Hollywood might be flooded with horrifying casting couch stories after the numerous sexual abuse allegations against the powerful producer Harvey Weinstein, but it’s “nothing like that” in Bollywood, says popular casting director Mukesh Chhabra, who sat through auditions of about 14,000 girls for the superhit film Dangal.
Indian actors like Kalki Koechlin, Tisca Chopra, Ranveer Singh and Ayushmann Khurrana had also spoken up on the existence of casting couch culture in Bollywood.
So, is it really true?
“Not at all. I don’t want to get into the unnecessary controversy because it is nothing like that. There’s no point in discussing it,” Chhabra, who set up Mukesh Chhabra Casting Company in 2008, said.
What about desperate steps taken by struggling actors?
“They constantly call or send messages to me. I don’t blame them. It’s fine. That’s their job. Sometimes they get angry or depressed,” said the casting director, who says he even received threatening calls and messages a few years ago.
Asked how accessible he is to newcomers, he said: “Very accessible. Anyone can come to my office. It’s my job to meet and interact with new talent. I am surviving because of new talent and not because of stars.”
It takes a lot of time and energy to spot fresh talent. He has been doing this for 100 films and is still counting. How is it working with the stars?
“Sometimes when you are casting for a big film like ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’… Along with Salman Khan, you need to see the importance of a character like the one played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui or if you look at Amitabh Bachchan-starrer ‘Bhoothnath’, the kid was very important,” he said.
The importance of casting directors has also changed.
“In the last 10 years, there is a lot more respect. We are important part of script and finding talent,” said Chhabra, who had assisted in the casting for 2006 blockbuster “Rang De Basanti”.
Did he ever have creative clashes with a film’s director or producer?
“Clashes keep happening. During ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’, we (he and director Anurag Kashyap) had so many fights. He (Anurag) didn’t want Pankaj Tripathi as he had no idea who the guy was. But later, I convinced him,” he said.
“You can’t say ‘yes’ to every director, otherwise what’s the point of having a casting director?”
He had a similar argument with director Abhishek Kapoor while casting for Kai Po Che!
“Abhishek said Rajkummar Rao and Sushant Singh Rajput were not right for the film. Amit Sadh had left the film. Then I spent a few days with the three actors and auditioned them. I showed the auditon tape to the makers and then they got finalised,” recalled Chhabra.
To find the “four gems” of Dangal, starring Aamir Khan, he said it took him more than a year.
“We auditioned about 14,000 girls. It was a difficult casting to find the four gems (Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra, Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar),” he said.
Chhabra is now set to go behind the camera and call the shots as a director for the remake of the 2014 American romantic drama film The Fault in Our Stars.
Will he be more careful about casting actors as it is his directorial debut?
“I will cast the way it is supposed to be done. Casting good actors is my job. I will give my 100 per cent. I am not going to put an extra effort just because it is my film,” said the co-author of Moongphali.
While he has picked Sushant as the upcoming film’s leading man, he is yet to find its lead actress.