Ecstatic with the fact that Dangal has become the biggest-ever success story to date, director Nitesh Tiwari and casting director Mukesh Chhabra in conversation with Team Box Office India
Box Office India (BOI): Nitesh, you have just delivered the highest-grossing Hindi film of all time. Were you expecting this movie to be such a roaring success?
Nitesh Tiwari (NT): No, it was never the objective. We did not set out to make the highest-grossing film of all time. We knew we had a very good script and decided to make the film with honesty and sincerity. I don’t think any of us looked beyond that. This is all an added benefit. When we saw the final product, we were happy that we had achieved what we wanted.
BOI: What was your reaction to the script?
Mukesh Chhabra (MC): I was completely blown away when I first read the script and I told him we just had to make this film. We were in talks for a long time for Dangal even though I had no idea what the story was.
NT: I had just hinted at the subject and told him to get ready for the toughest assignment of his life! I knew what was going to come his way and he had no idea.
MC: When he narrated the script to me, he also told me that Aamir Khan was on board. That’s when I realised that it was going to be an uphill task for me. Since we had already worked on Chillar Party and Bhoothnath 2, there was a certain comfort level and connection that we shared. I had the freedom I needed to do my work and it took me eight to nine months to complete it.
BOI: Was this your most difficult assignment?
MC: It was a challenge for me to do the perfect casting because the girls had to suit their parts and also look like Aamir sir’s daughters. They had to be physically fit, know their parts, have short hair etc and some other details. It took a long time for everything to fall in place. It was tough for everyone to crack it at the auditions.
NT: A lot has been said about how the girls were cast and what happened but let me tell you exactly what went into it. The girls, Sakshi Tanwar and Girish Kulkarni… everyone knows how they were cast. But not many know that 188 people were cast in the film. And each one auditioned. I met each one individually and went on location and short-listed people. Everyone had to audition even if they had just one line in the film.
MC: We were adamant that no one could be cast without an audition. It was such a well-written script that people had fixed lines. So no one was pushed beyond their capabilities but we had to make sure they could do that much.
NT: To me, this was very critical. I have seen some very beautiful moments fall apart because someone’s performance was not up to the mark. It is not only how Aamir sir performs; it also depends on how the catalyst performs. If the catalyst isn’t good enough, then it doesn’t work out. For example, the main protagonist (Mahavir Singh Phogat) wanted a son but his wife delivers four girls, and now he is heartbroken.
And in one scene, someone mocks him for having a son. Now if his sarcasm isn’t like an arrow piercing Mahavir’s heart, then the act of Mahavir walking away, breaking the laddoo and giving it to his daughter doesn’t hold any weight. That’s why everything needed to be planned very carefully. Even the village women needed to look the fighting type and their husbands needed to look hen-pecked.
MC: We auditioned for the smallest of roles, including the village folk who had minor roles or even a single line to say.
BOI: What was the pool of people you went through for all these auditions?
MC: For the girls, we went through over 10,000 girls. For the rest, 3,000-odd people.
NT: We were looking for fresh faces. For the girls, we were pretty much open minded. Since the film is set in Haryana, we needed people who looked the part.
MC: We searched for people from Delhi, Punjab and Haryana as we wanted people to suit the roles perfectly.
MC: We set up a team there for two to three months and we held auditions everywhere.
NT: We almost set up camps in those places as we were auditioning large numbers of people. There were places where we almost set up tents! Aamir sir was also a part of every single audition along with me.
MC: He was completely involved in the selection and paid attention to the smallest of details.
BOI: How difficult is it to make a universally appealing film compared to one that appeals to a niche audience?
NT: Not ‘make’ but to write. I strongly believe that your biggest trigger is content. If your content is niche, it is going to appeal to every kind of audience. If your content is universal, you have to make it with a lot of love and care. And it remains appealing. But it all starts with whether you have understood your universal audience or not. And whether or not you have written the film with sensibilities relating to the universal audience.
BOI: Was it easy writing Dangal? What was your experience writing this film?
NT: Not at all. We were dealing with a lot of things that we had not experienced before. For a writer, it is easy to write when it comes from your own experience. We were writing about wrestling, something we were totally unfamiliar with. We were writing about Haryana, which we were not very familiar with. It is very easy to collect content but not for a biopic, because, as a writer, you need to choose how much to keep and how much leave out.
Also, as a writer, you have to realise that you won’t get the graph if you add everything to the story. So you need to add, delete, change the scene, change the timeline of events and maybe create a few characters to make your screenplay more intriguing. So we consciously created characters around our main characters. We also wrote it with a layer of humour or else the subject would have got very heavy.
It has all the ingredients of a very heavy subject. For example, in real life, the girls, Geeta and Babita, had trained with five or six cousins. As a writer, if you keep that many cousins in the script, you need to understand who the audience will connect with and who they will empathise with. Is there going to be one person they fall in love with? So we combined all of them into Omkar (Aparshakti Khurrana) and he became the sutradhaar (narrator).
Now, because he is the sutradhaar, the story becomes light-hearted. If Mahavir Singh, Geeta or Babita or even the mother had been the sutradhaar, then it would have become very heavy. Since Omkar is a flamboyant character in the film, his narration is laced with comedy. And his introduction also as a funny guy introduced a fun element to the film and has kept the audience entertained. Apart from that, writing for wrestling and the matches was very difficult. Shooting was even more difficult.