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The Role Call

Ensemble screenplays bring fresh faces and the casting director to the fore in Bollywood

The Role Call
The Role Call

Twenty-two-year-old Indore girl Neha Chauhan would never have imagined that her brother’s wedding video would prove to be her ticket to Bollywood. The aspiring filmmaker was shooting a documentary in Chennai when her friend, music composer Sneha Khanwalkar, called to announce that director Dibakar Banerjee had, on a chance viewing of the video, decided to cast the “sad, quiet” girl in his new film, Love Sex aur Dhokha (LSD). The reluctant Neha wanted to work behind-the-scenes instead. She started off by assisting casting director Atul Mongia, but one fine day, she slipped into the key role of Rashmi, a store attendant, who is caught having sex on CCTV camera. It’s the bold scene that turned LSD, and Neha, into the talk of the town. Overnight.

Who stars in it? It’s the standard question asked about any movie. However, if the movie in question is Dibakar’s latest cult success, it’s a tough one to answer. From the inventive camerawork to the intertwined narratives, the film, on the changing dynamics of relationships in an increasingly voyeuristic world, marks many departures from the regular. The standout aspect, however, is the filmmaker’s gutsiness in casting rank newcomers in all roles, leading or tertiary, and extracting a brilliant turn from each one of them. You can’t put a name to a single face on the screen but each of those faces lingers on much after the film gets over.

In quite the same way, the street kids—Soda, Cutting, Dedh Shana and Sursuri—of Irfan Kamal’s Thanks Maa tug at your heart-strings. Except for lead star Shams Patel (Municipality), the others are all real-life slum kids—Salman, Faiyyaz, Jaffer and Almas respectively—and they impart a rare rootedness to this gut-wrenching film on Mumbai’s abandoned children. “They do justice to their characters, and make the film real and raw. The audience feels as though they are sitting on that street,” says Kamal.

Similarly, a fantastic ensemble performance from largely unknown actors knit together the fine social tapestry and offered some outstanding office vignettes in Shimit Amin’s Rocket Singh—Salesman of the Year. Whether it was Gauhar Khan as the hard-nosed yet sensitive office secretary, or Naveen Kaushik as the sales manager with sharp sideburns and a sharper mind, they didn’t seem to be acting at all, just playing themselves.

These are not the only recent Bollywood films to have been invigorated by great ensemble performances—in Luck by Chance, Firaaq, Delhi 6, Little Zizou, Gulaal and The President is Coming, groups of relatively unheard-of actors have walked away with the maximum applause. For that matter, unknowns have even shone in big-star productions like Kabir Khan’s New York, in which Nawazuddin left far more impact in the minuscule role of the persecuted Muslim, Zilgai, than John, Katrina or Neil.

These are all signs that Bollywood is gradually learning the value of right-casting. It seems to be much more willing to look beyond stars for key roles, and is placing greater stress on getting the fabric and texture right for a film, rather than just focusing on the hero and heroine. “Every character onscreen, whether in the foreground or background, matters because the ensemble sets the tone for the film,” says LSD’s casting director, Mongia. As the importance of casting has grown, so too has the role of the casting director, whose job is visibly becoming more important and time-consuming. “It took longer to cast Khosla Ka Ghosla, Chak De! India and Rocket Singh... than it took to shoot them,” recalls writer Jaideep Sahni.

The real-life slum kids give a rare rootedness and believability to the affecting Thanks Maa.

For LSD, the casting process proved to be a back-breaking one for Mongia, himself an actor, acting teacher, script-writer and aspiring filmmaker, who also plays the heroine’s violent brother in the first of the three stories featured. Even background characters were chosen with great care. In order to cast the 75 characters for LSD, Mongia tested 15 people a day for three-and-a-half months, screened almost 2,000 and eventually auditioned close to 1,000. Some actors were picked off the streets—one was spotted at an ICICI ATM. Sandeep Bose, who runs a casting agency, got picked even as he was sending actors for audition, and found himself playing the flashy father of the heroine in the film’s first story. “The idea was to cast fresh, unexposed faces,” says Mongia.

In Thanks Maa, Kamal’s assistant directors auditioned close to 250 kids from Mumbai’s streets, rail platforms and slums. Of these, 50 were shortlisted. The five chosen ones went through a workshop for two months. “It was essential because the kids didn’t know how to read and write and needed to be guided on the script,” says Kamal.

In LSD, three actors were shortlisted for each of the lead characters, and they all went through a two-month workshop at Habitat Centre near Prithvi Theatre, during which they were asked to act out random situations and improvise scenes. Finally, one among three was selected for each role. For Chak De! India, the film that heralded the right-casting trend, casting director Abhimanyu Ray chose his hockey team from as many as a thousand girls. Since the film demanded both acting and athletic prowess, the inexperienced cast had to go through a tough acting and dialect programme and also a gruelling physical training and sports coaching programme, besides meditative sessions with motivational speakers.

Such processes are, no doubt, a sign of greater professionalism. They also reflect the demands placed on the industry by a new breed of films. When Bollywood was about standard stories set in standard environments with standard characters, casting was “neither demanding nor difficult”, Sahni says. Casting leads was a matter of concern; small roles were filled up at the last minute. “Now stories are set in specific environments which you have to create, and for that you have to go out there and do the difficult job of finding the right actors,” he points out. As LSD and Mongia have shown, it can be done—and with great panache too.

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