At 13, Shivam Gupta ran away from his house leaving a note underneath his mother’s pillow. The boy from Agra wanted to become an actor. As the police searched across the city, Shivam confessed his dreams to his sister from the railway station.
His sister, who was living in Delhi, agreed to support him and brought him to the Capital so that he could begin his theatre training.
However, destiny had other plans.
It was a chance meeting and the urge to be financially stable that marked Shivam’s entry into the casting department of the movie industry.
Now 27, Shivam has worked on the casting of several movies including Trapped (2016), Little Things (2016), Daddy (2017), Qarib Qarib Single (2017), Raid (2018), Batti Gul Meter Chalu (2018), Sacred Games Season 2 (2019), Choked (2020) and Pratik Gandhi’s upcoming Shimmy.
As OTT platforms gain an increasing number of viewers and content-driven movies or series, the possibilities for newcomers are many. Even the most established actors on big screens are not afraid to experiment with different characters — who would have thought we’d see Raveena Tandon helm a thriller show (Aranyak, 2021) on Netflix?
The advent of such possibilities is an exciting time for casting directors as well. Scouting the right talent can be a deciding factor on the fate of the movie or series.
Shivam describes his job in three words — stressful, adventurous and satisfying.
“The job of a casting director goes beyond just auditioning people. From reading scripts, hunting down the right person, encapsulating the director’s vision to keeping a track of the actor till the project is completed, our fingers and toes are dipped in multiple affairs,” Shivam tells The Better India.
Struggles of a Casting Director
Shivam immersed himself in the world of theatre for nearly five years before he got his opportunity to cast actors for a project in Delhi.
“They were giving me Rs 2,000 to find suitable actors and I jumped at the opportunity purely because of money. In the process, I discovered a whole new spectrum of filmmaking. I completed my job in two days and I knew what I wanted to do in life,” recalls Shivam.
He approached several production houses for jobs but was rejected. Finally, he decided to come to Mumbai in 2015.
The move was not easy for someone like Shivam who was raised in a family that believed in stable jobs and financial security. His parents refused to support his decision fearing his failure and its repercussions thereafter.
So, he moved into a tiny apartment with six other people in the Versova area, a hub for strugglers in the movie line. “I had heard that it wouldn’t be easy to share an apartment with so many people and that rent in Mumbai was high. But somehow I was okay with this arrangement as I was one step closer to my dreams,” he adds.
Shivam does not know if it was pure luck or his networking skills that helped him bag a project within four days of his arrival in Mumbai. Finding the right work as an outsider is extremely rare in the movie industry or so he thought.
He worked for casting actors in television serials, advertisements and assisted casting directors in movies such as Daddy and Ki and Ka (2017).
“My first advertisement was Kitkat where I auditioned nearly 52 people and worked till 4 am. Now I know, this job is demanding and time-consuming. My second film was Trapped with Prashant Singh. He taught me what realistic casting meant. Actors like Rajkummar Rao embody the character so well that it is hard to tell if they are acting,” says Shivam.
One of the most interesting experiences came early in his career during the pre-production of Daddy. He assisted Prashant to audition close to 800 people from Dharavi slums for 12 days.
The initial days were tough for Shivam given that he had no contacts of actors and casting agents. He used his theatre contacts to reach out to actors. He made his own database over a period of time.
Soon, his work spoke for him.
“Abhishek Banerjee had seen my work and gave me a chance to work on Raid. I signed many fresh faces that matched the director’s vision. But my career took a new direction after working on Sacred Games (season 2) as the casting head,” he says.
‘Here’s My Biggest Achievement…’
Research is the most crucial part of casting, says Shivam who prefers sitting with the director to read the script before scouting talent. He likes to understand the character arch, movie budget, what the director wants and even gives creative inputs.
“I have to bring in my vision to find a suitable actor. As a casting director, it is important to have a vision that brings something completely different to the table. Irrespective of whether the actor is rigid or flexible, we try to create an environment of the script to bring out the best. For example, if it is an interrogation scene, we get props accordingly and put on dim lights,” says Shivam.
Once the auditions are over, Shivam and his team do the filtration process based on the actor’s talking style, body language, uniqueness, voice and so on. “The work has to be near perfect so that the director can trust us. This trusting factor decides the speed of the casting process,” he adds.
Shivam also keeps backups for every character as people often back out of movies.
Another important lesson that Shivam learnt was to say no without offending the struggling actor.
“It is hard to say no because people ask follow up questions. Some actors argue a lot and some get hurt easily. We have to assure them that rejection does not mean they lack talent,” he adds.
There is another side to the coin as well where Shivam has to convince people to say yes to a role.
He explains with an example. Around the time when Raid had just begun its casting, Shivam was watching a film in the theatre where he saw a lookalike of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
He approached her post the film and she laughed it off. She knew nothing of acting and thought Shivam was fooling. After much persuasion, Shivam finally got her to audition and she was selected for the role. “She attended acting workshops and nailed her performance, which was an important role in the film,” says Shivam.
Asked what are some of the prerequisites to become a casting director, and pat comes the reply, “Discipline, knowledge grasping characters and scripts and strong networking skills are a must.”
Shivam now runs his casting agency and he has moved into a 2 bedroom-hall-kitchen apartment. His parents recently visited him and were surprised to see the progress their son, who ran from home, has made.
“Their perception changed completely. My father only wanted to stay for two days but he ended up spending 15 and that for me is my biggest achievement,” he adds.
Shivam’s upcoming projects include Asur 2, Costao starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Adham starring Fatima Sana Shaikh, Anurag Kashyap’s Maximum City and Hotstar’s Fear 1.0.
All images are sourced from Shivam Gupta
Edited by Yoshita Rao