In this new series, The Hardest Thing, Gayle Sequeira asks members of the film industry to talk about their toughest, weirdest and most challenging assignments.
The process of casting for a film isn’t unlike the beats of a spy thriller — a brief description is handed out, a long and tiring search ensues, travel to other parts of the world is involved, and finally, a team zeroes in on the man they’re looking for. Tight schedules and picky directors only make the job harder. Ten Bollywood casting directors look back at their careers to find the hardest film or role they had to cast for:
A Suitable Boy (2020)
Roshmi Banerjee (casting director, Kahaani, Criminal Justice): I had to cast background extras, which I had never done before, for Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy. We were shooting in Lucknow and for one scene, Mira wanted sadhus. I went to the temples and the local associations in the hope of casting the sadhus there, but the problem was that Dabangg 3 had released that year — there was a song that had Salman Khan dancing with sadhus, which had caused a massive controversy. The association members I spoke to said that the song depicted them in a poor light and so they would now excommunicate any sadhu who appeared in a film. Nobody was willing to appear in A Suitable Boy. I then thought of searching for ‘wandering sadhus’ who didn’t belong to any association. I found one, but he had so many lice and kept scratching his head. I couldn’t bear to even sit near him and so he wasn’t an option. I wound up just casting regular people with long beards. One of our makeup artists had dreadlocks so I cast him too.
The issue in Bollywood is that everybody wants to play the protagonist, they don’t want to play the people rounding off that universe. Even with Kahaani (2012), three big actors turned down the role that eventually went to Nawazuddin Siddiqui. One of them said, “Vidya (Balan) ke saamne mera kya role hoga?”
Madras Cafe (2013)
Jogi Mallang (casting director, Vicky Donor, Piku): Shoojit Sircar’s Madras Cafe (2013) was the hardest to cast. Usually, in a film, we cast all the roles from a pool of North Indian actors. But this was my first movie in which I had to cast from the South. Since the story is set in South India, we were mainly working around Chennai, Kerala and Karnataka. At that time, only John Abraham and Raashi Khanna had been cast and I had to fill all the other roles. I had to find a lot of actors and didn’t speak the language at all, so it was tough. There was a lot of roaming around and going to wherever there were theatres and acting workshops to find actors there. Because of my theatre experience I had some contacts, but it still took around two-and-a-half to three months.
Tess Joseph (casting director, Namesake, Extraction): We saw close to 4,000 children in municipal and government-funded schools across Maharashtra to find Saroo in Lion (2016). On any given day, we would meet around 200. We didn’t want the schools to shortlist any students beforehand, we just wanted to meet all the children. We didn’t do scene work with the kids, we’d play games with 20 to 50 of them at a time. These games were designed to first hype them up, and then bring them down to being completely still. We discovered Sunny Pawar during one of these exercises. He hadn’t done any theatre performances or any extracurricular activities but he was still so good. He had to pretend to fall asleep under his desk while the rest of the class was going nuts and making noise around him. I still have that tape of him, and he’s so quiet and so small that we all believed that the world had melted away and that he was really asleep. When you’re working with children as a casting director, you’re dealing with classrooms full of them. It’s hard to keep them focused and quiet, especially when you’re bringing in games. If you can’t find joy in working with kids, you should not be casting them.
Beyond the Clouds (2017)
Honey Trehan (casting director, Omkara, Udta Punjab): (Director) Majid Majidi was thankfully not interested in any stars, so he gave me the opportunity to cast whoever I thought was right. But, at the same time, there was this pressure of working with an acclaimed director like him. I wanted to cast people who were living in a lonely world, so I went to many, many old-age homes on the outskirts of Mumbai and met many old actresses who had failed to make it big. In one of these homes in Bangalore, I met the actress Sharada, who had played Jayalalithaa’s co-star in two films in her youth, but hadn’t been in a film in 38 years. She could neither speak Hindi nor English, so her daughter would translate what I was saying. I didn’t talk about the character, I just asked her about her life and her emotional state. I was interested in how well she explained her journey. She was hesitant to do the movie since she had given up acting decades ago. But she loved the script, and eventually after spending a lot of time with her, she said yes. I also visited orphanages to cast the children in the movie. I even auditioned beggars I saw walking down the street in Chennai and Bangalore. One of the young girls in the movie was someone I saw living under a flyover in Mumbai.
For Kaminey (2009), we were about to start shooting and still didn’t have a Bhope Bhau. At that time, the Thursday edition of MidDay had a column in which celebrities would give you the recipe of their favourite dish. I was going through it one day and saw a photograph of Amole Gupte sitting on a jhoola, talking about mutton curry. That image stuck in my head. I knew that he was Bhope. I called him, but since he was going through a hard time, he thought that someone was pulling a prank on him and started abusing me. He went, ‘Who the fuck do you think you are? Don’t you dare call.’ He really abused me left, right and centre but I kept calling even though I was scared. He finally called back and said, ‘Okay, I’ll give you 15 minutes.’ That turned into three-and-a-half hours. But when I told Vishal Bhardwaj about Amole, his first reaction was, ‘No’. He didn’t want people to think that we were trying to cash in on Amole’s Taare Zameen Par (2007) fame. I secretly gave Amole the script and asked him to come to the office looking as close to Bhope Bhau as he could. He walked in, dressed in white pants, a half-sleeve blue shirt with sunglasses dangling out from the front pocket, Kolhapuri chappals that were loud. Priyanka Chopra, Shahid Kapoor, costume designer Dolly Ahluwalia — all looked up and felt that Bhope Bhau himself had walked in.
Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010)
Atul Mongia (casting director, Lootera, Queen): Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010) was my first film as a casting director. I had no idea how casting was done. (Director) Dibakar Banerjee asked me if I would cast for the film 6 to 8 months before the shoot started. I didn’t have a team, didn’t have a system, didn’t know who to call or how to start approaching people. Casting directors usually have a database. I didn’t. Dibakar also wanted all fresh faces. There were about 50-60 characters and seven leads in LSD and his condition was that none of the actors should have done more than one or two films prior to this. So I just called everyone I knew — actors, directors, theatre people, film people — whatever limited contacts I had at that point. I cast Priyanka Bose as the journalist in the third story after I saw her at an ATM. She was very skeptical because she’d never acted before but she agreed to audition and got selected. Even Rajkummar Rao’s casting story was interesting. He’d been messaging me on Facebook, saying that he was an actor from FTII. At that point, I needed the number of another actor at FTII so I messaged him back saying, ‘Thanks for getting in touch, I actually need this other guy’s number. Can you help me please?’ He did help me and then said, ‘Sir mera bhi audition le lelijiye.’ I couldn’t say no because he had helped me out, so I met him and realized, ‘Wow, he’s really good.’ We did four to five rounds of auditions with him and he got the role. That other actor from FTII whose number I wanted? Rajkummar got his role instead. That’s serendipity.
There was a tertiary character in Titli (2014) who was very hard to cast. I met with actors for three months and (director) Kanu Behl didn’t like any of them. I got fed up and said, ‘If you’re not happy, you do it. I can’t do 50 auditions for a guy who’s just in one scene.’ I didn’t actually have a problem doing more auditions, I just felt like we had already found the guy. I finally put my foot down and said, ‘These are 45 actors, I think these 5 are very good, pick one of them.’ And he did and that guy was really good. Sometimes directors will keep rejecting an actor for a role, but as a casting director, you’re more objective.
Abhishek Banerjee (casting director, Paatal Lok, Mirzapur): The grandmother in Ajji (2017) was hard to find. We had to cast a woman who had to chop off a man’s testicles onscreen. And that wasn’t just suggested, it was shown. We needed someone of that age group who was physically fit because the role required a lot of running around. She also had to be a Marathi Brahmin, who didn’t eat non-veg. We spoke to many actors, those from theatre, those who weren’t that popular. Someone told us about Sushama Deshpande, who was doing theatre with children whose mothers were directly involved with prostitution. She was working with NGOs that helped women who had been abused and she was also in a play that had the same themes as Ajji. We didn’t even need to audition her, we met her and knew she was the person we were looking for. But she said no to the role because she was happy doing her charitable work and didn’t want to be an actor. It’s understandable, if someone calls you and says they want to cast you in a film about child rape, you’d get a little weirded out. There’s a lot of distrust that casting directors have to work with. But we explained to Sushama that Ajji wasn’t a masala Hindi film, it was a film that was personal and also necessary. We even booked her a cab to come to the office and meet (director) Devashish Makhija. After she met him, she understood what we were going for.
Anmol Ahuja (casting director, Paatal Lok, Mirzapur): Prashant Nair’s Umrika (2015) was an international film with an Indian cast. We had to cast an entire village of actors. We cast the adult actors first and then had to cast kids who looked like they could grow up to be these actors. We went to different schools in Pune and would just chat with kids to see how open they were to the concept of acting. We travelled around the whole of Maharashtra in search of a kid who looked like Suraj Sharma, but wound up finding that kid in Aram Nagar. He was crossing the road. I just yelled, ‘Excuse me!’ and his mother got scared. I asked if the boy was an actor and she said that he was in a Marathi serial. So I gave her my office address and asked her to come by. I forgot to ask her for her number but after four days, she did come to the office. Suraj did workshops with a few of the children who were supposed to play his younger self and we were trying to see if any of them matched him or if he could get himself to act like one of them. And that boy got finalized.
Prashant Singh (casting director, Trapped, Ghoul): A lot of films have given me pain and one of them is Daddy (2017). (Director) Ashim Ahluwalia is very specific about his brief. With him, it’s not about how good the person is as an actor, it’s about what that person is like in real life. Ashim wants the person to not act like the character, but to be the character. That person should also have the same looks and the physique as the character, which makes it very specific and hard to cast. Casting for Daddy was a long process — we had to find actors, talk to them, brief them about the role, test them, call them back so Ashim could see them. He wanted to test even the actors who were only going to say one line in the film. We cast a lot of non-actors because he didn’t want people who had been trained in a certain way. I tested 800 people from Dharavi. A lot of them were people who had acted before, but had given up their dreams. They still understood what we wanted, they had the basics, but they lacked the training. It was hard to train them because at a certain age, you get set in your ways and then you get offended when someone tells you to change them. Actors know how to adjust, but non-actors don’t put on a persona, they come as they are. If casting is a research and development process, I spent more time on development and training than I did on research for this film.
Mary Kom (2014)
Paragg Mehta (casting director, Bajirao Mastani, Finding Fanny): It took us a year to cast the role of Priyanka Chopra’s husband in Mary Kom (2014). We had to find a North-Eastern actor who also spoke Hindi. We tested so many people from Assam just for this part, but it just didn’t work out. Manipur has its own film industry and we also tried to get in touch with the people there, but some of them couldn’t speak Hindi, others didn’t want to star in a Bollywood film. We tried to cast A-list actors in the role but they didn’t want to do a small role in a woman-centric film. One day, I was at Prithvi Theatre and I saw a poster with Darshan Kumar’s face on it and thought of talking to him. He’s from Haryana but he looked like he could pass off as a North-Eastern man. I called him and asked him what work he’d done — the last film he had done was Tere Naam (2003) with Salman Khan. He also played Lord Brahma in this Hindi serial called Devon Ke Dev…Mahadev (2011), in which he had this long white beard. I knew it would be hard to convince (director) Omung Kumar to cast him if he saw photos of him in that show so I told Darshan not to talk about it at all. We did a test and Omung really liked it, Sanjay Leela Bhansali (who produced the film) really liked it. Only then did we mention his Mahadev role.
As a casting director, you keep stalking Facebook profiles. One day I saw this photo of National School of Drama teacher Robin Das looking into the mirror, holding a camera in one hand and a cigarette in the other. And I knew he’d be perfect to play Priyanka’s father in Mary Kom. I called him, he thought someone was playing a prank on him and said no. I kept calling back and after he said no four times, I got really angry and said, ‘What’s your problem? Just do one test.’ That worked. He was in his native village in Assam at the time so he travelled back to the city, which took him two hours, to film a test and then he sent it to us via WeTransfer. He was so good. We later found out that he had always wanted to be an actor but had to give up his dreams. Mary Kom gave him another chance.
Life of Pi (2012)
Nandini Shrikent (casting director, Luck by Chance, Wake Up Sid): I was hired by a casting director in the US for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012), to cast for the roles in India. We weren’t technologically challenged, but this was before everyone became tech-savvy. The casting process involved going to schools and looking for people who could play Pi, and that was challenging, but shooting the auditions according to instructions from the US office and then sending them across — that was confounding. They sent us notes like, ‘We can’t hear what they’re saying.’ That would never happen in an audition today because we’re so sorted with sound, light, how to send the tapes, how to mark them. Back then, the casting director from LA would also call me in 3 AM with instructions because they were still figuring out time zones. Now everyone is familiar with time in India and no one calls in the middle of the night. So it was a very challenging job because it was more about the technical difficulties than the casting experience.