Shanoo Sharma, Bollywood’s most coveted casting director, on what makes her tick

On the difficulty level, getting her interview is next only to fixing an appointment with Aditya Chopra. On any given day she gets to see about 100 fresh faces eager to shine on the horizon on her laptop. The route to stardom passes through Shanoo Sharma, arguably the most imposing gatekeeper to Bollywood. At 34, she is the most sought after casting director in an industry always looking for the next big thing. Known for discovering the likes of Ranveer Singh, Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra, Shanoo is an enigma that every aspiring actor wants to crack. She is perhaps the only person who can make Aditya Chopra watch an audition on i-phone. “He has become used to my ways,” she says nonchalantly as we begin to talk after a lot of convincing.

After a stint with Sudhir Mishra and Karan Johar, Shanoo found her calling in Yash Raj Films. The banner was getting younger and had launched Y-Films to attract the young crowd. Shanoo went into an overdrive and came up with talent like Saqib Saleem and Saba Azad. Be it Zeeshan Ayyub or Swara Bhaskar, her knack for finding the right support cast is amazing. Not to forget her ability to look beyond the obvious. Like convincing Prithviraj Sukumaran to play a Haryanvi cop.

Her first casting coup, as she puts it, was to convince Sonya Jehan to play Ratanbala in Sudhir Mishra’s “Khoya Khoya Chand.” “When I saw a big poster of ‘Taj Mahal’ at a friend’s place I found my Ratanbala in Sonya but when I took the idea to the production team everybody said that I was right but felt that Sonya won’t agree. After all, she was the grand daughter of the legendary Noor Jehan. I said what’s the harm in calling her? I dialled her number and she was more than willing. I was appreciated for my guts and the ball started rolling.”

Shanoo describes herself as a restless soul, who switched many jobs before finding her true calling. Daughter of a restaurateur, who had friends in the film industry, Shanoo says she was never an insider. “I had just this knack for giving tips to friends what will work for them for an occasion.” Her brother Sameer Sharma (director of ‘Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana’) advised her to open a talent scouting agency when she was hit by an injury and was confined to bed. “He introduced me to Sudhir Mishra who was directing ‘Khoya Khoya Chand’ and was looking for some actors who will fit into the period setting. He asked me can I do it and I said it is a cakewalk!” A regular on the party circuit, soon she started casting her spell. It was here that she came across a 17-year-old Ranveer Singh. “The media was surprised by my choice but I knew from the beginning that he will be a force to reckon with. “The moment I saw the script of ‘Band Baja Baarat’ I told YRF, Ranveer is your man.” Arjun came to her through a Facebook request without letting her know about his Kapoor lineage and Saqib approached her as a model who was not sure whether he could make it — Shanoo has riveting tales to share. “The golden rule is, an actor can’t be a casting director’s best friend. You should have the guts to say no because your loyalty is with the project you are assigned,” says Shanoo who has just put Parineeti Chopra opposite Sushant Singh Rajput in YRF’s next biggie “Shuddh Desi Romance”.

Casting director is a relatively new term in an industry where producer and director used to call the shots. The rule was, once a character artiste was chosen to play a police officer, it was almost an equivalent to being appointed in the forces. The names of Dolly Thakore, Uma Da Cunha and Loveleen Tandon do come to mind but they were largely responsible for scouting talent for foreign productions. Then there were the likes of Tigmanshu Dhulia who saw it as a stepping stone to become a filmmaker. Now things have changed. Shanoo’s name appears on posters and opening credits. “For me casting is the most creative part of the filmmaking process because I instil life in the raw material and the industry is accepting it.”

Unlike many, Shanoo discusses the script with the director and rehearses with her choices, at times almost coercing them to bring out their best. “I can’t work under pressure and don’t expect it from others as well. I feel everybody should get a chance. I don’t insist on a proper portfolio. Any head shot taken in natural light will do. The medium doesn’t matter. Photos taken from mobile phones are welcome. My job is to figure out even if there is one per cent possibility of an actor becoming a character that I need I should not miss out. For every role I pick four options with the dates and leave the final decision to the filmmaker.”

The casting directors have become important but when not to the level that they have a role in casting Shah Rukh Khan or Aamir Khan in a film. “That is decided producer-director at the writing level. At the most my point of view is asked. But the way things are evolving, the day is not far when we would have a say in the casting of top players as well.”

She is quick to admit that the industry remembers only her right choices. “Nobody knows the instances where I messed up big time.”

The fame comes with responsibility as casting could be big scam as we see in the ad spaces of newspapers. “When we were looking for a fresh face for ‘Dhoom 3’, the word spread and some shady talent scouting agencies cropped up online asking aspiring actors to deposit money for audition. When I got to know, I called the guy in charge and threatened to take him to the police. From then on I put the message on my Facebook page with names of my assistants.” .

The charges of casting couch still abound the gossip columns but Shanoo says, with the advancement in technology it is very difficult to abuse a newcomer unless the person is himself desperate. “Anyway it can’t happen at the casting director level. It used to happen either at the producer level or the local talent agency level. Also, I can say from my experience that the problem of casting couch is much more prevalent in the modelling business.” Sometimes, she says, some aspirants do try to hit on her with messages like ‘I am feeling a deep connection with you’. “I tell Sameer and he guides me.”

Somebody, whose ultimate goal is to get married and have children, Shanoo says she has an answer for every cribber. “If someone says this industry is only for those who have a godfather, I tell the guy there is always a Nawazuddin Siddiqui to look up to. If someone says television will sound a death knell to his filmy ambitions, I cite the example of Sushant Singh Rajput. If someone says that he can’t make a comeback, I make it a point to tell him the tale of Ronit Roy. The best part about this industry there is no format for success. So do your best and leave the rest to the God,” says Shanoo quickly, asking if she doesn’t look like somebody who is a firm believer in destiny and God.

Of course you will find people who claim Shanoo has turned into a monster but Shanoo is eager to reason it out. “It is because I have stopped taking calls from unknown numbers. It had become difficult to handle. Now I work through assistants and see the photos once in three days but I do make it a point that every face passes through me. Also, the fact that only one person gets selected out of hundred that apply is bound to make tongues wag.”

It sounds dramatic but she says that she still stops at traffic intersections, pubs and malls when she sees an interesting face and asks one of her assistants to speak to the person and give him or her card. The other day, she says, she found an actress at a coffee shop.

With names like Mukesh Chhabra emerging on the scene, the clout of casting directors is increasing and Shanoo believes it is up to the individual casting director how he or she responds to the faith. “Like recently, an aged actress told me a casting director asked her to come from the look test and reading. Now look, test is fine but asking a seasoned actress to come for reading is insulting. You have to draw a line,” says Shanoo who recently brought back Jackie Shroff and Amrita Singh back together for “Aurangzeb”.

It is time to say goodnight and Shanoo turns for a rehearsal with a Bangalore-based actor over Skype. “It is a round the clock job.”