Abhishek Banerjee and Anmol Ahuja are among the youngest casting directors in the industry, receiving applause for their work in the recently released Secret Superstar. The duo talk to us about their process and journey
What was the first brief you guys received for the entire casting of Secret Superstar?
Abhishek Banerjee (AB): We were told to cast a simple, small-town, middle class family. That was the first brief. And, of course, good actors. The challenge was finding simplicity in each character. Even the evil dad had to come across as human. He is caught in the cobweb of a patriarchal society.
The script must have called for an actress who could sing.
Anmol Ahuja (AA): Yes, it did. We looked for them but, you tell me, how many parents in India allow their kids to both sing and act? ‘Padhai kaun karega?’ It is unfortunate that we don’t promote talent in our kids at home. That’s why actors like Zaira (Wasim) and Tirth are special. Because they rise above all the challenges and create magic on screen.
Tell us about how you cast each actor.
AA: Zaira was already doing workshops for Dangal, Aamir sir must have noticed the actor in her and recommended her name for Insia. The moment we took her audition, we knew we had our Insia. Our director Advait and our team were excited. There was another girl but she couldn’t match that spark.
The most difficult casting was for Chintan’s character. We auditioned a lot of kids in Mumbai, but everyone lacked the innocent charm of a 14-year-old. The character is Gujarati and it was only natural to extend our search to Gujarat. We found Tirth in Ahmedabad, where he came to audition from Baroda. I think it was love at first sight, we knew he was our Chintan and I also remember clicking a photo of him from the audition and sending it to Advait, all excited.
We then followed Tirth to Baroda to meet his theatre teacher and friends in class in the hope of finding more options but there were no more Chintans. He almost became our casting intern there, helping us with more options and showing us his dance moves. This guy has a clean heart. We needed that.
AB: Well, we saw some great performances in the audition room for Najma. Each had a different take on the character. Those were intense auditions. We couldn’t ignore the uncanny resemblance Meher Vij had with Zaira. As an actor, Meher is very spontaneous and she shared a friendly vibe with Zaira in the joint screen tests. We were looking for a friend in Najma. Meher was that friend.
Raj Arjun had already been auditioned for one of the parts before we joined the film, though the scene work in that audition was not satisfactory for Advait. When we came in, we auditioned Raj Arjun again, with different scene work. Again, it was difficult to choose between some really good actors but Raj had that casual violent streak.
We had cast Kabir in a TVC, and we knew we had found a star. He is one of the best actors I have seen. He can do just about anything. All you have to do is give him a role and he will mould himself to it.
Nowadays, kids are very mature. How do you manage to keep the innocence alive while they are auditioning?
AB: We used to become their friends, talk about their life in general. Some would talk, some would dodge but most importantly they got comfortable with us. We need to assure them that this is not a judging room.
How do you go about conducting auditions?
AA: Very basic and simple – understand the script, talk to the directors about each character, use our imagination to add layers to the character, shortlist a few and look for more. We use the audition space to explore scenes with the actor, we take our time with auditions, some run into 4-5 hours. The joy of cracking a scene with an actor in an audition room is unmatched.
Before casting, do you spend a lot of time with the director to understand what he or she is looking for in his character?
AB: Yes, we keep talking with the director after every meeting. Even the director is exploring his film through our audition process. At times, I have seen directors making changes to the scenes according to the actor’s audition. The more we talk, the clearer we become about a certain character.
Both of you have been doing some unique work and different films.
AB: We don’t work on many projects at the same time. We like to concentrate on a few and stay in sync with each other. We have been friends from college and are familiar with each other’s strengths and fill in for each other’s weaknesses. Plus, we have a great team. We keep it simple and enjoy the process!
Abhishek, you also act. Does that make casting easier to understand each character?
AB: Yes, it definitely does. As an actor, I understand the detailing of a character so it helps me push an actor closer to the character in an audition. Also, I can see the layers an actor has put in when I see the auditions. It helps me take decisions.
Anmol, don’t you get tempted to act?
AA: I have always preferred to be backstage in theatre and now behind the camera in films. The joy of seeing the process and being a part of it is dear to me. I am glad to look for talent and promote it, it makes me happy.
From web series to films, do you follow a different process for each medium?
AA: Yes, for a web series, we go raw; for films, we create a world; and for ads we cater to the interest of clients. That’s how we function.
Also, can you both share how it all started? How did you join forces to start a casting company?
AB: We started in 2007, so this is our tenth year of casting. But it took us eight years to form Casting Bay. It’s a two-year-old company but we started with Gautam Kishanchandani, who cast for Anurag Kashyap’s early films like Black Friday and Gulaal. We met him during Dev D in Delhi, I started giving cues for Gautam and Anmol sourced the actors. We became Gautam’s interns and didn’t realise that we had become a team. It was that smooth. After that, we continued working on and off and individually with Gautam. Finally after Ghanchakkar, we started our own journey. Our first film together was The Dirty Picture.
What’s changed in the last few years for casting directors?
AA: The importance of casting has changed. People are showing a lot of interest in casting. It’s nice, it’s exciting and there’s a lot of freedom now.
AA: Next year, we have Raid by Raj Kumar Gupta, Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar by Dibakar Banerjee, Student Of The Year 2 by Puneet Malhotra, Shiddat by Abhishek Verman, Shree Narayan Singh’s next from the mainstream along with some interesting projects on the web (Mirzapur for Excel and Amazon and Pitchers 2 for TVF) and an indie film called Ajji directed by Devashish Makhija. These are exciting times to cast.