A little while before we began our conversation, Dinesh Prabhakar got a call from a leading Malayalam director. “He was looking for a teenager to play a minor role in his next film. I went through my list, made some calls, and gave him some leads. So that’s been taken care of.”
He’s used to calls like that. With a hesitant laugh, he admits that the service he offers has no clear-cut definition. Sometimes he’s the casting director – though uncredited and unrewarded. Sometimes he’s the production executive, or the dubbing artiste, or the dialogue consultant, or even a location manager. If that weren’t enough, he’s also a seasoned advertisement filmmaker.
Of all the versatile hats he wears, acting is his favourite.
In 2013, he worked as a facilitator for the team of the Bollywood film Madras Cafe. The film was mostly shot in and around Kochi. He helped the team find the supporting cast. His role as casting assistant was uncredited, but he landed a minor, though substantial role in the film as a member of the LTTE. He also starred in Anu Menon’s 2016 film Waiting, also set in Kochi. Recently, he dubbed for actor Prabhu Deva in the official dubbed version of Devi (L).
Currently, he’s on the sets of Rajakrishna Menon’s Chef, a Bollywood film starring Saif Ali Khan. The film is an official remake of the Hollywood film of the same title, and Dinesh is playing a supporting character. He says, “I play the role of the driver of Saif Ali Khan’s food truck. A character that appears throughout the latter half of the film.
“The character is an ex-military and a former state transport diver. The film uses sync sound, so the team were looking for a Malayalee actor who could speak Hindi fluently, without the help of prompting. That was how I came into the picture.”
Through Vineeth Srinivasan’s 2013 film Thira, Dinesh became Mollywood’s first official casting director. In the Malayalam film Lukka Chuppi that was released in 2015, he was one of the main project designers and an official production executive. In Jacobinte Swarga Rajyam, one of the biggest Mollywood hits in 2016, he was a casting director as well as an actor. Currently, he is working as a casting director in Bejoy Nambiar’s Solo, starring Dulquer Salmaan.
“In Malayalam cinema, we are yet to warm up to the concept of hiring a casting director. People think it is an unnecessary expenditure. I have spent a lot of time looking for actors upon the requests of friends and acquaintances – without taking any commission or asking for credit,” he says.
The service of casting director going uncredited is not something new. Hollywood’s legendary casting director Marion Dougherty worked in more than 500 episodes of Kraft Television Theater, 80 episodes of Naked City and Route 66 in the 1950s and 60s without a single credit. While casting directors are a big deal in Hollywood, it took longer for Bollywood to understand the importance of these professionals. It took till the late 2000s for Bollywood to start using the services of a casting director. Until then, the job was done by assistant directors, and sometimes even directors, actors, and producers. In 2010, only around 20% of Bollywood films used a casting director. Now, there are professionals like Abhimanyu Ray and Mukesh Chabra whose have enough clout to make their client’s careers.
Thira cut a new path in Malayalam cinema.
Filmmakers till then hadn’t heard of casting calls, but soon began doing it. Now there are professional casting agencies in Kochi, founded by youngsters. “Unlike other departments of cinema, Casting isn’t a formal discipline taught in film schools. One has to learn it by practice. A lot of it depends on instincts,” says Dinesh.
Some of those casting calls that are circulated on the internet are fraudulent, Dinesh agrees. But systematic casting through professional casting agencies and directors have eliminated a lot of malpractices that existed in the process of casting, he says. “For one, casting couch doesn’t happen anymore. With more youngsters, educated and diligent, entering this profession, no one can be an actor just by offering a bribe in cash or kind.”
Both old and new actors are now willing to audition for their roles. “Earlier, actors used to think auditioning for roles was humiliating. Many a time, I have tried to make them understand that there was nothing wrong in auditioning, which is a very routine practice in Hollywood and Bollywood.”
Thira, a thriller about human trafficking in south India, was shot in Karnataka and Goa. Shobana and Dhyan Sreenivasan played the two lead characters. A majority of the supporting roles were played by non-Malayalees. One of the characters is a little girl of 7 who is a sexual trafficking victim. “Usually it is difficult to cast children in such emotionally sensitive roles. It might even affect them psychologically since they are too young to distinguish cinema from reality,” says Dinesh. After some search, they zeroed in on Divya, a child artiste from Mumbai. “She had acted in a couple of TV commercials made by our ad agency. A very smart child. We spoke to her parents about the role in detail and with their support, we explained to the girl her character,” he says.
“There are some child actors, like Tharuni Sachdev who passed away a few years ago, who are amazingly professional in their approach. She had acted in a few commercials of mine. An extraordinary talent who could switch to and fro the character when director calls ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’.”
I am reminded of actor Jayaram’s words about his son Kalidas, who, as a 10 year old, won a national film award for his portrayal of a boy who accidentally murders his baby brother. “Parvathy and I were confused about letting him act. Honestly, I have never watched that movie till the end. It’s so heartbreaking. But surprisingly, Kannan (Kalidas’ pet name) had the intelligence to treat it professionally. He knew it was cinema and not anything more”.
Dinesh gets countless applications, messages and phone calls from acting aspirants on a daily basis. Filtering this pile is a tedious task, he says. “I carry a casting sheet most of the time. If a person’s looks match with that of the character, half the job is done. Not many people have faces that stand out in a crowd. So whenever I come across a distinct one, I take notice. Some directors are so talented that they can make anyone act. Sometimes even a talented newcomer can falter when he /she comes in front of the movie camera in the presence of a crowd. The pressure on the location can be very difficult for them to handle. It’s the responsibility of a casting director and the filmmaker to make a new actor feel comfortable in the new atmosphere, ” he says. “Some people have called me after audition and thanked me for making them feel comfortable. I first talk to them and draw them out.”
This approach may not always work. Even a candidate with the perfect looks and attitude can disappoint in the real take. “Since I am used to auditioning people, I try to get an idea on how they would perform in front of the camera in the first meeting itself.”
Also, he doesn’t deny the possibilities of pleasant surprises.
“In Thira, some newcomers, on whom we had little hope, stunned us with fantastic performance. We had selected people from remote villages and small towns. Similarly, in Jacobinte Swarga Rajyam, we had cast a 75 year old Pakistani man to play a security guard. We found him at the end of a long, tiring hunt. This man was nonchalant and soft-spoken, just like the character. But I was not sure if he would perform in front of the camera. But when you watch his performance in the film, you would never guess that. The Arab who played a judge in the climax portion of the film was not even given a dialogue. But during the shot, he used his own lines in Arab and performed so realistically that everyone around stood up and applauded,” Dinesh recalls.
Dinesh keeps his casting eye open all the time – on and off work. “Since casting requirements come very often, I keep observing people around – their look and mannerisms. I have approached many strangers at shopping malls and other public places, and asked if they were interested in acting.”
The number of aspiring acting in the country is now bigger than ever, he says. “However, a lot of these youngsters are not very serious about cinema. They are charmed by the glamour and fame that film industry offers. Some of them come with no knowledge about cinema,” says Dinesh. He recalls a conversation he had with actor Mammootty once. “While talking about this, Mammookka got overwhelmed. He exasperatedly spoke to me about the young actors who take no effort in learning about the art of cinema or the history of it. They make fun of legendary actors like Prem Nazir…”
“When I joined the sets of Chef, I noticed that there were many girls working behind the camera – as location managers, production assistant, make-up assistants and so on. I got to know that those youngsters were visual communication/management graduates who were working on the ground level to learn about cinema holistically. They would later branch out to direction, acting, cinematography and all. Isn’t that a great approach?”
Dinesh is a seasoned actor, but Chef came late. He began his career as a professional theatre artiste in Mumbai. Soon, he branched out to dubbing for regional versions of national commercials. “Cinema was my destination. I wanted to be an actor,” he says about those days. His appearance in Amaron Battery commercial fetched him some fame. “When Shah Rukh Khan was shooting for Chennai Express in Munnar, I went to the film’s location to catch a glimpse of him. He noticed me in the crowd and told me that his children were very fond of that battery ad.”
His first acting opportunity in Malayalam cinema was a minor role in Lal Jose’s Meesa Madhavan in 2002. His subsequent roles were never more than a few scenes long. But in the 2014 film 1983, starring Nivin Pauly, Dinesh had a full-fledged character role to play. He was one of the few senior actors featured in the 2015 movie Premam, which had a horde of newcomers. His dream of playing a performance-oriented role came true with Lukka Chuppi, in which Dinesh is one of the six protagonists. The film, though critically acclaimed, was a disaster at the box-office, thanks to bad promotions. “It hurts me that even the people whom I work with behind the camera, have never offered me an acting opportunity. Even after my performance in Lukka Chuppi got noticed and was written about a lot, I get few acting calls,” he says.
But Dinesh isn’t disheartened. “Recently, I worked with a very young and energetic crew of Aanandam. I did a cameo role in the film, and I worked in its casting and marketing department too. It’s a tiring job, and it is not very rewarding. But I can’t imagine working in any other field. I will always be a part of the film industry – as a filmmaker, dubbing artiste, casting director or an actor,” he says.
Feature Image Courtesy: Deccan Chronicle