I like to cast as many local actors as possible – Shruti Mahajan
She has worked with some of the finest names in the industry including the likes of Prakash Jha, R. Balki, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and is instrumental in perfectly casting right faces for required roles. Casting Director Shruti Mahajan started her career in the corporate sector but soon took the plunge into the world of films to pursue her passion for cinema. Pandolin spoke to Shruti in the wake of her upcoming film Ki and Ka and also discussed her take on casting & the directors she has worked with.
What is your usual process of casting? Do you like to involve directors and other technicians too in the process?
The direction team and people from production, who sanction the process, are involved in casting. Once I am on board a film I go through the script and make a list of all the characters and get a brief from my director. I sit with the director to discuss the characters and also to know what he has in mind. From there we take it to the next level of screening, auditioning and casting.
What was the brief given to you for Ki and Ka?
I had worked with Mr. Balki earlier on Shamitabh so I had an idea about the kind of actors he prefers. For this movie particularly, he was looking for upmarket, classy and corporate looking actors. So I had to find actors who would be aware of how the corporate people appear. In this film, along with casting good actors, the look too was very important.
What regional actors bring to the character is tough for outside actors to match
What kind of research and preparation does it take to cast for a movie?
You have to understand what genre does the film belong to, which location would it be set in and so on. For e.g. whether it would be set in a metro or interiors of the country. Whether it is a Gujarat based film like Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela or a Maharashtra based film like Bajirao Mastani, you need to keep your focus as local as possible. My research goes into finding out and trying to cast as many regional actors as possible because what they bring to the character is tough for outside actors to match. The primary cast is usually the director’s focus but there too I try to bring in local actors as much possible. For instance, in Bajirao… I cast Tanvi Azmi who is from Maharashtra itself. Also people like Milind Soman and Vaibbhav Tatwawadi are terrific actors and they become more suitable for the part because they also come from the same regions as the characters. Hence they bring something extra to the film.
Since we are discussing specific actors, please tell us about how did you decide to cast Swaroop Sampat for the role of Kareena’s mother in Ki and Ka?
We were looking at a lot of actors but Mr. Balki is very close friends with Mr. Paresh Rawal and that’s how he came up with the idea of casting her. So we put forward the idea to her and she was interested but took her time in deciding on the role. Mr. Balki and she have a wonderful equation so it all fell into place. We did a small look test which was fantastic and she was on board.
Balki is known for his unconventional casting choices right from his first movie Cheeni Kum to Shamitabh. How involved is he in the casting process?
He is highly involved in the process. He is from the ad world so he understands that the character, look and actors have to be established within two minutes. So when he auditions it is either a yes or a no. He is not the kind of director who re-auditions. I know that for him the look and feel of the character is very important and therefore his instructions about even very minor parts are really specific. For e.g. if we are casting for the role of a maid, the actor has to have the exact look that he has imagined. So even if it is a passing shot we do not just fill it with anybody, it has to be someone who really fits in to the part.
Balki is not the kind of director who re-auditions
How would you describe R. Balki as a director?
He is fantastic, a chilled out guy and a treat to work with. He gives me a lot of space. Also, since he knows the script inside out he is able to imagine actors for even the smallest part. Sometimes I go up to him after the shoot and confess that I could not have imagined that actor in that particular role like he did. In Ki and Ka we had to cast a few kitty party ladies and we needed Punjabi ladies for it. I auditioned some non-actors who I came across through a friend and when I showed him the auditions he had a blast seeing them and immediately confirmed them for the role. He is also very patient with the actors.
Arjun Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor Khan are looking terrific together in the trailers for the film,. Were they the original picks for the leads?
Yes, when I came on board, they both were signed already. In fact, Mr. Balki had not told me about the leads and had asked me to guess three names who I though would be fit for the male lead. Out of the three names that I guessed, one was Arjun Kapoor and then he told me that Arjun is on board. Once you see the film you’ll realize that Arjun was the perfect fit for the role. And Kareena always brings something unique to her roles. I am in love with her, with her beauty and spontaneity. She is perfect for the role of this outgoing fiercely independent woman. All of this has worked very well for the movie.
You’ve also had a long association with Director Prakash Jha. Tell us about the experience of working with him for such a long period.
Working with Prakashji now feels like working on a home production. There is an amazing comfort level working with him, a great rapport. I know the kind of actors he likes to work with. He is a hard taskmaster like a one-man army. His decision making is very quick – you show him something and he immediately tells you what he wants. His films are very different from the usual fare. They are hardcore, realistic and he likes those character faces. So it is fun to work with these two entirely different kind of directors.
How different is your approach towards casting for an action film like Jai Gangaajal versus a film like Ki and Ka?
It is fantastic that these are two different worlds. As a casting director this is a challenge and one should be able to rise up to it. What is really important here is the knowledge of the script and the characters because once you have a complete feel of it you can pull it off. But this is the tricky part and also a lot of fun. As a casting director it also helps to develop two dimensions.
You have worked on several big and ambitious projects so far. How challenging has the journey been to reach this position?
I would say that I was destined to be a casting director. I come from a very different background. I was an MBA student and when I decided to join this line of work everyone around me wondered and questioned my decision of leaving a cushy corporate job and a steady monthly paycheck. But I think it was sheer passion for cinema which brought me here. Though it was a huge gamble, it paid off and I am very happy. I started as an assistant and from there to be able to do a film with Mr. Bhansali and Mr. Jha would be a dream come true for anyone. God has been kind and I have also given it my best shot.
Prakash Jha’s films are hardcore, realistic and he likes those character faces
Any upcoming projects that you can talk about at this stage?
I have Sarabjit after Ki and Ka. I then have Rustom, which is a thriller set in the 1960-70s Bombay and then we will be starting work on SLB’s Gustakhiyan. Sarabjit was a huge challenge as a casting director because we brought in several actors from Punjab and Omung (Kumar) is a director who likes fresh faces. He also has encyclopedic knowledge of actors and is instantly able to recall actors from the smallest of roles from TV serials dated 10-15 years back. He is a chilled out guy and knows how to get the best out of everyone.