Mukesh Chhabra, 28, never had to give much thought to what he wanted to do in life. Way back in school he had made up his mind to pursue the love of his life — theatre. Though a graduation from Delhi University was “barely managed”, he was more serious about the diploma in acting that he was pursuing at the National School of Drama (NSD), Delhi.
Chhabra did a six-and-a-half-year stint with the Theatre-in-Education at the NSD. He conducted children’s workshops and cast them for ad films. His first break as casting director came with Richie Mehta’s Canadian film Amal in 2007. “Set in modern-day New Delhi, it tells the story of a poor autorickshaw driver, Amal Kumar. I did the entire casting for the film,” says Chhabra.
One of his biggest films is Rang De Basanti, for which he picked locals from Delhi, where a large portion of the film was shot. “I knew almost all the actors in Delhi and that came in handy,” he says.
The other movies Chhabra has been involved with are Hijack and Yuvvraaj as casting assistant, Love Aaj Kal as casting director, Kaminey as casting associate and most recently, Teen Patti as casting assistant.
So, what does a casting director do? He is a representative of the director, almost a mini-director, whose job is to help place the right actor for the role. Chhabra’s job, therefore, is to keep his eyes open for interesting faces.
“It is a very challenging task to find a new actor, a new face every time you do a film. I consciously try to avoid people who’ve done a film in the past,” he says.
Casting is also perhaps the most important part of the film as its fate depends on the actors. If the cast is able to create an impression on the audience, you have been successful. “That is the litmus test,” says Chhabra.
A casting director needs to spend time with the actor he is auditioning and even help him perform better. He needs to have a basic understanding of the film’s script, plays, performance, know how to judge performance and the script, he says.
“These days it’s Facebook that has been coming to my rescue. It’s a platform where I get to interact with a lot of new people, especially youngsters,” adds Chhabra.
How much time does it take to select someone for a role? “On an average, I get to audition 200-300 people for the lead actor or actress. My recent film, Chillar Party, directed and produced by Nitesh Tiwari and Vikas Behl, is about nine children who reside in the same society and try to save a street dog from a politician who wants to kill it. I travelled the length and breadth of the country to audition 7,600 children. The entire process took me four months.”
At the end of the day, it is a very satisfying job. “You almost feel like the director,” says Chhabra, adding “I don’t think I can do anything else.”
Another famous name in this field is Loveleen Tandan, the casting director for the Academy Award winner, Slumdog Millionaire. Rubiana Ali (young Latika) and Azharuddin Ismail (young Salim) were her discoveries. Tandan, who did her graduation from Hindu College and studied film-making at Jamia, got her first break in 1998 with Deepa Mehta’s Earth. Monsoon Wedding by Mira Nair followed in 2001.
What's it about?
A casting director is a human resource manager for actors. S/he works in the fields of theatre, ad films and commercial films and deals with casting the crew or performers for a project. A casting director’s basic job is to audition potential actors and zero in on the one who fits the look of the character – though the final casting decision rests with the director. Casting is often the platform, the first step towards becoming a film director. It allows one to work with directors and learn the elements of film-making
9 am: Wake up; call up assistants
10 am: Reach audition venue; check scripts readied by assistants
11.30 am: Basic audition round starts; observe and take notes
12.30 pm: If an actor shows promise, take audition personally. Attend auditions without a break
8 pm: Tapes sent to studios to be made into DVDs; select candidates to be called again the following day
11 pm: DVDs arrive. Go through all audition disks; make notes
Midnight: Go home
. A casting director gets between Rs 2 lakh to 3 lakh a month, depending on the number of films (commercial and ad) he does in a month
. An associate casting director makes Rs 75,000 to Rs 1 lakh
. Assistant casting director gets Rs 15,000 to Rs 25,000 a month
. Junior assistant/assistant get Rs 15,000 to Rs 25,000 a month
. Eye for talent
. Excellent memory
. Interest in films, theatre and literature
. Understand the script
. Love meeting and interacting with people
. Loads of patience
How do i get there?
One should be interested in theatre, learn as much as one can about actors, actresses and films. It helps if you know a few film celebrities personally. One can start out by looking for training opportunities with casting directors who may be looking for associates or assistants.
Institutes & urls
There are no formal institutes for casting. One learns on the job.
Pros & Cons
You earn name and fame in the business
You get to create stars
You are associated and on familiar terms with the best in the film industry
Work for almost 20 hours a day
Actors are 70-80 per cent of the film
You need to love the process of acting to become a casting director, says an expert
How did it all begin?
My career led to my working in the film society movement and attending film festivals. I received my first assignment as a casting person from a foreign director at one of these film festivals. It was way back in the mid-’70s that British producers/directors such as Euan Lloyd (Sea Wolves), shot in India, and approached me for the casting of Indian actors.
Ever since, I’ve undertaken assignments for leading directors such as Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Kamasutra), Deepa Mehta (Earth and Water), Jane Campion (Holy Smoke), Aamir Khan (the British extras in Lagaan) and Dev Benegal (English August), among others.
Is casting a profession?
Unfortunately, no. One can't make a living out of casting. It’s not a regular job. Work comes sporadically. Being selective, one gets to cast for just one or two films a year. There is the need to have an ancillary, steady income. Casting for me is a personal equation with the director and screenplay writer. I prefer to work for small films and small units. I do them because I love the challenge.
What’s your advice to youngsters?
They need to love the process of acting and realise it needs fine observation and training in voice and body language. It has often been noted that actors are 70-80 per cent of the film. A casting director has to make an assessment of how the actor blends into the role. To be knowledgeable in this field, one has to constantly watch films and theatre, know the many nuances of acting and also meet the actors. Casting directors are paid for by the production company of the film.
There are no formal institutes that teach you how to become a casting director. One gets hands-on-training by working in a production unit.
What are the challenges in this field?
The most difficult part about casting is finding child actors and teenage actors. It’s easier abroad as theatre is a part of the curriculum abroad, and there are people who represent child actors.
In India, one can find young acting talent by visiting schools or by consulting NGOs working with children, especially street children. It’s a great feeling when you find an actor, cast him/her for his/her first major role, as was the case with Rahul Bose and his eye-catching performance in English August. Another example is that of the Bangladeshi housewife in the film Brick Lane, the street which is the location for Monica Ali’s eponymousbook.
The director and I auditioned over 30 girls over a week before zeroing in on Tannishtha Chatterjee, which has led to her becoming a sought-after actress in the UK. One key role can place an actor on the path of a larger, more fulfilling career.
Uma da Cunha, a leading casting director in India Interviewed by Vandana Ramnani