Rapidly cementing his position as Hindi cinema’s leading casting director since he established his own casting company in 2008, Mukesh Chhabra has cast for several prominent films and television series (while also building an enviable filmography for himself as a supporting actor). Chhabra was most recently seen in Jawan (2023), directed by Atlee and starring Shah Rukh Khan. He also did the casting for the film.
Chhabra’s previous casting credits include Rockstar (2011), Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), as well as streaming shows like Delhi Crime (2019), The Family Man (2019) and the Scam series (2020). He is the man who discovered faces like Sushant Singh Rajput, Rajkummar Rao, Sanya Malhotra, Fatima Sana Shaikh and Pratik Gandhi, among others. Chhabra maintains that anybody can walk into his office for an audition and they will be given a fair chance. “I’m looking for new talent everyday. I can’t keep repeating the same people,” he said.
Here are edited excerpts from his conversation with Film Companion:
What was it like casting for Jawan? What is the role of a casting director in a film with a massive ensemble cast like this one?
In Jawan, we have a huge Bollywood star and a popular director from the South. So I had a very big responsibility as a casting director. The director is from a different state, and he’s doing his very first Bollywood film. So I made sure that whoever I brought on board was a solid actor, taaki meri tension kam ho aur unki tension bhi kam ho sake (so that there are fewer points of friction on both our ends). That was my main objective. When we do films with ensemble casts, we include so many unknown faces. But in this film, I made sure that we have some familiar faces, from Sanya Malhotra and Girija Oak to Priyamani and Sunil Grover. When you do a commercial film with big stars, it is very important to pad it with a great ensemble, as well as add a fresh tadka (seasoning). When people watch the film, they will see the magic of my work.
Jawan is one of the first large-scale collaborations between Bollywood and South Cinema. What did you want to achieve with the cast?
We like so many actors from the South, right? So my target was that humare Bollywood actors bhi Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam audiences ko pasand aaye (that our Bollywood actors are also liked by Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam audiences). Both worlds should like everyone in the film. Bollywood audiences are now loving Vijay Sethupathi, so perhaps casting Sunil Grover in Jawan will introduce him to South audiences. It is very important to balance things, and come up with a cast that all audiences will like equally.
Jawan is one film, and should feel like it. Whoever watches it should feel like it’s their film: “Arey, yeh toh hamari picture hai!” (Oh man, this is our film!) It’s a Tamil film, Telugu film, Bollywood film. Regardless of language, it should feel like it’s our film. So we cast actors from the South as well as from Bollywood. You have to do proper research about who is popular where. For example, with Priyamani, people know her in the South and people know her in Bollywood as well, because of The Family Man. Girija Oak is popular in Marathi cinema but will look fresh in a Bollywood film. So you have to balance it like that.
How was casting for Jawan different from casting for other films in your career?
You have to work extra hard. Films like Jawan, Dangal (2016) and the upcoming Dunki take longer because they’re huge films that take a lot of thought. It took a year to cast for Jawan. You have to read the script, sit with the director, come up with your own ideas, share them with the director, conduct auditions, let the director get a sense of the actors — this back-and-forth takes a lot of time.
As a casting director, what makes a star?
I think a perfectly cast actor will become a star. If Nawazuddin (Siddiqui) wasn’t perfectly cast in Gangs of Wasseypur, he would not be where he is today. It’s the same with Rajkummar Rao in Kai Po Che (2013) and Vicky Kaushal in Masaan (2015). I feel like anyone can act. You just have to cast them in the right part.
Many people, from filmmakers to audiences, have spoken of the ‘Mukesh Chhabra touch’. What is the ‘Mukesh Chhabra touch’?
I don’t know. I keep hearing this phrase, and I always wonder what it means. I think when a director trusts me, I just give my hundred percent. I don’t think isko cast karna hai, usko cast karna hai (...I should cast this person or that person.) When I’m casting, I don't think about anything else. I always make sure that I’m helping to create the world of the director, because I don’t want to impose my world on the director. I listen to him properly and make sure that I deliver exactly what he wants. Whatever is on paper, I want to do something better. But it takes time. With Scam 2003 (2023), it took me a year and a half to find Gagan (Dev Riar). It’s very important to spend time on casting. I can’t cast in one day. I need my time and I need my space.
Do you feel stubborn or protective over your casting decisions? What happens if a director or producer doesn’t agree with you?
When I’m fully convinced about an actor and the director asks for more options, I get very irritated. Because I’m hundred percent sure they’ll go back to my first option. They’ll ask me to find someone else, and then six months later, they go back to my original pick because that person is perfect for the part. This is where my experience comes in. Once I’ve made my choice, there’s no point in going back and forth. I hate when some new director tells me, “Arey, pehli baar main kaise casting ho sakti hai? (How can you cast someone in one go?) You need to keep looking.” Someone who hasn’t worked with me in the past is really surprised by my method. It’s because I spend a lot of time thinking. I only present my options when I’m fully ready. I don’t keep sending options to directors. I do my homework. It’s part of the process and I like it.
What do you do when an actor doesn’t have a good audition?
When someone isn’t clicking for me, I instinctively know and stop the process. On the other hand, if I think an actor is perfect for the part, but his performance in the audition isn’t up to the mark, I will make sure I do a second round or a third round or a fourth round until he performs according to the brief. If my instinct says that an actor is correct, I will go the extra mile to push him.
With Gagan, who played Telgi, I rejected him at the first audition. I said no because his audition was really, really, really bad. But his face kept playing in my head. So I told him to come back after 2-3 days and do the scene again. He came back and did a kickass audition. But he was not physically right for the part, because Telgi was more heavy-set. I told Gagan to only eat and not work out for six months, so he would look the part. I need to be fully convinced. When I feel like an actor is not performing, like he got the wrong brief, he’s not listening or not understanding the role — I sit down with him and tell him to do or imagine things differently, go do research and come back. I knew Gagan was a great actor, and that if he gets the correct brief, he will kill it. It’s all about instinct. The day my casting instinct stops working, I’ll leave the job.
In this age of cameos and comebacks, what makes for a fresh and interesting cast?
When people use cameos as gimmicks, the film doesn’t work. A cameo should look like it is part of the casting. When people bring back Nineties actors, they use them as a gimmick. And I don’t like that. Like in The Night Manager (2023), I got Ravi Behl back. In Scam, there are so many actors who are performing after ten years. Because I think about the casting, not like a gimmick — bring this person back and it’ll become more interesting. When I cast Tigmanshu Dhulia in Gangs of Wasseypur, he looked like a part of the cast. A cameo will only work if you think of it as part of the cast.
What is the most difficult character you have cast so far?
Abhi tak toh nahi aaya hai, jab aayega toh bataunga. (It hasn’t happened yet, I will tell you when it does.) If you think of something as difficult, then it becomes more difficult. I keep telling people to challenge me. I want to get excited about my job.
And the most memorable?
Every character in Gangs of Wasseypur is memorable because that film changed my life. A lot of people said no to Delhi Crime, and Shefali Shah was the turning point for the show. I like to crack these things, like why is everyone saying no to this role? That’s when I went to Shefali and asked her to audition. The process was very memorable. So was Laila-Majnu (2018) — finding a new girl like Tripti Dimri at a time when people were not casting newcomers.
Who is your favourite director to work with?
So many — Rajkumar Hirani, Nitesh Tiwari, Imtiaz Ali, Raj & DK. And of course no.1 is Hansal Mehta, humara aisa tuning hai itne saalon mein (we’ve got a good tuning over the years.) I have to be true to everyone. I have to keep changing my thought process depending on which director I’m meeting with. It’s a very interesting part of my job. Because Imtiaz thinks very differently, Anees Bazmee thinks very differently. I have to go through different emotions in one day, and really think like the director. I channelise my mind accordingly. When I leave Imtiaz’s room, I don’t think about Imtiaz. I think about the next director I’m going to meet.