Like many other films, an upcoming Hindi film Saand Ki Aankh, directed by Tushar Hiranandani, has stirred up a new controversy. This time it is over the casting of its main leads. The film stars Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar playing women twice their age. Those criticising this casting are arguing that an actor playing these parts should be of the age of the part. Considering how the machinery of Bollywood has continuously failed in giving certain actors their due, the criticism fairs well. However, making it a norm would restrict the casting process to just one approach.
Different films can have a different approach to casting; either based on the script and/or the vision of the director. Such is the importance of casting that it can make or break a film. In such high stake scenarios, the director must be clear in her approach to casting which can be distilled down to three abstract categories.
For films loaded with a humongous production budget, the makers need to attract the mass audience to recover its monetary value. The easiest way to do that is by getting a top billing actor to play the lead. It also works as a marketing hook to pull the audience in. This leads to actors like Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan to play an Awadhi speaking small-time thug and a swashbuckling bandit respectively in Thugs of Hindostan whereas Shah Rukh Khan gets to play a vertically challenged man in ZERO. These actors may not fit the part but they fit the project.
This approach isn't necessarily exclusive to big-budget films. It, in fact, has become a common practice to cast at least one top billing actor as a lead to attract the audience to theatres. It's the same reason we get Sushant Singh Rajput, Shraddha Kapoor and co playing 17-18-year-old first-year engineering students in Chhichhore. Whereas in Super 30, Hrithik Roshan with his handsome looks, tall stature and muscular body gets to play a real-life mathematician of an average built and looks.
But can we really blame the filmmakers to resort to such easy looking casting decisions? Especially when we have seen quality films like Kadvi Hawa and Manto – with formidable actors such as Sanjay Mishra and Nawazuddin Siddiqui respectively as leads – fail miserably at the box office. We can only wonder the fate of these films had it been Mr Bachchan instead of Mr Mishra or Aamir Khan playing Manto instead of Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
This is the approach the critics of Saand Ki Aankh are arguing for; cast an actor that fits the part. From the makers' perspective, it minimizes the production hassle like makeup, dialect, VFX etc. while adding a layer of authenticity. Such casting decisions are reflected in films like Gangs of Wasseypur and Little Miss Sunshine with its ensemble cast. That's why Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Manto is a great casting. The casting isn't necessarily done keeping an eye on the box office, but with an effort to tell the story in as much authentic and believable manner as possible. Taapsee Pannu in Manmarziyaan, Kangana Ranaut in Judgementall Hai Kya, Michael Keaton in Birdman and Mark Wahlberg in The Departed are just a few examples of casting for the part done absolutely right.
In some cases, it is about getting the casting of a pair right, not just an individual character. Do it right and you get results like Karan and Arjun from Karan Arjun and Raj and Simran from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Do it wrong and you get results like Bikram and Bala from Gunday and Kia and Kabir from Ki & Ka.
This is the riskiest and the most uncertain approach to casting. It isn't just about getting an actor to play a part to tell a story, but casting itself is a storytelling aspect. It can do wonders if it works and can destroy careers if it doesn't. It is the casting of a 28-year-old Anupam Kher to play a man in his sixties in Saaransh. It is the casting of an unknown Amjad Khan to play Gabbar Singh in Sholay or in Kamal Hassan playing a father-son duo in Indian.
Take a glance at cinema history and the wide spectrum of artistic choice behind casting becomes evident. Bicycle Thieves comprised of a cast of non-actors whereas Pather Panchali had a mix of film, theatre and amateur actors. Some directors explored the untapped potential in an actor by breaking the stereotype associated with that actor. This lead to the casting of a comedic actor like Jim Carrey to play a self-doubting introvert Joel Barish in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or a perpetual nice guy like Henry Fonda to play a villain in Once Upon a Time in the West.
This risk-taking can open new doors and push the limits of the medium itself. The prime example of this is casting a female actor for a male part in I'm Not There where Cate Blanchett played a version of Bob Dylan. This isn't limited to the world of cinema alone. On television, a successful Flipkart campaign had a cast of kids playing adults. Such is the conviction of some artists that we get non-white actors playing white characters in an epic theatre play titled Hamilton: An American Musical. All these examples exhibit how there are no set rules; no compulsory parameters to follow while casting a film or anything that involves actors.
This risk-taking (in casting) can open new doors and push the limits of the medium itself. The prime example of this is casting a female actor for a male part in I'm Not There where Cate Blanchett played a version of Bob Dylan.
Throughout the history of cinema, most of the progress took place because someone always challenged the statement, "you can't do that". It happened for cinematography, editing, music, distribution, etc. Casting is no different. With each new approach, directors and actors risk a great deal of failure. In the end, if they make it believable, it's a success; otherwise, a failed casting. We should criticise it when it fails but we should not curb their ability to take risks and introduce something new. Dictating that certain actors should get precedence over others for a certain specificity of the character would be ignoring the creative and risky nature of casting and restricting it to some mechanical boundaries. This would be limiting an artist's freedom of expression. We don't want to do that, do we?