He is rarely interviewed. Few people outside theatre, film and TV know who he is. But drop in a text to any struggler or a celebrity in the B-Town and they’ll give you his resume, a detailed one. A casting director is among the most powerful figures in show business, able to make or break careers. I guess Mukesh Chhabra was born to do just that in Bollywood, make careers of course. It was a Sunday. I assumed it wasn’t a working day for Mukesh but as soon as he stands in the queue to order his cappuccino, he starts to check out the crowd. He grabs his coffee and immediately points towards a bloke with long hair and beard holding a guitar and a girl, almost bohemian in look, enter the coffee shop. He scans them in a second and says, “I can approach them right now, tell them they have three weeks and prepare them to be the next big thing in Bollywood”. That’s Chhabra – calm, confident and calculative. There’s no book he’s got, no CVs, no photographs, just his eyes that can spot the best of the talent in the city. He assures me it’s what he calls ‘Organized Chaos’. I look at other people sitting around me. They have no clue what Chhabra will do next. I quickly take my Dictaphone out and hand it to him. The spotlight is on Mukesh Chhabra. Welcome to his mysterious world of casting.
Which is the movie you remember in Bollywood where, for the first time a casting director was called in?
As far as I can remember, it was for Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. Tigmanshu Dhulia had done it. He was assisting Shekhar but back then, there was no official casting director for a particular film. But I’ll stick to Tigmanshu Dhulia as the first casting director of Bollywood. He also did casting for Mani Ratnam‘s Dil Se. He got the credit for that film as a ‘creative casting director’.
And which was your first film as a casting director?
My first film was Chintuji. But there was a film called Amal that Richie Mehta directed. He was a Canadian director. This was six years ago. To be honest, I haven’t slept for the last six years. I’m not being sarcastic or funny. There is a lot of stress on my mind despite having thirteen assistants working for me.
But do you have a say in the casting of the lead or just character actors?
It’s both actually. When I did Gangs of Wasseypur, only Manoj Bajpayee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui were on board. The rest of the entire film’s casting was done by me and my team. For Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che, all three main leads were our find. And the most difficult task was to find the children for Chillar Party. On the outside it looks easy but it’s a tough job. We are here to make their career in acting and one wrong move can destroy their dreams. I take on a movie where there is more scope of a strong supporting cast with the leads.
What sets you apart from rest of the casting directors in our country?
I wouldn’t blow my own trumpet but I guess to a certain extent my own theatre experience where I was teaching the children the finer nuances of acting. I also did a diploma in acting for two years where I was a topper in my institute. That’s the reason I can pick out good rare talent through better auditions.
We are sitting in Starbucks where you get to see the youth in abundance. Do you sometimes instinctively approach them and call them for auditions?
I do not hesitate for a second to go up to the girls and boys sitting in Starbucks or Candies and call them for auditions. Most of the times it has worked. I am currently casting for two fresh faces in the lead for a UTV film – a boy and a girl. I have a team that goes to different places for hunting down the new faces. It’s a different high you get when you go out to hunt them.
Which is that one film you would have given your right hand to cast for?
I would’ve loved to cast for ApocalypseNow. What a dream casting. I would also cast for Fast and Furious, all the parts and of course my favorite, Love Actually. It’s sad to know what happened to Paul Walker from Fast and Furious.
Any of your favorite actors who you’d love to see in Hollywood from this side of the world?
I’d love to see Ranbir Kapoor and Nawazuddin Siddiqui together in a Hollywood film. I also think Rajkumar Yadav is so versatile to act in the West. These three can mold themselves in any role. From the actresses I have to be a bit biased but I would like to see Huma Qureshi and Richa Chadda. I have seen these two actresses in auditions and where they have reached, is a big leap. I am proud of the fact that I found them.
What’s the most difficult process in casting?
Meet the producer. Meet the director. Take the script home. Read it. Make your own notes. Take the script back to the producer and director. They give their brief on my notes. Then again go home. Make a new brief after matching my previous note and the new ones given. Then discuss the characters. Searching begins. But first have minimum of ten options for each character. Do the look test. Personally audition them. Come down to the final three. Then re-audition the three. Choose the one I think suits best. Take the tapes to the director. Director disagrees. Repeat the process (laughs).
How difficult or easy is it to take your mind off casting when you are sitting in a coffee shop or a bar lounge?
Trust me, it’s very difficult. I can only see actors in people. I can’t stop. I have tried it before but can’t. People have hobbies. I don’t. I need to look out for one now or else I’ll not even find a bride for myself (laughs). I dreamt once that Manmohan Singh isn’t our PM anymore and he called me so I could cast him for a film (laughs).
Forthcoming films you’ve done casting for?
Abhishek Kapoor’s Fitoor, Bhootnath Returns, Vikram Motwane’s Bhavesh Joshi, UTV’s next two movies, Nishikant Kamat’s Janpath and one untitled with him again. Imtiaz Ali‘s next, Anurag Kashyap’s next and Meghna Gulzar’s next.
Have any of your friends played a ‘casting couch’ bakra on you?
(Laughs) I wouldn’t tell you in detail but yes they have. Richa Chadda has also played a ‘bakra’ on me post midnight. You can imagine why I lack sleep now.