When the trailer for Hansal Mehta’s Netflix series Scoop dropped two weeks ago, only the most diehard Bollywood fan would have recognised that the stern-faced senior cop was being played by an actor who had briefly in the 2000s been pitched as the next Hrithik Roshan — Harman Baweja. Baweja was launched with fanfare in Love Story 2050 (2008) and went on to have a brief and unsuccessful run as a hero. He chose to put acting behind him and settled into the role of producer. His first appearance as an actor in almost a decade comes in Scoop, and he is, as Mehta put it, “a revelation”. Casting director Mukesh Chhabra and Mehta are now both claiming credit for casting Baweja. Mehta told Film Companion he’s the one who thought of casting Baweja while Chhabra, Baweja and Mehta were in a meeting, casting for another one of Mehta’s projects. Chhabra’s story is much the same, only he says the idea was his. “I was working on the casting of a film which is being produced by Harman Baweja,” said Chhabra. “I met him twice and I remember being impressed by his personality. And that’s when I began to wonder why he stopped acting.” Chhabra then floated the idea to Mehta, who was very excited by the choice, and Netflix was even more excited. “I called him [Baweja] in for an audition and we spent a couple of hours together. It’s important to be mindful that when someone like him is coming back to acting, they need the extra confidence,” said Chhabra.
“I think the moment the pressure of box office goes, one automatically becomes more adventurous in the casting. It gives us a free hand,” said Abhishek Banerjee, actor and co-owner of Casting Bay, one of the most high-profile casting agencies in Hindi entertainment. Banerjee was responsible for casting Sanjay Kapoor in Dibakar Banerjee’s segment in Lust Stories (2018), where he shares the screen with Manisha Koirala and Jaideep Ahlawat. He said the idea came from the director, but also remembers being excited at the thought. “The idea is to remind you of these faces, but also make you instantly forget by giving them something completely new to do,” he said.
Like in the case of Shanker Raman’s Love Hostel (2021). In the first scene, we see a bearded Bobby Deol dispassionately looking at a video recording of a couple he’s about to kill. Deol’s Dagar is trusted with the job of hunting down couples who have eloped and bringing them to “justice”. Dagar’s face is visibly scarred and his dialogue delivery has the directness of someone who has been doing this for a while. He’s nothing like the roles Deol played during his ‘hero’ years in the Nineties. Since then, Deol has been seen in a range of unusual projects, from playing the role of a fraudulent godman in a web series called Ashram to appearing in multi-starrers like Race 3 (2018) and Housefull 4 (2018). Few would have thought of him playing a vigilante who echoes Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men (2007). It’s one of the most inspired choices in Raman’s film.
The idea of casting Deol came to Raman from his producers Red Chillies Entertainment, who were working with Deol in Atul Sabharwal’s Class of ‘83 (2020). “I was quite pleasantly surprised by how perceptive he (Deol) was about what the film stood for, and what his character within it was,” said Raman. “He wasn’t so much bothered by his own screen-time, but he wanted it to be as fully realised as possible” The writer-director soon realised Deol was extremely passionate about his craft (which might not be anyone’s first takeaway if they’re familiar with Deol’s filmography in the late 2000s).
In many ways, the OTT explosion has meant comeback season for yesteryear actors. Pioneering the trend was Chhabra — who became a sensation within the Hindi film industry after he cast filmmaker Tigmanshu Dhulia as the main antagonist in Anurag Kashyap’s two-part magnum opus Gangs of Wasseypur — when he was casting the supporting parts in Mehta’s Scam 1992. From Shadaab Khan playing broker Ajay Kedia, Nikhil Dwivedi as a scheming banker, Anant Mahadevan as a morally-conflicted governor of the Reserve Bank of India, K.K Raina and Mamik Singh (Singh is best known to an entire generation as Ratan from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, 1992) – every choice in Scam 1992 is unexpected and feels perfect. It almost feels as the performances, particularly those by Khan and Dwivedi, seem to draw upon the actors past experiences, the ruthlessness they faced in their careers when struggling to be heroes. Explaining his strategy behind the cast of Scam 1992, Chhabra said, “Since it was a period show set primarily in the Eighties and Nineties, I seeked out all these faces we knew in the Nineties. The moment you see their face, you’ll automatically be transported to that decade. We thought that the more faces you associate with the decade, the more authentic the era will seem.”
Prashant Singh, the man responsible for bringing back Aashiqui actor Rahul Roy in Kanu Behl’s recently-premiered film, said it helps that more directors now pay attention to the supporting cast in a web series. “In any show, you’re casting 100-150 parts, so the overall demand for actors has really shot up. How many times will you mix and match the same faces in different shows?” he said. Singh also pointed out that life experiences have helped many older actors deliver more compelling performances, compared to the rawness that characterised the actors in their early 20s. “A lot of them – now in their 40s, 50s – probably have a better sense of craft. They’re also probably in a spot where they are willing to push the envelope,” he said. For example, Roy, who reportedly signed 40 films in a few days after his supremely successful debut in Aashiqui (1990), has been in the wilderness in recent years. In Agra, he plays a man whose best days are behind him. “We wanted a man who had a good grip on his life at one point. He used to be charming, outspoken, he was able to keep up the pretence of a ‘happy family’ while also having an affair. But these are now things of the past, and he’s slowly starting to get left behind. We wanted that glorious past to reflect in his face, which made his current circumstances all the more hard to digest. We wanted someone who would be able to communicate the man’s freefall,” said Singh. The parallel between real and reel was not lost on him. In fact, according to Singh, Roy was all the more excited because of it. “He fully submitted to our process, participating in workshops for 8-10 hours daily over four months,” said Singh.
According to Banerjee, casting yesteryear actors can also help clear deeply-held prejudices. “A lot of actors coming back, I hear them say how they never had opportunities in their heyday. I’m pretty sure even when Bollywood was at its peak in the Nineties, there were actors who probably wanted to do something different,” said Banerjee. Chhabra said he looks out for people he’d like to cast present-day projects when reading old newspaper stories, or while watching a song from an old film or an interview from the past. “This actor Harish – he would appear in many Govinda films in the Nineties, especially in Coolie No. 1 (1995) – currently, his face is floating in my head. I also want to cast Sudesh Berry, Mukesh Khanna, Mushtaq Khan,” he said.
Banerjee described coming up with a totally unexpected face for a character as a “flex” on part of a casting director. “As much as we’re workers in cinema, we’re also enthusiasts of cinema. We’ve grown up watching the films,” he said. Calling up bhajan singer Anup Jalota for the part of a corrupt, sleazy UP politician in Paatal Lok might have been the best decision of his casting career. “We do it for fun sometimes. It doesn’t always mean something. It’s a great shock value, they bring an element of surprise,” said Banerjee. However, such decisions run the risk of coming across as gimmicky. Chhabra and Singh said it’s the job of a casting director to make sure a familiar face they’re bringing back will add value to the script. Chhabra said he waited two years to cast Ravi Behl – former actor and best known for judging a dance reality show, Boogie Woogie – and the perfect part for him turned out to be in the Indian remake of The Night Manager.
Banerjee acknowledges the privilege he enjoys today which many predecessors in the casting business probably didn’t have. “Or it’s also maybe a younger generation telling an older Bollywood – to stop stereotyping, and start imagining. That’s the whole point of a casting director – to move away from stereotyping an actor,” he said. Raman stressed the importance of trusting oneself over odd choices. “If you step away from prejudice, you can explore and I think that’s what gives the film an edge,” said Raman. “It’s not what you know [about filmmaking], but what you’re willing to discover.”