A common misconception is that casting is an easy and powerful job – Shruti Mahajan
“The best thing about casting is that you can savour the brilliance of a director and the charisma and spontaneity of an actor, at the same time,” says casting director Shruti Mahajan. Though barely two years old in the industry, Shruti has been associated with an enviable list of titles ranging from Satyagraha to Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram – Leela, Bobby Jasoos to the upcoming Finding Fanny, Mary Kom and so on. Having worked with the creme de la creme of the industry, she is known for her expertise and keen eye for talent.
In a freewheeling chat with Pandolin, Shruti takes us behind the scenes into the world of casting.
How did you get your break in casting?
I would say I was destined to be a casting director. I come from a family that had no connection with films, my father is an IPS officer and my mother is an entrepreneur. So for them films was totally out of the question. But from my school days I was majorly into dance, plays, ballet etc. It all began from there. But the real exposure for me was when I went to LSR (Lady Shri Ram College) in Delhi and was exposed to theatre, world cinema and so on. That is when I realised that this is what I want to do in life. But like any other household, where a 9-5 corporate job is more preferred, getting into this industry was something that I couldn’t even think of. So I went the routine way, did my MBA in HR and got placed with the best of MNCs in the country. But somewhere I knew that this is not what my dream is. I found myself totally suffocated and one fine day I took a short sabbatical. A filmmaker friend of mine told me that YRF (Yash Raj Films) was looking for assistants and the next thing I knew, I was assisting there. YRF is very open to new talent and they are always looking for good people. So that is where it all happened for me. Within a year I got my independent project and after that there was never a day that I was without work. Casting is something that I truly enjoy. The best thing about casting is that you can savor the brilliance of a director and the charisma and spontaneity of an actor, at the same time. You get the best of both worlds so why would I trade anything for it.
What are the places where you usually spot talent? How do you zero in on an actor for a particular part?
My colleague Parag Mehta (we work together) and I are very open to meeting people. The biggest thing for a casting director is to meet new people from different walks of life. As a casting director you should be very approachable and reachable. I make it a point to meet people because that is how you spot talent. It’s not just about the way a person looks, when you talk to them, you realize that some people are blessed with a good voice, some have an aura about them and so on. These are things that you get to know only when you meet a person. For me spotting talent can happen anywhere, it does not only mean an audition. To spot talent you need your senses, if your eyes and ears are open you will spot your talent. It’s an art and over the years you get better with every assignment.
The process of casting starts with the script narration followed by a detailed brief from the director. Understanding the director’s take on a character is most important. The next aspect is to see how a particular actor can enhance that character further and make it real. You need to find an actor that can make the character real and also connect with the director as well as the audience. Casting for me is a mix of mathematics and intuition. By mathematics, I mean the set formula, the fixed parameters like the physical aspects – height, weight, looks, language, and the audition. But this formula might not always work and that is where the intuition comes in. Your intuition looks beyond the formula. So it’s a balance of both and that’s where I feel I get it bang on. I also do consider the nature of an actor; how willing they are to shed their baggage, how easygoing and open-minded they are to work on the sets etc. Nobody wants troublemakers. The minute I cast an actor I take complete responsibility for the actor, so if I feel that an actor has even slight temperamental issues I inform the production house.
As a casting director, what is the toughest aspect of your job?
Turning down an actor after you know that they have given a good audition is the toughest part. And that only happens because there are so many contenders for each part. Even the actors are aware of the fact that there are several people vying for one role. But when you know that the actor is capable and has given more than 100 per cent, somewhere it does break your heart. For me casting is all about having the right person at the right time. And saying ‘no’ will always be tough.
You have worked with Prakash Jha on Chakravyuh and Satyagraha. What were his expectations in terms of the casting?
Mr. Jha had never had a casting director before Chakravyuh. So for him working with a casting director was absolutely new, it was like having an all new department in his production house. And the minute you have a new department your expectations go really high. He called me mainly to cast the lead opposite Abhay Deol in Chakravyuh and it was only limited to that. The best thing about him is that he is very clear in his mind. He is a disciplinarian and is immaculate with his work and every brief I got from him was bang on. He clearly told me that he wanted fresh, real and gritty looking faces for his film because that was the genre and those are the kind of films he makes. When I succeeded in the biggest challenge of casting the lead in Chakravyuh, he got his faith in me. And that is how Satyagraha also happened. When the director has faith in you, then it is not difficult to cast for any film. You need to know your director and his requirements very well.
What is it that draws you towards a newcomer? Would you say that it is easier to cast a newcomer as compared to a star or vice-versa?
For any casting director launching a fresh face is the greatest high. If given a choice, when a director gives his brief and tells what he is looking for, the first thing a good casting director would always say is, ‘let’s look for fresh faces’. Because in a humble way you are contributing to the film industry by introducing a fresh talent. What really draws me to a newcomer is the potential in an actor and how intelligent and confident he/she is to play a lead part. And most importantly, you have to work with your gut. There are times when you meet an actor, you do an audition and you know that there is something right, the energy is correct and you literally see the brief that you have got from the director in the actor.
For me it has been easy to cast both – newcomers and stars. I have been working with some fabulous directors so even the stars are more than willing to work with them. Ultimately it is the director’s call and as a casting director I am only there to help in making that decision. If the director feels that a newcomer would be more suitable for a particular part and it would be more interesting, then I totally support my director’s decision.
The actors in Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram – Leela have beautifully adapted the dialect and characteristics of typical Gujarati culture. Was it tough casting for such an elaborate, region-specific drama? How long did you take?
Honestly, it was not tough to cast for Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram – Leela, but it was tougher because I was casting for a director who was very specific about the cast. Mr.Bhansali is nothing less than a perfectionist. So for me to cater to that was the biggest challenge and it was also my first film with him. But we hit it off in the first go and he immensely liked the options and auditions I got for him. The biggest thing about Mr. Bhansali is that he not only gives you the respect but also the freedom to think and look for a cast that is out of the box. For the film it was not all Gujarat, I wasn’t told to cast only Gujarati actors. Even if it is a region specific film, you just need a good actor for the part because a good actor can easily mould and become anything. Mr.Bhansali never said that he wanted only Gujaratis, he said, ‘Get me a good actor, great faces and I will work with them’. It was this kind of confidence that he showed in me and that is how I could get this ensemble cast together.
The very fact that I could cast Supriya Pathak as ‘Dhankor Baa’ showed that Mr.Bhansali was very open to thinking radically. It was very difficult for anyone to imagine Supriya Pathak, who does a Khichdi or plays a sweet mom in Wake up Sid, to play a role like Dhankor and only a director like Mr.Bhansali could think of it. Till the time we did not hit a bull’s eye for each and every character in the film, I never got an ok from him. There was never a compromise. He told me, ‘no matter how much time you take, but till your gut doesn’t say that this actor is perfect we will not finalize him/her’. I really don’t know how long the casting took in numbers, but it was an ongoing process. I wouldn’t say that this was my toughest project, but it was one of my most enjoyable films, especially since it was my first independent project and I learnt so much from Mr.Bhansali.
Why did you choose to cast actor Ali Fazal opposite Vidya Balan in Bobby Jasoos as compared to any other popular face? Did you feel like you are taking a risk?
The role required a guy who had the boy-next-door feel, a boyish charm; that was the brief I got from producers Dia Mirza and Sahil Sangha and the director Samar (Sheikh). They wanted somebody who you could take home to your mom and say that this is the guy I’d like to marry. Post seeing the audition we found that Ali completely fit the bill. He was so enduring and fresh and could stand along a huge star like Vidya. We had auditioned a couple of actors and Ali’s audition was the closest to what we always wanted. It was a calculated risk. You know that there is Vidya Balan and she has a lot of popularity. And most importantly it was the requirement of a film. Every film doesn’t require a Shahrukh Khan. Everyone would want to work with him but every film and every character has a different requirement.
Mary Kom is one of the highly awaited films of this year. What was Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s brief to you for the casting of the protagonist? How did Priyanka Chopra come on board?
For Mary Kom we were looking at an actor who could go beyond her personality and get into the role and give more than 100 per cent. Also we were looking at an actor who was physically very strong and had an athletic built. The role required a lot of workout, rigorous training, and a disciplined life. And knowing Priyanka, who gives more than 100 per cent for all her films and goes beyond her character, despite being a star, worked very well for this. Mr. Bhansali and the director Omung (Kumar were very convinced that it has to be Priyanka. When you are casting, there is never a first choice, you come up with five choices at a time but when you narrow down and think about the pros and cons, that is where Priyanka scored. She loves challenges and I’m sure she was more than happy to come on board. Mary Kom is a woman hero. Actors today are looking at meaty roles, where they can perform and get out of the regular run-of-the-mill stuff and this film has it all.
According to you, what are the skills that a casting director needs to possess? Any specific educational qualifications that are needed?
The basic ingredients for any job are patience, confidence, determination and endurance. As a casting director you should also have good communication skills so you can communicate well with your director and at the same time with your actor and get the best of both. And you need to have that comforting factor, so the minute an actor walks into an audition and sees you, the actor should feel that he/she is home. These things are very important. Education always benefits you. It makes you meticulous, systematic and gives you grounding. I always feel that if your basics are in place, nothing can stop you. Eye for talent is something that you can acquire with practice. But your nature forms your basic core and that cannot be acquired, you are born with it. Also you should be a casting director because that is what you want to be, it is not a stepping-stone.
What is a common misconception about the job of a casting director?
The most common misconception is that it is an easy and powerful job. It is definitely fun, but any profession can be fun if you love it. But it is not easy and it is not powerful. Ultimately you are only there to influence the director’s decision, you only help the director and don’t have the power to cast an actor. Also I feel that people have this notion that anybody and everybody can become a casting director. But that is not true; there are skills that are needed. And I am glad that slowly, like in Hollywood, people in India are beginning to understand the importance of a casting director and the profession is getting its due.
Are there any recent changes that you have witnessed in the Hindi film industry in terms of casting?
There are several changes. The biggest change is that now there is a dedicated department for casting and you have a casting head. Every good production house wants a casting department and everyone has started acknowledging the need of this department. Also I feel that actors today are more open to giving look tests and auditions. Earlier several senior actors would not feel the need to give a look test and would consider it offensive. But now they are all very open and that is another good change that has come in. Most importantly, these days the audiences want to see a fresh cast, they don’t want to see the same actors, and they remember even the small characters. As a casting director, while choosing an actor, you should also think from the audience point of view. So for casting everything has changed. It is the best phase to be in.
Tell us about your upcoming projects?
This year I have Finding Fanny, Mary Kom and Shamitabh with R Balki. I am also working on Bajirao with Mr Bhansali and doing a film with Mr. Milan Luthria.
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Shruti’s tips for aspiring actors
Practice everyday. Train yourself to be a good actor.
Be positive. Keep working at it, don’t get disheartened.
Keep doing work, there is nothing like a small role. Everything can lead to something.[/box_info]