The script always tells me whom to cast – Honey Trehan
His career is as old as the term ‘casting director’. He credits Vishal Bhardwaj for designing his career when the concept of casting directors didn’t even exist in Hindi cinema. Meet Honey Trehan, the man behind the stellar star cast of films like Omkara, Kaminey, Dedh Ishqiya, Talvar, to name a few.
His upcoming film Udta Punjab has been the talk of the town for its impressive ensemble cast, which introduces Punjabi actor Diljit Dosanjh to Bollywood and also features 68 theatre actors from Punjab. Trehan who is also the second unit director of the film talks about his casting process, association with Abhishek Chaubey and turning director this year.
Tell us one thing that made you say yes to Udta Punjab.
The subject is very close to me because I come from that land. I hail from Tarn Taran and half of the film is shot over there. Abhishek (Chaubey, Director) and I have been working together since 14 years. We both were Vishal’s (Bhardwaj, Director) assistant directors. When Abhishek narrated the script to me, I was blown by it and the way it was written. I was so keen to be part of it. The way Sudip (Sharma, co-writer) and he have written the script, structure and screenplay is such that every character has a different story and yet they connect, with drugs being the common thread between them.
You’ll have put together a unique ensemble cast for the film. Did Abhishek want to cast Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Kareena Kapoor Khan or did you recommend these names after reading the script?
Sometimes the script works its own wonders. Initially, we never wanted to make the film with such a huge cast. The whole idea was to make this film in a very small budget, such as 4-5 crores, because it revolves around drugs and we didn’t how know society would take it. Abhishek was also a little apprehensive about it. But it is an important film for the society and everyone should know about it. Later Vikramaditya Motwane heard the script and suggested that we try enrolling a bigger star cast. When Shahid (Kapoor) heard the script, he immediately liked it. He said yes to the film without even hearing the full script. Then Shahid spoke to Alia (Bhatt) saying that there is a film that he is doing, which has a very small but interesting part for her and he thought that she should do it. She read the script and was keen to know if we wanted her to do this part. And we definitely wanted her.
We were all excited and wanted to experiment because we have been doing that since ever – from Saif Ali Khan in Omkara to Shahid in Haider. We then spoke to Kareena (Kapoor Khan) because we needed someone like her. She too loved the script and came on board.
For the fourth character, we wanted an actor from Punjab. There were several suggestions that came in. Abhishek and I were once talking and I told him that we should have an original cast, have someone who is a big star in Punjab. So I suggested Diljit (Dosanjh)’s name. I knew Diljit through Punjabi director Anurag Singh who is known for his films like Jatt & Juliet and Punjab 1984. I spoke to Diljit and told him that we had something interesting for him. When he came to Mumbai, we narrated the script to him and he agreed to do it.
We wanted to experiment because we have been doing that since ever – from Saif Ali Khan in Omkara to Shahid in Haider
Diljit makes his Bollywood debut with this film. What was it that made him perfect for this role as compared to any other Bollywood actor?
We are introducing him in Bollywood through Udta Punjab. He is from that belt, understands the whole system and knows the drug problem. He just fits the bill. He had everything that we were looking for. Diljit is a great guy, very sensible and a self-made man. And he has seen lots of success in his life. He is as brilliant an actor as is a director’s delight.
How much of the casting was local as compared to casting from Mumbai? What kind of actors from Punjab have you discovered in this film?
There are 68 local Punjabi theatre actors in the film. For the feel of the film, I never wanted to cast people from Mumbai. Though I had to cast Satish Kaushik for a very important role since I felt that he was perfect for it. Only the primary cast is from Mumbai, otherwise 99% of the people are from Punjab. And all these people are handpicked.
Is there any prominent discovery in the film?
I think the biggest discovery is going to be Diljit and a different kind of Alia who will be seen in the film. I don’t think anybody has ever seen or expected Alia in such a role. There are a couple of other characters such as Suhail Nayyar, who has done a marvelous job in the film. He plays Shahid’s cousin in the film and I must say he was a good find. He is basically from Delhi but is a Punjabi.
I don’t think anybody has ever seen or expected Alia in such a role
On a film of this scale, how many actors vs non-actors does one end up casting?
I always work with actors and prefer to cast them. I take non-actors only when I need a very real kind of a person to play or say certain kind of lines. There are 10-12 people who are acting for the first time in Udta Punjab because I needed real people at certain places. In some scenes, you don’t want things to appear like dialogues. I have asked them to say their own lines in those particular scenes. And Abhishek is also very open to improvisations and dialogues and gives actors a lot of space.
You were also the second unit director of the film. What kind of an experience was that?
I was the second unit director with Abhishek for the first time in Dedh Ishqiya. Abhishek and I know each other quite well. And because we know each other’s tastes, it is always helpful for the producer especially when you go out on a 40-45 day schedule. We had certain sequences which the other person, with a similar taste, could shoot. It is a very time-saving process.
Working with Abhishek or Vishal is always a great learning process. There is a song in the film which was not written in the script. Abhishek said that we have to create a song about the whole drug situation and asked me to shoot it. So wherever we were shooting I would plan, improvise and go with the second camera to shoot it. This is the title song sequence in the beginning (of the film) where you’ll see some montages and some things that are scattered in the entire film. Also if there was a big scale scene where we had two cameras, Abhishek would shoot some shots while I would shoot the close-ups. It is always helpful when you are shooting with two cameras and have two directors or a second unit director.
From Talvar to Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola, Omkara to 7 Khoon Maaf, Holiday to Phantom; you have been applauded for your terrific casting. What is your criteria to chose any actor?
It is the script that always tells me whom to cast. And whatever credit I get, I like to share it with the director of the film who gives me the right kind of insight and also the writer who writes such kind of roles. Without a visionary director no casting director can cast good characters.
There could be situations when the director doesn’t agree to your choice of actor for a role. How do you deal with such instances?
I try to push for logic and I think that if your point has logic, then the director will listen to you, if he is open to ideas. Sometimes you get a fussy director who doesn’t want to open up, at such times you decide that perhaps this is the last time that I’m working with him. In that case, I do whatever best I can for the film.
If your point has logic, then the director will listen to you, if he is open to ideas
You have an old association with Abhishek Chaubey and recently even launched a production house, MacGuffin Pictures, with him. What has made your equation grow deeper with time?
Abhishek and I or Vishal and I or Abhishek and Vishal, have a very unsaid kind of bonding. Since it has been 14 years that we have been working together, we know and understand each other quite well. Abhishek or Vishal would never question me about who is going to play which role. And when I used to be the associate director in Vishal’s films or now as a second unit director on Abhishek’s films, they give you that much respect and know that you are responsible for certain things and will definitely take the right steps.
Coming to the launch of production house; whatever films Abhishek was making – be it Dedh Ishqiya or Udta Punjab, I’ve always been an integral part of them and was involved creatively. And which ever films I’m working on, Abhishek is always part of them. There are certain things like casting that I do where Abhishek isn’t involved. Similar is the case with some of his works. But we wanted to create a platform where we both can always be together. Therefore we thought of opening MacGuffin Pictures and make the kind of films that we believe in.
And your first production happens to be Konkana Sen’s directorial debut A Death in Gunj. Tell us more about that project and your involvement as producer?
Abhishek and I, both, are producers by default. If we are producing a film, it means that there are three directors who are going to be involved in the making of the film. We know Konkana since 2005 during the making of Omkara where we both were assistant directors. We had just started talking about the production house when I read this script and felt that it would be the right script to launch with. The film which is also written by Konkana is now on the final stage of editing. And I’m really happy with the way it has turned out. I made a three and a half minute theatrical trailer and went to Cannes where I got a great response from the festival’s director. I really want to send this film to all the festivals. Hopefully the film should be ready by August and we then want to send it to festivals like Venice and Toronto.
From a theatre director to a casting director, associate director and now even producer. It sounds like an incredible journey.
I was in Tarn Taran till class seven or eight and then we shifted to Allahabad. That was followed by moving to Delhi after class 12. During my graduation, I used to do theatre with Barry John and Piyush Mishra. Around December 2001 I came to Mumbai to just hang out but I never went back.
Casting is something that I never chose but it chose me. I was a theatre director and when Vishal was making his films, he wanted a chief assistant director who had a theatrical background. That is how I met him. Once he would finish his script and pen the characters, he would ask me to give him suggestions for the actors. He started pushing the envelope towards me and started giving me the credit of the casting director also in addition to being his chief AD or associate director. That is how I was created or designed as the casting director. I only do casting when I have some time on my hand or when I’m really excited or motivated towards any story.
What do you enjoy more – direction or casting?
I enjoy each and every aspect of filmmaking. But my basic background is that of direction. And I’m working towards it.
So direction is on your mind?
That is the only thing on my mind. Presently I’m working on my script and hoping to go on the floor by the end of this year. This script was part of the Mumbai Mantra Lab and NFDC’s script lab. I liked the material and got the script.
As a casting director, I take up a project only if I think that I can bring a change to the particular film
What is your ultimate goal when it comes to casting?
As a casting director, I take up a project only if I think that I can bring a change to the particular film. If someone calls me to cast for a film like Dishoom, I don’t know what I’d do with that project. So I don’t take up such projects.
What are your upcoming projects?
I’m casting for a film called Hindi Medium featuring Irrfan Khan where I’m introducing Saba Qamar from Pakistan. It is again a very important film for the society and is directed by Saket Chaudhary who made Pyaar Ke Side Effects. Raees is also lined up for release where I have introduced Pakistani actress Mahira Khan. We were looking at an actor who could speak more of the Hyderabadi or Ahmedabadi Urdu and not Lucknowi Urdu. A similar dialect is heard in Karachi or in Pashto language. While discussing the character I asked Rahul (Dholakia, director) if we could cast a girl from Pakistan. And he said, “Why not, I just need the right girl”.
There is another film which is really close to my heart. It is being directed by first-time director Anand Tiwari who is a fabulous actor. The film is tentatively called Love Per Square Feet.