He has worked on the biggest films of 2013 and already has his hands full for the year ahead. At 32, casting director Mukesh Chhabra has worked on films as successful and assorted as Gangs of Wasseypur, Kai Po Che, Shahid, Hasee Toh Phasee, Highway. One of the most sought after names in business today, the Delhi-born and bred casting director recounts what brought him here, his upcoming films, favorite directors and more.
When did you know this was your calling?
When I noticed the big wave of changing cinema - in the sense that content and characters were given more importance than the so called 'stars' - I knew the audience was ready to accept new faces, new talent as part of the silver screen. That I thought would be the right time for me to enter this field. I had worked at Theatre in Education (TIE Company), at the National School of Drama in Delhi, where I was helping filmmakers connect with actors, for their local Delhi schedules. I was 19 then. That is where my journey as a casting director really begun. I felt I would do a decent job introducing actors to directors in my own fashion. So I took the leap and went ahead with my instinct. I think I was destined to be here.
How do you go about the entire process of casting, connecting with aspiring actors? Have you ever approached someone randomly in a mall or on the road?
Yes, we do approach a lot of actors randomly. You cannot have inhibitions in this profession. Actors need you as much as you need them. Even in the past we've cast non actors in films. Fatka (child actor Irfan Khan) in Chillar Party was actually a boy we saw on the road. Many kids in that film weren't 'actors' per say, but once we did acting workshops with them, they did a fantastic job. So we do approach people randomly a lot of times.
Casting is no easy job. What's the toughest part about the process?
The smaller the role, the more difficult it becomes to cast. God lies in the details. Another huge responsibility is staying true to the soul of the film. Even the smaller actors should be relevant to the universe of the film. The authenticity of the script should be untouched and pure and that responsibility I feel, as a casting director, lies with me. That is the toughest thing to maintain according to me.
We've seen a whole lot of fresh faces in the industry lately. How has the process of casting undergone a change? Was it taken as seriously a profession few years ago?
Honestly, I don't think casting was taken that seriously before. It was difficult for new comers to approach the makers and vice versa. With the trend of casting directors coming in, the hierarchy has become easier both for filmmakers and actors. The kind of films being made now require good actors and fresh faces, relevant to the subject. For eg. Kai Po Che saw very authentic Gujarati actors, Luv Shuv Te Chicken Khurana had a Punjabi background, thus had Punjabi actors. So our approach changes accordingly. We try look out for actors who would seamlessly fit in. Earlier this may not have happened.
A film you wish you had cast for?
Bandit Queen [Tigmanshu Dhulia was among the first to have been credited as a 'casting director' for a film. Until then, directors or producers called the shots].
Which are some of the upcoming films you've cast for?
There is Bhootnath Returns, whose promos are already out. Then there is Anurag Kashyap's Bombay Velvet and Ugly, Raju Hirani's Peekay, Vishal Bharadwaj's Haider, Nishikant Kamath's Janpath, then there is Babbu Ki Jawani with new faces and Tevar which is very different for our style of work. There are many more to watch out for. I am lucky to have had such brilliant directors trust and appreciate my work.
Which director have you enjoyed working the most with?
Tough to pick one, honestly. Every film, every director is special. I adore Anurag Kashyap for the kind of freedom he gives me in my work, Rajkumar Hirani for being the perfectionist, that he is. He is precise and crisp in giving briefs. There's so much to learn from him. Imtiaz Ali is one of my favorites because he puts in much thought behind every character, making casting a fun, stimulating process. Abhishek Kapoor (director, Kai Po Che) is more like a friend. Work is fun with him. And Vikas Bahl (director, Queen/Chillar Party) and I share this mutual love for cinema, which is very inspiring.
Do you recall any interesting anecdotes while on the sets?
There are so many I can think of, but one such instance was when Anurag (Kashyap) and I got into a heated argument about casting Pankaj Tripathi as Sultan in Gangs of Wasseypur. Anurag wasn't in favor of the decision, but once I convinced him and he saw Pankaj perform he was as much on board as me.
Which has been your proudest work/film till date?
Each film and each director is special but I have special regard for Anurag Kashyap who's been my mentor in the industry. So Gangs of Wasseypur would be one of the most special films that I have done. Another film that's very close to my heart is Chillar Party. Working with kids is as fulfilling as people say it is. And it is because of Chillar Party that I bagged GoW.