I can’t say no to Anurag Kashyap- Mukesh Chhabra
Ace Casting Director, Mukesh Chhabra declares his love for Anurag Kashyap, talks about the casting couch and tells us how he brought respect to his otherwise controversial profession.
You’ve had a great 2014 with blockbuster hits like PK, Highway and Haider. Which of these was the most difficult for you to crack?
(without even thinking) PK! Undoubtedly. I had worked on a few advertisements with Mr. Rajkumar Hirani but this was my first movie with him. I already share a certain chemistry and comfort level with directors like Anurag Kashyap and Imtiaz Ali, it’s easier to convince them. But I have to put in a lot more while working with a Director for the first time, especially someone like Mr. Hirani. I had the burden of matching up to his level. I took more than a year to finish PK. I had to persuade Mr. Hirani to even meet Sushant Singh Rajput since he was not as big then. I had to cast the smallest of characters. His brief is very specific. As difficult as it was, I enjoyed PK since I got to learn so much. There was so much detail. I had done Gangs of Wasseypur before where I cast almost 4000 people but that was Anurag again.
Highway was also difficult, but for a different reason. I had to cast people in the role of Hariyanvis but who didn’t look like dacoits. Even though they are criminals in a sense and kidnap the girl, they had to look sweet. If you remember the truck driver, he was very cute though he was from Haryana. Conventionally kidnappers should look scary but Imtiaz’s idea was that they were not bad people. It was essentially a family feud. That said, PK was the most demanding.
(remembers) Aah! And there was Ugly too.
(smiles guiltily) Yes of course. I’m so sorry. That was another tough one to crack.
Don’t you worry! We’re keeping track of all your work, even if you forget.
I haven’t forgotten. It’s just that I am so much into the current projects that it takes up all my mind space. Currently I am only thinking about Dangal, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Hero and it just struck me that Bombay Velvet is here already.
Coming to 2015. Its been so far so good. Badlapur showed Varun Dhavan in a never- seen-before avatar. How did you think of casting him?
Honestly, that was Sriram’s decision. I did the rest of the cast, like Nawaz and Radhika Apte. Radhika, in fact, was an interesting find. Many people have watched Shor in the City but don’t remember her for that. I had seen her in plays before and always had her in mind. I thought there was something attractive about this girl, the way she looked and her performance. It was my first experience with Sriram Raghavan too and he kept changing the brief often. I had to convince him that she would look like a regular girl and at the same time can look sexy. That was the whole idea. When I spoke to Radhika initially, she blurted out, ‘Are you mad?, They will never cast me.’ I had to convince her first and then took her to Sriram. Understandably, he was not convinced at first. He thought she looked too simple. But I had to take a stand. Her life completely changed after that.
Bombay Velvet, your latest release…
(excited and even before I can ask a question) Of course!! My favorite director! (fondly remembers) Gangs of Wasseypur, Ugly…
Well, we’ll come to that soon. But the last time you spoke to Pandolin, you told us how Karan Johar came on board. I believe it was not your idea to cast him.
It was a collective idea. Vikas Behl and Anurag brought him on board. VIkas is an extremely interesting person. He is multi-faceted and has a holistic view of everything, whether it’s marketing, production, direction or any aspect of filmmaking. He is extremely intelligent and it was essentially his vision.
I believe even you have acted in the film.
You can’t say I have acted in the film. With Anurag it’s a standard thing. He gave me a small role in GOW too. I also did a scene in Shahid. It’s all in good spirit. My friends think I am their lucky mascot. There are few people you can’t say no to. Anurag is one of them for me. I can’t say no to Anurag Kashyap.
What about Ranbir and Anushka? How did they come on board?
About the lead pair, it’s a long story. Anurag had initially thought of Saif and Kareena, then there was Aamir Khan and so on. Over a period of seven years while we were doing a lot of other films together, it became a collective decision. There are few films where the stars are on board even before me. Salman bhai was already doing Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
How challenging was Bombay Velvet, considering it was an Anurag Kashyap film? You were in your comfort zone, right?
I really enjoyed this film because I had to create a period here. Right from a photographer to Chiman, who plays Ranbir’s friend to Khambata’s gang and the politicians, they had to be interesting characters. As a Casting Director, I couldn’t have asked for a better film. We thrive on characters. There’s really no point of me doing a film where there are only three or four actors and that’s why I don’t do easy films.
How did you crack the sixties brief?
There was extensive research involved. The parts were small but they had to be distinct faces. In fact, we cast a lot of people in Sri Lanka itself. We couldn’t fly so many actors down so I ended up casting fifty percent of the actors locally. I spent two months in Sri Lanka before the shoot began.
Everything is almost a click away these days. Was it easier to get references online?
I don’t think one should depend much on that. Getting references is one thing. What about the actors? You need to travel, meet new people, explore new talent and convince them to act. In the metros there are many theatre groups. The more you go into the interiors, there are hardly any. You need to look for these hidden gems. Sri Lanka was even more difficult because of the language. The problem was that I needed Hindi-speaking people, who looked the part and acted well.
Now coming to Anurag Kashyap.
(again, I don’t even ask my question) I love Anurag Kashyap! Anurag Kashyap is my life. He is the man because of whom I am here today. With Anurag Kashyap, it’s a different challenge. I have to be very sure. He literally works like, ‘Tumne dekh liya? Ok theek hai!” If it’s Imtiaz or Raju Sir, I know that they will help me take the final call. With Anurag, the responsibility is entirely mine, which is scary.
Moving on to ABCD 2. Tell us about that.
ABCD 2 just happened. I was helping Remo during the casting of ABCD. The secondary cast of this film is the same so there was little I had to do in ABCD 2. Varun and Shraddha were both Remo Sir’s decision. I have done films with UTV before and Remo is a friend so I agreed.
Since you mentioned UTV, it brings me to my question on corporatization of movies. There are so many stakeholders in the mix these days. Be it Viacom Motion Pictures, Fox Star or MSM. Does their involvement affect casting decisions?
In case of the bigger stars, it is a collective decision. When the Director is big enough too, they trust him completely. If it is a first time Director, it is obvious they would want to keep an eye and be a part of every process. When we did Kai Po Chhe, Gattu (Abhishek Kapoor) was new and it was Sushant’s debut film too. Corporates know exactly how much involvement is required in which department. They do it in a way that they don’t hurt the Director’s sentiments and put their point forward too. I think things are much more systematic now. There are no independent producers coming with a suitcase saying, ‘Yeh lijiye aapka paisa. Picture bana dijiye.’
Most of the films you are working on have big names. How supportive are the stars as far as casting goes? How open are they to look tests?
Very supportive! If I tell any of them that I need to do a look test, they are more than happy to oblige. Most of the younger lot like Sushant, Varun and Aditya are friends. Even bigger stars like Salman Bhai are extremely cooperative. Their involvement is always there. If I need to do an acting workshop, they come.
Which is that one actor or actress who is a Casting Director’s delight?
(without thinking) Nawaz! He has some magic about him. I always wish for a film where I can cast him. Even in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, they wanted a new face but I was convinced that it had to be Nawazuddin Siddiqui. It is not about giving preference to any actor but it’s just that the actor has so much to offer. I also love Kay Kay Menon and Rajkummar Rao.
What is the best part about being a Casting Director?
When actors make it big in the industry, they thank me for their success. When I see them on screen its like a proud father watching his kids performing in a school play for the first time. That is the satisfaction of this job. A film makes so much money but I get only my fee. But this is extremely fulfilling. It’s my kick.
When a film does well, people talk about good acting, direction, story, screenplay, dialogues, music, mostly in that order. Not many talk about good casting. While the industry has begun to acknowledge this aspect of film making, what kind of response do you get from the audiences?
A lot of multiplex audiences know me. People tell me that they follow my work. I get a lot of messages from non-actors acknowledging my work.
With the social media boom, everyone is a critic today. What is their take on your work?
Fortunately for me, I have only heard good things. Even if a film doesn’t do well, they do mention that the casting was good. I love social media. I have found so many people through Facebook and Twitter. I put up requirements and get people from Indore, Raipur and the interiors of India, sitting right here in Mumbai. What more could we ask for?
True. Come to think of it, about a decade ago, ‘casting’ was associated with the ‘casting couch’. It was a dark area of Hindi films. You had the courage to formalize this and come out in the open with a Casting Company.
We have come this far and I am sure people will take this more seriously in our industry. This ‘casting-couch-image’ of Bollywood will exist even ten or twenty years later. Many people have tried to change the perception but it is difficult. I did my bit too. People will take it seriously when there is a system or a formalized process to it. When I made money, I could have bought a house for myself, but I made this office.
Earlier, people who did this job never took it seriously. The attitude was casual, like, ‘Oh and I am also casting for the film.’ If you’re going to take it so lightly, people will too. I work with all the best directors from Rajkumar Hirani to Anurag Kashyap, Vikas Behl to Sriram Raghavan. Why would they ruin their films for something as stupid as this? There is money riding on them. I am attached to studios too. Why would anyone risk their reputation? It is a scary part of the job but it is not impossible to stay away from it. I knew I wanted to pursue this career and do it in a dignified way.
You said, you knew you wanted to do this. Not many people set out with the ambition of becoming a Casting Director. Correct me if I am wrong but isn’t it usually a step towards being an actor or director?
I have thirty people working in my office and ten of them are very clear that they want to be Casting Directors. I have a minimum of three to four job applications every day. Earlier actors who didn’t get work would end up doing this, but now things have changed. Trust me, this will become an institute in the next two years. People will genuinely go and learn only for casting and I will make sure I contribute to that.