I am a bridge between directors and actors – Mukesh Chhabra
[dropcap]H[/dropcap]e is one of the most sought after casting directors in Bollywood. At just 32, Mukesh Chhabra has some of the biggest films to his credit and is the man responsible for giving the industry talented newcomers like Sushant Singh Rajput, Rajkummar Rao and many others. In a freewheeling chat with Pandolin, Mukesh reveals the intricacies of casting, his various projects and launching his very own casting company.
Tell us about your foray into casting. Having worked in theatre yourself, how has this influenced your style of casting?
Theatre has been a big influence. It is because of theatre that I know how to read a script and understand characters. I have also done my diploma in acting. I’ve spent nine years in Theatre in Education Company (Affiliated with NSD) where I was teaching and all that is helping me now. When I was an assistant director, I would help directors to cast small actors for roles. That is when I realized that this is the only job in the industry that is not taken seriously. Four to five years ago there was no concept of a casting director. But cinema is changing, new actors are coming in and people want to see more actors. That is when I took up this job more seriously and professionally and here I am. Since I have a theatre background, I have many contacts and know a lot of actors from NSD, FTII etc. and keep reaching out to them for various projects. And my memory is good, so I never forget any actor.
Please describe your casting process for us. What is it that you look for in any actor/actress while casting them?
As per the brief that I get from the director, I first look for the correct attitude and behavior, which is required for the part, in any actor. Then I move on to external appearances, whether we need a fat boy, fair girl and so on. When I did Gangs of Wasseypur, I was looking for people from Bihar because their language and behavior would be ideal for those characters. For instance, I am from North India and cannot suddenly play a Gujarati as that would be difficult for me. So I try to find someone who is as close to the script requirement as possible, I try to find people from the same region and then begin casting.
Gangs of Wasseypur was a major milestone in your career. How was it putting together such an ensemble cast?
I had earlier worked with Anurag on a couple of films. When Anurag gave me this script, he gave me a lot of liberty to cast from wherever in India that I felt suitable. The major concern was that the language had to be correct. Since the film is based in Dhanbad, I first figured actors from NSD and other theatre groups who belonged to that belt and spoke that language. I found actors from Delhi, Banaras, Bihar and so on. Once that was done, I segregated the good actors from amongst them. Then as per their behavior I allotted particular parts to them be it Tangent, Sultan etc. and then tested them for each role. It took me over a year to cast for GoW. I’m glad Anurag trusted me for this film and I tried to give him my best.
Kai Po Che had an all-new cast. How easy/difficult is it to cast a newcomer?
For me it is easier to find a new actor rather than run behind stars for dates. Abhishek Kapoor told me that he wanted to cast Farhan Akhtar and other known actors for the roles. When I read the script and UTV came on board, I told them that Farhan Akhtar is already an established name, why can’t we make the film with newcomers? They said it was difficult to get one newcomer, how would we manage three? But when I tried we got them. Newcomers are very hardworking and dedicated. And there is so much talent in this city. That is why I opened a studio, so that people can come and show their talent. Earlier people were not willing to experiment with them, it was easier to cast established actors, but now I come across interesting new actors almost everyday. So I think I’ve taken the right step in providing a platform to newcomers and I’m still doing the same thing.
Director Hansal Mehta has said that casting for Shahid was a challenge. And you took it up and did a brilliant job.
Hansal was making a comeback after a few years. And there are very few people who get multiple chances to make a film. So the producer wanted to cast a big name, a star and was contemplating a few names. When I read the script I told them that they need to make the film with a newcomer. And they thought I’d gone crazy because firstly Hansal was returning after so many years and then if we were to cast a newcomer, there was the concern of who would buy the film. So I had to fight and convince them to meet the actor that I was suggesting. I had worked with Rajkummar in Gangs of Wasseypur and I requested Hansal to let me test him once for the part. The budget of the film was very low and with Rajkummar coming on board, the budget was squeezed further because he was not that known at that time. But I had promised Hansal that I would find him a new actor around the story so that the film looks completely real. And Hansal finally understood my point. And I am glad that they got the National Award for it.
Which has been your most challenging project till date and why? How long do you give yourself to cast for a film?
Though it is a ‘Bollywood’ type answer, but the fact is that, every film is challenging for me. Now people have very high expectations from me and every film that I get is absolutely different. So I got Bombay Velvet, Haider, Ugly, P.K., which are all absolutely unique. No one gives me easy films any more. And they are all confident that I will do it, so they keep challenging me and I keep accepting it.
I normally get exactly two or two and a half months to cast for a film. And I do manage in the given time. I now have a bigger team and more experience, so the process of tapping the right people has become faster. Casting for ads takes around half a day or if it is difficult casting it takes around two days. Earlier it would take me 5-6 days to cast for an ad but as you grow you learn a lot of things.
Bombay Velvet, one of the highly awaited films of this year has filmmaker Karan Johar playing the antagonist. How did this casting coup of sorts happen?
Honestly, approaching Karan Johar for this film was a collective idea. This was originally producer Vikas Bahl’s idea and he mentioned it to Anurag Kashyap. Then we all said yes to this part. So I cannot take the credit for this. Vikas kept interacting with Karan on a daily basis during Hasee Toh Phasee and that is how this idea came up. And we all agreed that it was a good idea and apparently he is very good in the film.
You have also done the casting for Amitabh Bachchan’s first fiction show ‘Yudh’. Why did you agree to do a TV series?
When I was offered this show, I initially did not wish to do it, as it is a TV series. But then I thought that Mr.Bachchan is doing it and it is an Anurag Kashyap (He is the creative director of the show) series, so I knew that this would not be a regular TV show. I keep getting several offers to cast for TV shows but that does not appeal to me.
The casting for Yudh was very interesting. It has several characters and is Mr. Bachchan’s first fiction show. They have treated the show completely like a film. For me, it’s like I am doing a huge film with Mr.Bachchan.
What is the core vision behind your casting company? At what stage did you feel the need to launch your own venture?
The main vision of this initiative is to provide a direction to all those actors who come to Mumbai and have absolutely no idea about how to start, where to go, where casting happens and so on. I realized that most of the big directors are working with me and are making good films. So I thought if I could be of any help to newcomers, it would really make a difference. I too have come from theatre and I can understand how difficult it is for aspiring actors. So I thought that there should be a place where actors are groomed, there are training workshops and they are advised where to go. I have weekend workshops that are free and many other ideas that I am implementing. So I mainly started this school because these people need direction from people like me. I am a bridge between the directors and the actors. I don’t run an agency or handle actors or run an acting school and take money from them. It is a free, open, creative school and that was my dream.
What can aspiring and established actors expect at the ‘Mukesh Chhabra Casting Company’?
Anybody can walk into my office and show their talent. We have a separate room and a separate team where they can come and perform. If they are really good then I will try to cast them in any of the ads or films that I am doing or I will recommend their name to some other casting director. So that they at least get an opportunity. Even if their acting is not up to the mark, we will conduct weekend workshops than can help their performance. Then I will test them again. When I started the weekend workshop, we received nearly 1000 entries on the first day.
I have been thinking about this idea for over a year now. I realized that there are so many actors who keep meeting me and we have to meet at cafes or on the road and so on. I didn’t have a proper place to test them, just one small room to audition. It was getting chaotic. So I wanted to open a place where I could at least treat these actors nicely and give them time and a proper place to audition. In Mumbai actors are treated very badly, until and unless they become big. And I know how hard it is for these actors, they have to keep roaming around and it is difficult to survive in a city like Mumbai. So I had to do something. And when I launched this idea, Anurag Kashyap, Rajkumar Hirani, Imtiaz Ali, Abhishek Kapoor, everyone came for the inauguration and extended their support.
A tough part of your job is saying no to several aspiring, talented actors. How do you deal with it?
It is something that you get used to during the course of your work. When you are doing your job you know that you have to face such situations. I have channelized my mind to accept it, it is my job and I have to do it. You have to treat the actors nicely but they will get angry and upset but you have to keep your calm and be patient.
What is a director – casting director relationship like?
It is the best relation. We fight a lot, keep debating over one character and it goes on. But now I am at a stage where I can fight. The director has his suggestions and I have mine, sometimes they listen; sometimes they don’t. And most of the time, I win. But it’s a healthy relation because we are fighting for the good of the film. And I believe in taking only the person who fits the role. Whether you are a friend of the director’s or my acquaintance, I cast only those actors who actually suit the character.
How different are things in India v/s internationally, when it comes to casting? What are the elements that can help make the process here better?
Internationally, casting directors are taken very seriously and everyone listens to what they have to say. In India, a few big directors have understood this. Now slowly everybody wants to cast through a casting director. So the system is slowly changing and I am glad that I am one of the people responsible for this change.
I feel that other directors and casting directors too should experiment with newcomers and give them a chance. They should take that risk.
What advice would you like to give budding actors?
I would tell them to keep doing acting exercises. Like dancers and singers who keep training and practicing, even actors should do the same. Very few people do that. Don’t just waste time and money in the gym. Be healthy and fit but focus more on your acting. Think like an actor.
Your future plans?
I eventually want to direct my own film. While casting you need to think like a director at all times. You’re sitting with the director and understanding his vision. You are training actors, grooming them. So a casting director’s job is very important because you are doing what you would do in the future as a director.