Mukesh Chhabra on his recent casting finds: Dangal girls, Sara Ali Khan and Manisha Koirala 2.0
Casting director Mukesh Chhabra's claim to fame was the National Award-winning film Chillar Party, which was also Dangal director Nitesh Tiwari's directorial debut and Salman Khan's debut production. His association with both, and his keen eye for child prodigies, has stood the test of time.
He recently auditioned thousands of children across the length and breadth of the country for the role of Aamir Khan's onscreen daughters in Dangal and Salman Khan's li'll companion in Kabir Khan's period drama Tubelight, which was eventually played by Matin Rey Tangu.
"I look for spontaneity in child actors. Since they are fresh and innocent, they are also ductile and malleable. They can be moulded into the parts. But I do not believe in doing so. I cast as per the part so that children can be at their natural best and perform to their optimum capacities," says Chhabra, in an exclusive interview to Firstpost. He has given us incredible child talent in films like Kabir Khan's Bajrangi Bhaijaan (Harshali Malhotra as Munni) and the Bhoothnath franchise.
A large chunk of the credit goes to his democratic approach towards auditions. He believes that picking out talent from the masses offers both variety and freshness. "The purpose of audition is not to judge how talented a person is. It is just to check if they will look the part or not. That is why I often have to take look tests to convince the director that a person can play the part that he is written."
He recalls how the auditions for the four daughters of Aamir Khan in Dangal were the most grueling of recent times, in line with the actor's perfectionist streak. "There was one overriding criterion - they had to be good actors. All other fronts could have been managed. But I'm more than satisfied with our final picks. To be able to cast a Kashmiri girl in Zaira Wasim and make the audience believe that she is Haryanavi is an achievement."
While he believes that fresh blood should be infused into the industry time and again, he is also of the opinion that the industry is inherently full of talent as well. The burning debate around nepotism does not irk him at all as he gears up to give Sara Ali Khan her much-anticipated break in Hindi cinema.
"She was just perfect for her part in Kedarnath. We just finished a look test with her and I am amazed by her sincerity and commitment at such a young age. It is unfortunate that a talent like her was not launched much earlier but I am glad that she waited for the right script," says Chhabra, reaffirming that Saif Ali Khan and Amrita Singh's daughter is all set for a dream debut.
He is also excited at the current growth trajectory of Sara's Kedarnath co-star Sushant Singh Rajput, whom he introduced in Kedarnath director Abhishek Kapoor's film Kai Po Che four years ago. "I feel like a father to him, Rajkummar Rao and Vicky Kaushal. To see them carry films on their shoulders and also challenge the industry norms is a sheer delight," says Chhabra, who claims that he remains unaffected by the fact that it is the face of the star cast that takes the limelight and not the man behind the same.
"The idea behind casting is not just to introduce new talent. It is casting the right guy for the role. For example, I brought back Jugal Hansraj as a villain in Kahaani 2. The same case with Suniel Shetty in A Gentleman. So you need not necessarily look outside the window every time for the sake of freshness. Sometimes, it is the best to look into the rear-view mirror," says Chhabra.
One "re-introduction" that he is immensely proud of is that of yesteryear actress Manisha Koirala in Sunaina Bhatnagar's directorial debut Dear Maya earlier this year and Rajkumar Hirani's Dutt next year. "I had met Manishaji at a party a few days before I was briefed about the lead role of Dear Maya. When Sunaina told me about the character of a middle-aged woman who lives alone and is in search of love, I immediately visualised Manishaji. Her image from the party was etched in my mind."
The fact that just like her character she also belonged to a hilly area, helped her portrayal of Maya Devi. Similarly, her battle against cancer is an overlapping chapter in the life of the late Nargis Dutt, whom she will play in Sanjay Dutt's biopic. "It's a coincidence. I did not consider Manishaji's personal life story before casting her. She just had that grace, that sadness that Nargis ji is remembered for."
He admits that it was as much a challenge to convince her to play Ranbir Kapoor's mother as it was her to get Tabu to play in Shahid Kapoor's mother in Vishal Bhardwaj's 2014 film Haider. "I could not have imagined any other actress doing that role. But it is this conviction, along with heavily loaded content which can challenge these fine actors, that can get a nod from them."
Chhabra is glad that the say of casting directors has increased manifold. He is no longer merely a recruiter but also a stakeholder in how the film shapes up. "I can say it only as per my experience but casting directors are now taken into conference before finalising even the lead actors, whether it is a newcomer or an established star."
From casting in his maiden production to having a say in casting superstars, Chhabra has earned himself an enviable position. The prism through which he scouts for talent is surely the stuff that stars are made of.