‘R Balki was convinced that only Neena Gupta can pull off the character of the grandmother in Lust

‘R Balki was convinced that only Neena Gupta can pull off the character of the grandmother in Lust

It’s been a fulfilling journey for casting director Shruti Mahajan ever since she came to Mumbai and assisted Yash Raj Films in the casting department. In her career spanning over 12-13 years, she has done casting for 50 projects. She recently did casting for R Balki‘s segment in Lust Stories 2 and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s web series Heeramandi.
In an exclusive conversation with ETimes, Shruti spoke candidly about her journey, her experience with R Balki and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, her selection process and many more.
How was your experience casting for Lust Stories 2?
I have done casting for R Balki’s story which stars Neena Gupta, Mrunal Thakur and Angad Bedi. I have been working with Balki for a long time now. And definitely over the years you develop a great working rapport, equation and understanding. I enjoy working with him because he is a director who likes to think out of the box. And he likes to experiment. I think that is very exciting and challenging for a casting director. He likes to get options which are not very regular, which are very different. It’s fun jamming with him. In his last film Chup also, you will see that the casting is very different and unique. He believes that storytelling has to be in a way that the characters should be very relatable. And we wanted to create a middle class, urban India. And that’s how our casting was. Be it the girl’s family or the boy’s side of the family. So it’s a lot of fun working with him.
Does he always give you a specific requirement or do you get the freedom to choose?
He collaborates. A trust builds over a period of time when you work with a director. You understand the director who believes in you and your experience and they know that you understand their vision. So he gives you a certain freedom and that freedom comes with a lot of responsibility. So in my case, I always feel that I’m more responsible when it comes to directors who completely trust in me and my beliefs.
What made you think that Neena Gupta, Mrunal Thakur, Angad Bedi were perfect fit for this particular segment?
When the script was shared, R Balki was like, ‘I need at least one quirky grandmother.’ So in one of our casting sessions, we came up with the idea of Neena Gupta while jamming. Her name popped up and Mr Balki got very excited. You always see Neena as this very sweet, simple, nice motherly figure on screen. And to have somebody who’s a very quirky, funny, cool grandmother, we thought that would be a very out of the box casting. And Mr Balki knew that the lines that were written were so Neena-ji. She has a certain style of saying a lot of serious things, but with her whole humour. And that’s what was required for a script like this. It’s a serious matter. It’s a subject. It can get into a sleazy zone if not delivered well. He was convinced that only Neena-ji can pull off something like this. And then, of course, what you see on screen, it just got translated so beautifully.
Do you audition or do look tests when it comes to casting such senior actors in a project?
It depends from project to project, actor to actor, director to director. A lot of directors have worked with these actors before. So they know how they are and they have a great body of work. But there are certain directors, like when I cast for Ram Leela, Supriya Pathak auditioned for it. So actors are very open now. They understand that it’s a process and they respect that process. If the director feels the need to audition or do a look test and we talk to an actor, the actors are very open to it now. And they understand that, you know, things are changing. It’s a very Hollywood style of work. So they don’t take objection to that. And directors also understand. If you have a very senior actor, you know their potential, you know their capabilities then they also feel it’s not necessary to audition them. So, I think it’s an understanding and also a requirement, which both the director and actor understand.

How was your experience with Sanjay Leela Bhansali?
I have worked with Mr Bhansali from Ram Leela. I just feel that I have learned so much from it. Ram Leela was my first film as a casting director, as an independent casting director. So, I have grown with him. And when you grow with somebody with a certain production house as a director, you develop a great bond, which I have created over a couple of years now, 10-11 years I’ve worked with him. So, there is a great respect, understanding and we also have similar working ethics. I think that’s really important. I understand what he wants. I understand his style of working. He gives me that freedom, that freeway like while casting for Gangubai Kathiawadi. And you see the casting in Gangubai is very different from his previous films. So, casting for Mr Bhansali is always fun and challenging and I look forward to it because he is such a perfectionist. And he has a Bhansali world. He likes to create films that are larger than life. His casting is also larger than life. And he also has very strong women characters in his films other than the lead. His expectations for each and every film for me actually just grows. Now what next? So, for me as a casting director, I’m like, ‘Oh, bring it on. Let’s have more fun.’ And he will not be okay with anything that you give him. He has his style. He pushes you but does not make you feel that you are being pushed. So, that’s his beauty. He understands how I work. I understand how he works. I have tremendous respect for him. And over the years, he also has a certain belief and trust in me, which I always want to live up to.
For Mr Balki also, I feel it’s fun because when you work with certain directors for a long period of time, it’s a beautiful bond that you create. And that bond now makes you give your more than 100% because they develop such a trust factor in you that you don’t want to let them down. And they also see that you’re giving your 100% or maybe more. They always see that I am there. They see me hands on with my casting. They see I get so involved more than casting. I also try to give my input on a certain character while reading the script because casting is one department which comes in the scripting stage and then casting comes in. They always respect my input. I also think like an audience. So they like that input. They take that input very positively. The feedback that is given, they try to sit with me, understand why I said such a thing. I get involved in the whole process of making a great film. It becomes like your own baby and you want to nurture it. You want to protect it. You want to give your best.
What kind of process do you follow while casting for a character?
It starts with getting the script. And after reading the script, I make my points. I make my notes. And then I met up with the director. The director gives his vision, his input. And I give my input, how I feel about a character. And then the process of shortlist, audition, presentation, all of that starts. And then most of the time it’s through auditions. Then we try and get the right person as per the requirement, age requirement. There’s a language requirement. There’s a particular physical requirement. So keeping all those things in mind, auditions happen and the best man or the woman wins.
How easy or difficult is it for you to choose a certain actor for a particular character?

It’s like asking a doctor, how do you cure a disease. (laughs) When you’ve worked for 12 years, casting is at the back of your mind. It’s something which is second nature to you. I enjoy casting. I don’t see this as a pressure. I always see it as a challenge. And I love challenges. Every project I feel is so new to me, fresh to me. And it’s like bringing it on kind of a feeling. Every new script that comes to me, I love the smell. I never tell them to send me an email. I like a bounded copy. Because it’s fun to get a new script. I keep collecting it. So there’s one shelf in my workplace, which has only scripts. And every time I look at my shelf, (I get) that feeling of, you know, this is what I have created. So casting is something that I really enjoy. I enjoy it, I look forward to it.
So you go with your instinct?
I go with my instinct. And there’s a process. And in that process, there is a certain instinct and a gut that works. There is also your memory. I feel as a casting director, your memory has to be very sharp. You have to remember the actors. You have to remember faces. So it’s a little math and a little instinct, which is unexplainable. So there is a formula and there is something that doesn’t work with the formula. It’s a mix of both. So there are so many times when an actor walks in and you feel, ‘Oh, I don’t think that person will be able to.’ You might just think because you’ve seen their body of work earlier and you think, ‘Oh, maybe that person might not be.’ But they get something so different on the table that it just blows your mind. And then you take it to your director and you tell your director that I saw something very unique. And that’s where the director believes in your vision, your gut, your experience. And they say, ‘Let’s do this next round. Let’s do something. I have never seen a character like this.’ Like when Jim Sarbh was cast for Padmaavat, his audition was so mind blowing, that you just think, ‘Oh, my God, this is it.’ You know an actor has got something very unique to that character. So that’s what I feel is where the formula doesn’t work.
When you reject actors, and they request you to audition them more, how do you respond to such situations?
Yes, they do request. And as a casting director, it is my duty to address a certain request. So my team and I always make sure that we don’t feel like people feel rejected. That’s the least we can do as human beings. But most actors understand the process now. There are very few actors who don’t. And if I feel like an actor really feels rejected, then I’ll be sitting with them, it’s like counselling them, making them understand what went wrong. And one has to just go by what has happened and one has to respect the process.
We have often seen actors getting replaced after getting finalised…
Filmmaking is an ongoing process. While it happens, we always tell the actors that it’s an ongoing process. Maybe we’ve auditioned, we’ve cast you, but while the script is still developing, the character might change. Maybe we had cast you thinking in mind, maybe the requirement was a certain physical type, but that physical type has not worked. And maybe in a look test, when we see there is no chemistry happening. Ultimately, we all have one common goal, that is to be true to the script. And if the script requires a certain other actor, then it makes no sense that we cast somebody and then we realise midway that we’ve gone wrong. If a script requirement is not being met, then everybody is being unfair. So actors should understand how we cast you. There are times when we are not able to cast you because of the change of script requirement.
So they always get clarity about why they are getting rejected?
We let them know. We tell them. They might feel rejected, dejected, but we are in a creative field and in that creative field, nothing is by the rule, by the book. It’s an ongoing process. Like you do painting, something happens in your mind during painting, but when you start painting on a canvas, you realise that no, it’s not shaping up the way, this is not what I want. I have to change. When you sing, you realise that this is not the right note. You might have learned something, but that note is not right, so you change it. You improvise it somewhere. So similarly, filmmaking is also a form of art.
Do actors hold grudges at such times?
I am sure human beings have such grudges. No one speaks openly. Honestly, you tell them and you make them understand. Nobody has an agenda here. We are all here trying to make good cinema. What happens is something which is very different. But at least we all as a team try and give our best. Nobody wants to make a flop film. Everybody wants to make a good, meaningful, fun, interesting, exciting story.
How do you feel when some projects are not so successful?
It’s heartbreaking when it doesn’t work. Especially when you see so much hard work, effort, what happens behind the scenes. It’s like so much labour of love goes into every project. And when it doesn’t do well, it’s heartbreaking. It’s really heartbreaking. And of course, when it’s successful, then everybody basks in the success. Everyone’s idea is to make a good, successful film. But yes, destiny is something else.
How did this profession happen to you?
This profession happened to me around 12-13 years back. I come from a corporate background. I did my MBA, HR and then got campus placement with the multinationals. I worked there, but very soon I realised that I’m not a 9-to-5 person. I have too much storytelling in me. From school and college, I’ve always been very active in performing arts and drama. When I went to Delhi for my further studies, I realised that I enjoy backstage more. In Delhi University, drama theater is very active. I was in Lady Shri Ram College and that’s where I got an exposure backstage, behind the camera. I think that’s where it just started for me. But coming from a typical Indian family where they say, ‘Padhoge likhoge banoge nawab.’ So I had to have a degree. I made everybody in the family very happy. And now that you have done everything, got my bank balance and they were like, ‘Jaa Simran jaa jee le apni zindagi (laughs).’ For me, it was all filmy in fact. I actually went to YRF and said that I want to get into casting. Because I have done HR in MBA, which is very similar. I knew that I enjoyed that process of scouting, of getting the right people in the right field. And I assisted at YRF in the casting department. And I worked there with a lot of dedication and passion in casting. And then one fine day I got a call from Mr Bhansali’s office that he is looking for a new casting director for his film. And that’s when Gangubai was offered to me. Now I’ve done 50 projects. I was convinced that I am not made for corporate but I am made for filmmaking.
So basically, you didn’t face any problem?
(laughs) I mean, I’ve made it sound very sweet and simple. But you know, you work hard, leaving a well-paid comfortable job, and taking that leap of faith, whether you will make it or you will not make it. That’s the big question mark. I was an assistant. I had no salary. There was nothing. But ek conviction tha ki nahi mujhe yahi karna hai. I did secure myself. I said to myself, ‘Agar maine do saal nahi bhi kamaya, toh bhi I’ll be safe enough, I’ll be secure enough to follow my heart and my dreams.’ It was a well thought of decision and I always knew that even if it doesn’t work out, I can fall back on a nice corporate job. Because honestly, when you shut one door, only then the other opens.
Are your parents now happy with what you’re doing?
Yeah, they are happy because I am happy and my parents honestly still don’t know what I do (laughs). They are in Jaipur, they see my name on a screen and they’ll be like, ‘acha casting.’ Till date they think ‘casting to director karta hai toh tum kaunsi casting director ho.’ And I like that purity. I like the fact when they come to Bombay and they meet actors once in a while and they are warm to my mother, and they’ll be like, ‘Aunty aapki daughter hi meri casting karti hai.’ My mother is like, ‘Acha yeh kya cast karte hai?’ with a question mark on her face (laughs). I love that. I love that feeling that I’m still the baby of the house and I can still get away with all the nonsense. Yeah, so for them nothing changes. They are just happy that I am happy and I can take care of myself. My parents always wanted me to be financially independent. And yeah, I mean, whatever you do there should be a lot of respect for your work and people should respect you.
Do you think casting directors don’t get enough due credit?
Yes. I see that casting has become better over the years. It’s become more organised and people are recognising production houses, actors, everybody is recognising the importance and it’s becoming a more respectable job with nice casting directors coming in. Jo pehle jaisa hota tha, abhi bhi hai but at least now you know there are certain people with good intention, right style of working. It has got dignity to this job. So I feel things are getting better. But yes, we are still in the process of being an organised sector. And I think once we are a little more organised, our casting job will be more acceptable and recognised by people. And we will get our due credit.
Do you have any plans to get in front of a camera?
No, I don’t want to be an actor. 100% that is something which I got to know very soon when I was in college (laughs). I started to enjoy behind the scenes more than I enjoy being on the stage. I like to be a private person, but yes, I definitely would want to expand. There are stories that I would like to tell. So I definitely see a producer in me.

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