Meera Unnikrishnan has scouted for and found the most suitable models for roles in advertisements. Her job, as a casting director, entails diplomacy, she says

Casting director Meera Unnikrishnan had an Eureka moment when she cast her mother, Ajitha, in a television commercial for an aerated soft drink brand. “The director wanted a typical South Indian woman for the commercial and I couldn’t find one, who the director approved of, in Mumbai. Then I remembered I have a South Indian woman in my house. My mother.” Meera got her sister, Thara, to shoot footage of her mother, here in Tripunithura, and mail it to her.

TV commercials

The director found his ‘typical South Indian woman’ and Meera had done her job. The choosier a director the more difficult her job gets, she says. All that varies is the degree of difficulty, “but if a director wants a model…I make sure that I get one.”

Getting youngsters is the easiest, others are not easy. The last two-and-a-half years that she has been working as casting director she has found the ‘perfect people’ for more than 85 television commercials and virals. She started out wanting to be an editor (films), and studied film editing at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune.

Meera’s family belongs to Pattambi but has been living in Tripunithura for the last three-and-half years. Her father, Unnikrishnan, worked at the Army Ordnance factory in Pune. She completed her graduation from Vimala College (Thrissur), did a journalism course and even worked as a news sub-editor at a couple of Malayalam news channels before heading to FTII.

Meera, who was in the city on a holiday, chuckles, “ I couldn’t stand the loneliness of editing. I quit in three months.” She changed track and joined Mumbai-based film production company Footcandles as assistant director, where she was assigned to casting.

Some of the brands for which she found models include Ixigo, Britannia Cakes, Canon, Dell, Parachute Hair Oil, Mahindra, Chevrolet, Amul Body Warmers, Cadbury’s Silk and Perk, Complan Nutrigrow, Kellogg’s Special K, Kellogg’s Chocos, Hero Honda, Titan Raaga and Popy Nano.

Today she has her independent casting agency in Mumbai, which she runs with a business partner, Mohit Singla. “There are many people who do this in Mumbai. What matters is your reputation as someone who can deliver.”

It is a cut-throat industry with more than a lakh models, several casting directors and model/casting co-ordinators. Once the brief is provided, coordinators are contacted and the search for suitable models begins.

Apart from professional models and model co-ordinators, there is another category of models – random, regular people picked off the streets. As an assistant casting director with Footcandles, she was expected to scout streets armed with a handy-cam hunting for models. “Some of the briefs are such that street-casting is inevitable. A slim man with a paunch, a model with naturally curly hair (“not treated”), a man with a shaven head, a musician , a photographer …the list is endless. In commercials which feature mother-father-children families – the kid will be around eight or 10, the ‘mother’ is 22 and the ‘father’ would be 28.”

Model hunt

It takes a certain amount of persuasion getting regular folk to model. People might not take kindly to having a camera shoved into their faces as they rush to work or while shopping or just hanging out. Some are wary of potential scams. Most of these ‘model hunts’ demand diplomacy. For instance while she was looking for plump women for a slimming centre’s commercial.

“No woman likes to be told she is fat. So I told these women that we don’t want slim people. People in the Andheri-Bandra area are familiar with me now.” Once in a way some of these models back out in the ninth hour and then it is back to square one.

Do these ‘models’ go professional? Very rarely. “The life span of models of television commercials is very shot. Since there is more exposure, the models easily become associated with a brand and directors specifically ask for different faces.”

With street-casting, she has committed her set of faux pas too. Meera was street-casting in the vicinity of Prithvi Theatre when she zeroed in on a person who, she thought, suited her requirements. “I went up to him and asked him if he was interested in modelling. It turned out to be Chetan Bhagat!”

Films, at this point of time, are a no-no. The reasons she points out are that guarantees are fewer and the time taken is longer. For the time being she’s just enjoying herself.

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