When I texted Mukesh Chhabra asking for an interview, he replied back saying he remembers me, thanks to my "unique" name. "…from Indian Express days, right?" it read. Next day, Chhabra was telling me about how memory plays a role in casting. "In Shahid, for the role of the mother, I cast an actor I'd seen in a play 13 years ago," he said. When I reminded him that it's 10 years of Gangs of Wasseypur – the film that changed his life – he said that for him it's 11. It took Chhabra and his team a year to cast the film's 384 actors (a number he is certain about). The hunt for the actors who would play Geeta and Babita Phogat in Dangal, both old and young, took longer; as did 83.
Casting in Hindi films is going through some kind of a golden age. Actors less known, or not known at all, have found unprecedented acceptance from the audience in a film culture driven by big stars. The rise and rise of streaming – fast tracked by the pandemic – has further upended notions of what works and what doesn't. Whether it is Jaideep Ahlawat in Paatal Lok, or Pratik Gandhi in Scam 1992, all names trace back to Chhabra. Shows like Tabbar and Aranyak – with their rich ensembles – bear the "Mukesh Chhabra touch". Today, it's possible to look at Gangs of Wasseypur as where it all began. The first part released on June 22.
Chhabra realised he is good at this when he found himself being able to deliver exactly the kind of actors – mostly children, initially – during his days in Delhi, where he grew up, when directors visited the city for shooting. (One of his first assignments was Vishal Bhardwaj's Blue Umbrella). "In the process, I realised it can be a very interesting job," he said. I was in Chhabra's Aaramnagar office, a kind of landmark for hustlers in Mumbai's film district, a place surrounded by graffiti that doubles as a showreel for its proprietor: Dangal, 83, Super 30, Gangs of Wasseypur, and one of his best finds, now gone – Sushant Singh Rajput. Chhabra's first and only film Dil Bechara was the actor's last film.
Chhabra was flying to Kolkata the next day. With new regional cinema projects on the horizon, he has plans to set up an office there. He has worked in two of the year's biggest films, Laal Singh Chaddha and Brahmastra. It seemed like a good day to look back. He spoke about why the Anurag Kashyap film was an important moment for casting in Hindi cinema, how it has evolved with streaming, and how online auditions have been a gift of the pandemic.
Yours is the first name to appear in the opening credits of Gangs of Wasseypur, which says something about your contribution to the film.
It was Anurag's (Kashyap) gift for me. He realised how important casting is. I think only Hollywood does that, where it is treated as a special department. I couldn't believe it when I saw it on the big screen.
Earlier casting work used to be done from Cafe Coffee Days. It was very informal. Actors didn't know where to go. People would stand outside Ram Gopal Varma's office, outside Rajshri's office.
What did Gangs of Wasseypur do differently in terms of casting in Hindi cinema at the time.
I think people suddenly realised that there are so many new faces. Manoj bhai (Bajpayee) was the only known face. Nawaz bhai (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) was doing small parts in so many films. The idea was to break the barrier in casting. Bandit Queen (1994) was my benchmark, the casting director was Tigmanshu Dhulia – I wanted to better it.
Earlier, people would cast from an existing roster of actors. They would google recent films and and cast the same 4-5 faces in the same kind of roles. In Wasseypur we broke that. Pankaj Tripathi had done small roles in Chillar Party (2011) and Chintu ji (2009), films I had done before Wasseypur, and his audition was amazing. Anurag wanted someone else in his role initially. Someone else had refused Richa Chadda's role because she had to play Nawaz's mother. Both Anurag and I thought of Richa because of Dibakar Banerjee's Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!. She wasn't getting any roles after that. Her audition was great.
It's not that you have to only cast new faces. Like how we got Rima Sen. We have all seen her in Priyadarshan films in the 2000s. But her casting in that role came as a surprise to the audience – that's how you can make casting more interesting.
Do casting directors have a say on the leads as well? Or is it largely confined to the supporting cast?
It depends. We got the three leads in Kai Po Che (Sushant Singh Rajput, Rajkummar Rao, Amit Sadh), and Laila-Majnu (Avinash Tiwary, Tripti Dimri). There are a lot of cases where the director consults us on whom to cast for the lead parts. But in a film like Wasseypur, who is the lead anyway? We discussed Manoj, we discussed Nawaz. I was working with Anurag for the first time and was trying to figure the Anurag Kashyap style. I realised that these are people who have been trained in the Satya (1998) school of cinema, they made Black Friday (2004). The idea was to create an atmosphere.
You are particularly proud of casting director Tigmanshu Dhulia as the villain Ramadhir Singh. How did such an off–kilter choice come about?
I knew Tishu bhai is also an actor. I had old ties with him from our Delhi-National School of Drama days. I told Kashyap about it. He said 'Very good idea, go to him'. I went to Tishu bhai – gaali dekar bhaga diya. I just kept the script and said 'Read it when you get the chance'. The way he speaks made me think of him as Ramadhir.
There is a younger version of him, for which we had to cast someone who looked like Tishu bhai. The guy who carries the umbrella. His name is Rajat Bhagat. I had seen him in a show where he did very good mimicry. He also had those holes on his face, like Tishu bhai. We spent time together studying how Tishu bhai talks, behaves, sits. I called him, made him stand next to Tishu bhai and sent a picture to Kashyap.
We worked a lot on these small details, that's why it took a year. There was a big casting team: Akash, Pavan, Satya, many people. Satya was eventually cast as Ramadhir Singh's son – tumse na ho payega. He was a casting assistant.
I was reading somewhere that Anurag gave you the freedom to do it your way after you proved to be right about a certain character. Which one was that?
You know the friend who talks on the phone in that chase sequence in the market? Murari/Guddu. We auditioned many people. Guddu was Anurag's right hand (sic) at the time. He was working in his office. I told him, he has the correct personality. Can I audition him? Anurag almost abused me, but then told me he fully trusts me. He had seen the way I audition people, he had seen my audition with Pankaj Tripathi. The thing about Anurag is that he trusts his talent. Very few people do that. My understanding of casting developed even more because of Kashyap.
Imtiaz Ali, Raju Hirani, Gattu, Nitesh Tiwari also trust me, and that's why they keep working with me till date.
Which are the most minor characters in Wasseypur you are proud of casting?
There are many, but when Pankaj Tripathi tells the police that 'Yeh Wasseypur hai', and someone is chopping meat in the background. He was our VFX supervisor. Then Faisal (Malik), the policewalla who keeps smiling. He was a production assistant. He was a non-actor. Now he has become an actor too and has a prominent role in Panchayat.
Casting is about casting right, right?
It's my favourite line and I keep using it: actors aren't good or bad, casting is. If I cast Nawaz bhai wrong, even he will look wrong. A lot of time goes in just thinking, rather than just auditioning people.
The whole job is how you see it differently. What people see, I don't want to see like that. The way I want to see is… how I can make this interesting. Like how we got Jugal Hansraj in Kahaani 2 as the villain. I was envious of the way Anil Dhawan was cast in Andhadhun.
Casting has evolved even more because of shows and films on streaming. Scam was another feather in your cap. Old, unlikely faces, like Mamik, Nikhil Dwivedi were surprising.
Also Anant Mahadevan, Satish Kaushik… Scam is one of my favourite castings. The story is a period story. So we wanted to get old faces. Hum deliberately uss zamaane ke faces laaye thhe.
Using the audience psyche?
Yes. There was a thought behind it. Hansal (Mehta) and I have so much fun casting. When you have a tuning set with the director, then you are in the game.
Is casting fun?
It is. It is also a big responsibility. A lot of people in this country still don't know that. It took us many years to get the respect. That this is a very important department. You will get bored if you don't have fun with casting. It'll get exhausting. I have lived my life in movies. All my memories… Mujhe filmon mein hi rehna hai, idharich marneka hai. Since movies are my life, actors are my life too. If actors weren't there, I wouldn't be here. Even if I have met someone 10 years ago, I don't forget faces.
I watched Aranyak recently and one can see how much the casting brings to the table.
A lot of people say that they can see the Mukesh Chhabra touch. That's my award.
You are credited to have streamlined the casting business in Hindi cinema.
Finding new talent is not that difficult. Because there are so many talented people in this country. It has always been like that. Just that there was no opportunity.
I thought a system was necessary, which is why I opened an office. Let's give it that respect. Earlier casting work used to be done from Cafe Coffee Days. It was very informal. Actors didn't know where to go. People would stand outside Ram Gopal Varma's office, outside Rajshri's office. Who is the person to meet? Ram Gopal Varma is not going to come to meet you. So ek banda chahiye tha. Now there are 3000-4000 people walking in to my office everyday. I've been lucky that in the process of being an assistant director and casting assistant I realised that this is a job that people are not taking seriously.
You were the first to set up an office?
Yes. Honey (Trehan) used to work with Vishal Bhardwaj. Jogi (Malang) with Shoojit Sircar . I was the first who wasn't associated with any particular director. All the new casting directors who are coming up, like Casting Bay, now have offices of their own and are doing some really good work.
What changed after Wasseypur?
A lot of actors were more confident that, 'Hum bhi Bombay jayenge'. Because the city also scares you. And so many people have made it so big because of digital now. Look at Jaideep Ahlawat; even before Wasseypur, I had cast him in a one scene role in Rockstar (2011). It surprises me everyday. When I see kids like Gagan Dev Riar, who plays the protagonist in Scam 2003, I am amazed by their talent. There are so many theatre groups, acting schools, workshops today. They have understood, ke bhaiyya, sirf craft mein kaam karo, kaam sabke liye hai. Even if you are an above average actor also na, you will get work. There's so much work.
As for the audience, they have understood that good actors means good content. You can see it in the success of a show like Family Man.
How has the pandemic affected casting?
Pandemic really helped, ask me why. Earlier, only those who would come to Bombay would get cast. But since the pandemic we started doing online auditions. The number of shows I have done in the pandemic I haven't done in my entire life. I have not met the actors, I have only seen them online. Coming to Bombay is not important anymore. Good actors can stay in their towns and survive. You remember the actor who played Moosa in Family Man? He was cast like that.