I like actors who can think on their feet – Panchami Ghavri
Panchami Ghavri started her career as an assistant casting director with Wake Up Sid. She went on to do a diploma course in theatre from the famed Lee Strasberg Institute in New York. And her training and background in theatre shows up in the casting choices she had made in all the films that she has been associated with. Beginning with One by Two, following it up with Brothers and now Kapoor & Sons, what stands out in Panchami’s work is her love and respect for the actors who can hold your attention on screen with their restrained performances. Pandolin spoke to the young Casting Director on ahead of the release of her upcoming film, Kapoor & Sons.
You started your career in casting with Wake Up Sid. Tell us something about your first break.
I assisted Nandini Shrikent (casting director for the film) for a year on Wake Up Sid. I was eighteen at that time and worked on the film as an assistant casting director, more like as an intern. I was not given any particular department to work on in the first few weeks because I was very young and had just begun. Then the first AD of the film, Karan Gulani made a suggestion that I be put in the casting department and I started working with Nandini and it became my first job in casting.
What was the brief given to you for Kapoor & Sons?
When I came aboard this project, I thought that this was a film about a dysfunctional family. But Shakun (Batra, Director) does not like to call it so, as it puts things into boxes. Also, in a way, all of our families have that element of dysfunctionality. So the brief that I received was about a family with secrets, love, revelations and about all of these characters trying to hide something from each other but also standing up for each other. That was what I understood about the family as a whole but of course each character in the film is very different from one another so Shakun wanted us to handpick even for the supporting parts of the film. In the film, Rishi Kapoor plays the grandfather, Ratna Pathak and Rajat Kapoor play the parents and Fawad Khan and Sidharth Malhotra play the brothers. And the film essentially revolves around these people.
Take us through the process of casting meetings in Dharma Production. Do the director and other technicians also sit through these meetings?
Certain people are part of the process from the very beginning. So when we came aboard, the leads were already cast and there were already in talks with Rishi Kapoor too. Since these are seniors in the industry the director usually takes the lead themselves unless they want a casting director to be involved in the process. Other than that, the rest of the casting is done by me. The general method that I follow is to prepare a presentation of the actors that I think would be suited for the roles like parents, relatives and other actors. Essentially the whole process is between the director and casting director where we jam about our different choices and then narrow our selections down. Then with senior actors like Ratna and Rajat, we schedule meetings, since we are already aware of their big body of work and discuss their interest in the project. Depending upon these meetings and interests expressed, we move ahead. While selecting actors for smaller parts we have three sets of auditions with lots of improvising as Shakun likes to give his actors a free hand.
What kind of mental preparation does it take to cast for a movie?
There is not too much mental preparation but I like to do my work in an organized manner. I don’t usually test more than ten or twelve people a day. Naturally when I start reading the script I start to ideate and start making notes about the people that I want to test for certain parts. I like to make notes and do a cast breakdown very early itself as I don’t want to miss out on any information. I like to have every single detail from the director about even the smallest parts so that I can prepare briefs about them. This also makes my work easier later on as I have a very clear idea about the character and the type of actors required for it.
But I like to leave the brief open – ended because at times, the between the lines information is not very upfront and when we have choices that might differ from the briefs, we see how they could be better fit for the film. So I have my own list ready before we start finalizing and sometimes this might be different from the director’s choices. But I take permission and go ahead and get them on camera and so far I have been very lucky to work with directors who have given me a lot of breathing space, be it Karan Malhotra or Shakun.
How would you describe Shakun as a director?
Shakun is very instinctive and sometimes he has a hunch about something, which no one else would have and he gets it right all the time. He loves people that are real and he likes characters where people can bring something of their own. He loves characters with odd habits as he believes that characters that are too perfect are unreal. Shakun is not the kind of director who feels that everyone in his film has to be good looking and pretty.
Were Sidharth, Alia and Fawad the original choices for the roles?
Yes, Shakun wanted the three of them and Rishi Kapoor from the very beginning.
This is the second time that you’re working with Sidharth Malhotra. According to you, what are his strengths?
Sidharth is very good with improv and is really excellent in thinking on his feet. He is very comfortable with the language, which is a great thing as most newcomers in Bollywood struggle with the language. Sidharth has a simplicity which works beautifully and he has this casual way of reacting to the scenes, which I find really good. He also has the most expressive eyes and carries off different emotions very well through his eyes. He brings an ease to the film and has a calming effect on the film, which you will find when you see it.
What are the three things that you look for in a person before you cast him/her?
Confidence and thinking on your feet is a must. Any actor who can do improv is always a good find. Novelty is a good thing but there is a certain kind of ease that actors get, when they have some experience under their belt. My style of working, which I tell my collaborators too, is that ‘less is more’. So even if they have been given full scenes and are testing for Dharma Productions, I like it if they keep it restrained. If someone is overacting I am very honest and upfront about it, irrespective of who they are, and ask them to tone it down. I like restrained performances.
Please tell us about the challenges you faced in your casting career and how have you overcome them?
When I came back from New York where I went to do my three-month diploma, I found it hard to crack into the industry as people were only interested in working with people who had a certain amount of experience with them. So I just had that diploma and my experience of assisting Nandini for a year. While working with Nandini I had learnt a lot, but the real challenge started when I came back. I tried calling up producers, ad agencies etc. but all I kept getting was responses for a meeting next week or the week after and so on. I have gone through that phase of waiting for my chance, of calling up more than a hundred producers and people who were too busy to meet because they were already in the middle of projects. I managed to get two or three ads but then there was an assistant director, Santosh who my friend from Wake Up Sid, who was the first AD on Devika Bhagat’s film – One by Two. And he called me up saying that they were looking for a casting director. I went and met them and Devika Bhagat gave me my first break, which I will never forget. After that I immediately got a few ads and then did another film that was Ishan Nair’s Kaash. I then worked on Brothers and since then everything has been fine.
Did you think of an alternate career before setting foot in the casting department?
I was very young when I started as an assistant director. I was not very sure about which way I wanted to go. I was interested in theatre and wanted to do something in that space. So I went to New York and did some theatre and did two plays after coming back here. One with Akash Khurana which was called ‘Our Town’ and another called ‘Jumpstart’. Those were great experiences but I knew that I would not be able to give it all my time and energy. So once I started working in the casting space I could not do theatre. However, I feel that it was very important for me as it fine tuned my appreciation for the art. I think theatre is a very important part of my casting career.
-With Inputs from Saurabh Rathore