Casting matters the most (Column: B-Town)


MUMBAI: The recent announcement of a film starring Ranbir Kapoor, Anil Kapoor, Neetu Singh and Boney Kapoor would have been hailed as a casting coup a few years ago, grabbing headlines all over print and electronic media. As such, the announcement does not excite one. If it works and is justified in the film, then that is when it will make splashes in the media.

There are casting coups and then there are casting disasters. It is strange, but casting coup often goes unnoticed while a bad casting never does. What is more, it also spells a disaster for the film and there are quite a few examples to prove that.

I don't remember a few casting coups as such. Yes, there were many films with perfect casting and, more often, those were possible when one considered the casting of a whole film. I would site BR Chopra's film "Waqt" (1965) as one such example and the Yash Chopra-directed "Trishul" for another. Shashi Kapoor's Shyam Benegal-directed "Kalyug" was another.

In such films casting is important because they have a lot of characters playing pivotal roles and together make the film engrossing. Films that can be added to the list are "Kohinoor", "Humjoli", "Sholay", "Silsila", "Tridev", "Tezaab", "Mother India", "Padosan", "Angoor", "Deewana", and "Darr".

One banner that took the risk and succeeded most of the time was the Rajshri Productions. My memory of this banner's films starts with "Dosti". Two newcomers in the cast and a new pair of music composers. The production house continued this trend of casting new faces successfully in many films. Many films followed, with one to stay in mind being "Ankhiyon Ke Jharokhon Se", "Maine Pyar Kiya" and "Hum Aapke Hain Koun...!"

Manmohan Desai's "Amar Akbar Anthony" made the grade of a super casting because each character fitted the bill. Amitabh Bachchan carried his image forward despite playing a light comic role instead of the angry young man, Vinod Khanna played the tough cop while Rishi Kapoor played the loverboy. The rest of the cast of Pran, Jeevan, along with Parveen Babi, Neetu Singh and Shabana Azmi, completed the film's apt casting.

Thereafter, Manmohan Desai started taking his audience for granted and counted only on his ace, Amitabh Bachchan, as he filled rest of the cast that did not quite make a perfect foil to Bachchan. After watching him with the likes of Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi, Rekha and Rakhi, actors like Amrita Singh, Rati Agnihotri, and Meenakshi Seshadri as his love interests, and Goga Kapoor or Puneet Issar as the villain, were not quite anywhere near what the audience preferred. Not included "Zanjeer", which established Amitabh Bachchan strongly because he was not the first choice for the role he played. Many top stars were approached for the film, with no takers.

Other makers followed the same line as Manmohan Desai and almost caused the downfall of Bachchan, were it not for the famous accident on the sets of "Coolie", the film that helped sustain his acting career.

The one director who excelled in the casting of his films was Hrishikesh Mukerji. Who would think of the reigning romantic superstar, Rajesh Khanna, as a cook-cum-domestic help in "Bawarchi", or as a poor mill worker in "Namak Haraam"! Or, for that matter, Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan in his subtle comedy, "Chupke Chupke", which went on to become an evergreen hit. He has more such films to his credit.

Manoj Kumar was yet another filmmaker who would even go against a set image of an actor to cast him. The best example was the casting of actor Pran in "Shaheed", based on the life and sacrifice of freedom fighter, Bhagat Singh. Pran carried such a negative image that nobody could imagine him playing a positive role and subscribe to patriotism. It was a cameo but Manoj Kumar is said to have insisted that he would not make "Shaheed" if Pran did not agree to the role conceived for him.

It was a masterstroke that Manoj Kumar repeated in his home production, "Upkar" (1967). It worked wonder on both the occasions. Later, for his film "Kranti", Manoj Kumar roped in Dilip Kumar to portray a role loosely based on the life of the Maratha navy chief, Kanhoji Angre.

The casting coup is evident after a film hits the cinema halls. A maker does his best when he decides to go against actors with set image and takes a risk. That is why, few makers go against the tide. Like, Pran, Jeevan, KN Singh, Prem Nath, Kanhaiyalal, Ajit, Prem Chopra, Danny, Amrish Puri, Ranjeet, Shakti Kapoor, Gulshan Grover and others kept playing villain till someone thought to cast them against their image. But, that was rare, and in most cases happened when they had aged and cast in character roles.

Makers who did not want to take chances and stuck to the norm were accountable for actors like Iftekhar, Jeevan, Jagdish Raj, Keshto Mukherjee, Manek Davar, Deven Verma, Asrani, Mohan Choti and so many others. Iftekhar who was a versatile actor with an impressive screen presence played a top cop many times, but the one to set a record of playing a cop was Jagdish Raj, who is said to have played a cop for a record 144 times! As for Jeevan, when it came to mythological films, he was Narad Muni. And, who else but Dara Singh as Lord Hanuman.

It was because most filmmakers preferred to play safe and cast stars according to their image, thinking that is how best they were accepted by the audience, were also why some actors got branded. Dilip Kumar as tragedy kind and Meena Kumari as the tragedy queen, for example.

Amitabh Bachchan was branded the Angry Young Man because that was the era of anti-establishment sentiments in the people and he was seen as the crusader fighting their cause. But, those sentiments changed. Some makers did try to mistake his angry young man image for an action hero and he was cast in films like "Kaalia", "Heera", and "Kasauti" but, luckily for him, he had also been appreciated in "Anand", "Abhimaan", "Dost", "Majboor", which helped him transit easily to playing other roles, while Yash Chopra and Hrishikesh Mukherjee made him act in films like "Kabhi Kabhie", "Chupke Chupke", and "Mili". He proved he had the range not to be shackled in an image.

Dharmendra had been slotted as the He Man after baring his bust very early in his career with "Phool Aur Patthar". Yet, almost all his success came from not being projected as He Man!

Earlier, the star cast for a film was decided according to the storyline. But, then came a time when the financers, or even the corporate houses that had emerged, opted for the saleable stars first. They funded proposals, not content. Not surprising that we have few script writers who can be approached before the star. The list of successful writers abounded with names like Gulshan Nanda, Sachin Bhowmick, Javed Siddqui, Basu Chatterjee, Robin Bhatt, KA Abbas, Mahesh Bhatt, Prayag Raj, KK Shukla, Kader Khan, Akash Khurana, Rahi Masoom Reza, Salim-Javed, and KA Narayan.

Which are the films that can be called examples of casting coup in recent times? Not many. But, the ones that make the list mostly star not-yet established actors. Probably, that is why they made it. "Kai Po Che!" for one. It initiated the trend of casting newcomers with off-the-beaten track themes, especially since established stars had turned to producing their own films and were not available to aspiring filmmakers.

Other recent casting successes that readily come to mind are "Ready", "Dangal", "War", "Ek Tha Tiger", the "Housefull" series, "Uri: The Surgical Strike", "Fukrey", the "Golmaal" series, "Kahaani", "The Dirty Picture", "Bajrangi Bhaijaan", "Hindi Medium", "MS Dhoni: The Untold Story", and "Piku".

In fact, OTT serials seem to be scoring better on this front if you look at the ones like "Special Ops", "Aarya" and, the recent success "Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story". Here, there is no hassle of face value that a feature film needs, to draw the initial audience.

(Vinod Mirani is a veteran film writer and box office analyst. The views expressed are personal)


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