbelief. “I got so much flak,” she says. “But I was convinced. I wanted to be responsible for Ranveer’s career when he made it big. He auditioned for the role and bagged Band Baaja Baaraat.”

Has Ranveer changed after becoming Bollywood’s next big thing? Without hesitation, Sharma says, “Yes, but only for the better. He calls me in tears to thank me after every award. And I thank him for verifying my instinct. I don’t work with logistics and statistics. I grew up on Peter Pan. I’m into signs and magic. The universe knows what I’m about. In Ranveer’s case, I had a gut instinct. He’s recognised as my work now. And your work speaks for you.”

Casting a spell

The self-proclaimed Instagram ‘Diwaah’, seen with Amitabh Bachchan (clockwise from right), Jackie Shroff, Karan Johar, Parineeti Chopra, designers Abu-Sandeep, Arjun Kapoor, Hrithik Roshan, Farah Khan and Vaani Kapoor (Instagram)

We are talking over coffee one rainy evening at her home in Four Bungalows, Andheri. Like Lokhandwala down the road, this is where young Bollywood lives or hangs out. Sharma takes my order for coffee: “Espresso or Cappuccino? What, regular! Black or with milk? How many spoons of sugar?” Just when I think she is going to make the coffee herself, she sends an assistant out to a coffee shop.

She is in pristine white, a flowing kurta and loose pants, and attractively made up with kohled eyes and a large bindi on her forehead. She has on a nose ring, big silver earrings, a swinging necklace and heavy bangles. She jingles and jangles when she moves.

I think she looks imperiously feminine. More like a diva than a casting director. Ranveer was right when he said Shanoo’s a star. She can be at a party full of top Bollywood actors and directors, but Shanoo will be the centre of attraction, she will own the space.

Cast no bar

What does she look for when casting that the film’s director cannot find himself among our 1.3 billion population, of whom every fifth person wants to be in Bollywood? “Watchability,” Sharma replies. “I shouldn’t want to stop watching them. There are many good actors, but they don’t arrest me. Today, an actor needs to make an impact in the first 15 seconds. The audience is young. And it doesn’t understand a build-up to the ‘oof’ moment. I see more people than the director. I’m more connected to what’s out there. My job is to make sure he has options.”

To do this, Sharma has the best team in the business. “They look for new faces and download the thousands of emails we get every day,” she said. “I invite actors to auditions through announcements on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. My team handles the first round. They do camera introductions of those who walk in. People who send a picture also get called because sometimes pictures are deceptive. On Mondays and Tuesdays, my team comes to me with 500 auditions. They have to sell their actors to me. I see everyone because I think if I don’t – that person might be the one I want.”

With the #kapoorandsons @karanjohar @aliaabhatt @s1dofficial @fawadkhan81 @shakunbatra

A photo posted by Diwaah! (@shanoosharmarahihai) on

The book on Sharma is that she’s a bitch at work. She’s rude to her team. How long do people last with you, I ask curiously. She giggles girlishly, surprising me. “The longest was three years, the shortest two days,” Sharma unblushingly admits. “I don’t hire good casting assistants. I choose good kids. When they do a great job, I’m happy. We go out and party. Otherwise, they face the brunt. This is a responsibility chain. I don’t go to my boss and say ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I can’t’ or ‘I forgot’. My assistants go on to become directors, editors, casting directors. Bhumi Pednekar debuted as an actress with YRF’s Dum Laga Ke Haisha. Everybody becomes something. Those who become casting directors realise it’s not important to be the friend, but to always be the boss. I’m told I resemble Meryl Streep’s humiliating character Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.”

Bollywood is grateful to Shanoo for Ranveer, Arjun, Alia, etc, etc. But were there actors she rejected who went on to become big stars? Or recommended and then flopped? “I’m not a star maker,” she says irritably. “I get them in. It’s the audience that does the rest. I wanted a lot of actors to become mega stars. Like Saqib Saleem. A fab actor. They get awards, they get invited to cut ribbons, but it’s the audience that makes them stars.”

Does she enviously regret not discovering actors who become hugely successful stars without the Shanoo Sharma tag? “Oh yeah,” Sharma says.

“So many. I wish I was responsible for Varun Dhawan. And I wish I had discovered Fawad Khan, Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur, I was blown by her performance in The Lunchbox. I like Jacqueline Fernandez’s image, I like her choices. Then Huma Qureshi. I wish I had discovered Deepika Padukone, but not for Om Shanti Om – for Piku, that was wow! Likewise Kangana Ranaut, for Queen or Tanu Weds Manu.”

The casting ouch!

Of casting directors, Steven Spielberg famously said: “They create dreams that we can’t even imagine dreaming.” What was her dream, I ask Shanoo. She pinches her lower lip and says, “There’s a switch inside me that scares me. I dream of chucking all this up, finding a nice guy, getting married, having kids, and starting a restaurant.”

What’s the hitch? “I need to find a husband!” Is that difficult? “Now, yes. Everybody wants to be with me for the wrong reason. I’ve been through two relationships. Nine years during my 20s. I didn’t have to do things to have a boyfriend. Now I can’t behave the way I used to when I was nobody. People get intimidated. They see me as a diva. They think I’m dominating. I’m 36, and I’m also 20 kilos overweight. And I’m not everybody’s cup of tea.”

Has she dated an actor, ever? “I dated an actor when I wasn’t a casting director and he was just starting off. Today, it’s difficult and not the right thing to do. I can’t be open about a hidden relationship. I always want to date a man I equal out with. Somebody who takes pride in what he does. Not somebody who’s the flavour of the month. Or my accessory. I can’t date somebody who needs me to build himself.”

Is she saying that people date her, befriend her, because she is Shanoo Sharma, Bollywood’s biggest casting director? She nods. “Of course, why wouldn’t they? Everybody wants to be friends. I understand that. But I wish they’d see that I’m living in a world of aspirations. And at heart I’m just a chick. A very girly girl.”

As Shanoo Sharma says these words, I don’t think of Meryl Streep as the bitchy fashion editor Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, but remember Julia Roberts as the lovelorn Hollywood superstar Anna Scott, telling bookstore owner William Thacker (Hugh Grant) in Notting Hill, “Fame isn’t really real. I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”

From HT Brunch, September 25, 2016

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