Casting gets critical acclaim

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The care a director takes while casting mirrors his passion for his craft and cinema in general. Mukesh Chhabra is a Godsend to directors and you have to give credit to them too for investing faith in him. He takes time, is meticulous and extremely particular to the extent of arguing with the director to get his way. ‘Dangal’ is the first film for which I’ve seen and heard critics mention a casting director’s contribution. The casting of the many fringe characters is one of the factors that make the film riveting. Mukesh’s mobile has not stopped ringing.

This is not something you grew up wanting to do, right? So did you see this just as a business opportunity?

For some time I worked as assistant director and also helped the casting department. During ‘Rang De Basanti’ I realised people were not taking casting seriously. A lot of common friends like teachers at NSD also suggested the same. It started like that and now it has become a big job for me.

Initially were you looked down upon as a glorified junior artist’s supplier?

Not at all. For ‘Rang De Basanti’ a lot of college students were required so I scoured colleges and got them. I too never got that feeling.

Your father used to take you to plays rather than films. Was he passionate about theatre?

He is fascinated by theatre and loves it. He encouraged me to take part in plays when I was around 14. He would take me around NSD and to watch plays. Because of him theatre is a familiar world for me. He is very well read about playwrights and theatre personalities.

How much time did it take for you to convince directors that they needed a casting director?

I’m still fighting with a few directors about this. I think people understood after ‘Gangs Of Wasseypur’ which I did for Anurag Kashyap. He along with a few like Imtiaz Ali understood my job. Now after this ‘Dangal’ madness I’m inundated with calls. They realise it’s an important department in Bollywood.

You’ve worked with the cream of directors, but I don’t see the top commercial banners in your portfolio. Do you see that happening?

Yes, I see that happening. The kind of directors I’m associated with, like Anurag and Raju Hirani, need a lot of fresh faces since the content demands that. When there are many stars in the cast I don’t think they’ll need me. I also avoid certain films where I feel my services are not necessary. If you look at ‘Bhajrangi Bhaijan’ there was scope and a requirement for a lot of children and strong characters. Same with ‘Dangal’ and they’re both top banners. It depends on the kind of film offered. It’s not about big or small stars. I need to showcase my work. I can find and nurture fresh talent. What will I do in a film like ‘Golmaal’?

There’s this very brief scene in ‘Dangal’ where an arrogant official refuses Aamir a loan. Now I’ve been witness to mainstream filmmakers just summoning probably the production manager to fill in or whoever is free for such roles.

Correct. I totally agree. I was given the script and after we zeroed in on the girls, I wanted to know the atmosphere my actors will be dealing with. The actor must create an impact however brief the role may be. If you see ‘GOW’ or ‘Kai Po Che’ or ‘Hasi Tho Phasi’ I make sure anyone who appears on-screen must be an actor, but completely fresh. The connection with the audience is instant. Believe me, I auditioned around one hundred people for the scene you mentioned.


Yes, because he should look like a government official but corrupt. He should look like a smooth operator with a sly smile who’s talking even while eating. He should look like a villain but not the typical kind. There are so many factors.

If I’m making a film I have to come with a bound script to hire you.

Yes, a bound script and time. If you want to start shooting in 15 days I can’t help. A good film requires good time for pre-production. I don’t run behind money so I don’t accept offers where I’m given little time. I refused some films where the money was good simply because I want my work to be spoken about.

Did you hire the four girls who play crucial roles in ‘Dangal’?

It started with them. Only after zeroing in on them did we think of the rest because they were to train as wrestlers and are key characters. They should look similar, resemble Aamir a bit and should also act. I did a lot of searching.

Now Mukesh advises students at Anupam Kher’s acting school not to give up but pursue their dreams. He also has to tell aspirants at his office not to waste their time.

I’m very honest. An actor has a very sensitive mind. They come with a lot of hope and aspirations. It takes time to groom them, tell them to do some theatre and return. I tell them not to always look for the protagonist’s role. I sort out their mind and advise them that there are other roles too. I try to give them a reality check. I know how difficult it is to accept facts.

I was watching the qualifying rounds of ‘Indian Idol’ and there are these hoards of aspirants behind locked gates. Is that what your office resembles now?

(Laughs) Almost, yes. I’ve done about one hundred films and everyone now feels if good directors have faith in him we should go to him too.

Forget the fringe characters, you were able to convince Hansal Mehta to hire Rajkkumar Rao for the lead role in ‘Shahid’.

I’ll tell you what happened. Hansal was returning to films after a huge gap. I read the script and asked him why he was running behind stars. He should be a nondescript guy who people barely recognise. He was sceptical. I auditioned Rajkumar who’s a brilliant actor. It went on for ten days with different characters. I showed it to Hansal and he was bowled over.

Direction is your ultimate aim.

I still want to direct a film. I will be doing one for Sanjay Leela Bhansali as soon as I can wrap up current casting assignments.

It will be very soon.

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Printable version | Apr 22, 2021 1:49:01 AM |

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