Armed with great contacts, these home-grown casting directors bridge the gap between Hollywood and Bollywood, letting actors showcase their talent on an international
Top clients: Ali Fazal, Sameer Ali Khan
On the job: Two years
Purvi Lavingia has gotten busier after Ali Fazal’s first break in Hollywood, with Fast & Furious 7. “The benefit of working with me is that I get to know about projects being cast in Hollywood well in advance,” shares Lavingia, who had pitched for Fazal much before the news broke in India. “I dealt directly with the casting director, Anne McCarthy. When I received an email one morning from Anne offering Ali the part, I was ecstatic. After news spread about Ali being cast in the film, I got many inquires asking about him from LA. Everyone wanted to know who this guy was, who beat actors from all over the world for this cameo role,” explains the casting director, whose one point contact in Hollywood is her partner, Brehan Fitzgerald, the former vice president of casting for Fox Feature Films, and who now runs her own talent agency, Brio Entertainment, in LA. The goal as an agent is to find roles that help artistes showcase their talents, says the director who got Sameer Ali Khan the role of the main villain opposite Bill Murray and Kate Hudson on Rock the Kasbah, directed by Oscar-winner Barry Levinson. “Meanwhile, the US/UK market is very strong on television currently and we are seeing more and more diversity and global-reaching talent required,” says Lavingia who grew up in Los Angeles watching Indian and American movies. While attending California State Fullerton, earning her BA in communications, she interned for French filmmaker Luc Besson’s production company, Seaside Productions. She later joined Twentieth Century Fox Feature Casting and from there moved on to working for Warner Bros. Travelling between LA and India, she quickly realised that the scope for Indian talent in the international spectrum was broadening and, by 2013, was a full-fledged cast director. Decision factors in Hollywood are talent, credits and the ability to speak English well, admits Lavingia. “One of the most common questions asked is how well the actor speaks English and if they can do an American accent. Paperwork is another issue. Most casting directors prefer that the actor has a work visa. There are exceptions if the actor gets cast for a major studio production; then the production will arrange for it,” says the confident agent who believes that franchises are the best way to get foreign actors in front of the Hollywood studio casting executives.
IN the last decade, at least 100 big and small time actors from the Indian film industry have starred in Hollywood films and sitcoms. While some like Anil Kapoor (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), Amitabh Bachchan (The Great Gatsby) or Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi and The Amazing Spider-Man 3) have made their own way, an Aishwarya Rai Bachchan or Los Angeles’ darling, Freida Pinto, have their own agents in America. However, it appears that for many actors headed to Hollywood, an India-based agent with strong connections is responsible for getting them their big break. On scouting around, we found that a few names popped up consistently—Mumbai-based Seher Latif, Purvi Lavingia and Tess Joseph. With a formidable client line-up and powerful networking in the West, these casting directors hold the key to the next big Hollywood production and fame.
Top clients: Nimrat Kaur, Dev Patel
On the job: Seven years
Mumbai-based casting director, Seher Latif believes that the world is looking at us as a large, vibrant, glamorous film industry with a predominantly melodramatic acting style. Nevertheless, the 33-year-old is proud to be part of it. Latif has been the casting director for 16 films and three television series. Having started her career as an ad film production assistant (2004), she went on to work for many commercials independently before casting for films in 2007. “After my introduction to Indian line producers for my first international project, a three-part miniseries for IFC called Bollywood Hero, I basically made a fishing trip to Hollywood, New York and London and met with independent casting directors and studio casting heads,” shares Latif, who is a member of the Casting Society of America, the official association of bonafide casting directors. Her biggest Hollywood accomplishments—Eat Pray Love and Zero Dark Thirty for which she got local talent, Rushita Singh, a role. As for commercially successful films, she picks The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Her independent breakout film that got her worldwide recognition is The Lunchbox—she helped Nimrat Kaur bag the role. The other films that add to her credit are Million Dollar Arm and Tigers. Is Hollywood difficult to crack? “An actor of Indian origin who has ‘broken out’ in a widely internationally viewed film would stand a good chance of getting a role. Hollywood, just like here, is very big on the flavour of the season—if someone is fresh off a big success they’ll be on most lists of films that match the profile,’’ says Latif, adding, ‘‘For example, take Freida Pinto or Anil Kapoor after Slumdog Millionaire or how Suraj Sharma got Million Dollar Arm and Homeland because Life of Pi was so big, as did Nimrat Kaur because of The Lunchbox. For a big name Indian mainstream Bollywood actor, I think it’s tougher in a way because they’d want a sizeable role that matches their stature and those are hard to come by. Plus, accessibility and availability are issues. Priyanka Chopra is a rare case but she’s been very smart, and consistently nurtured relationships internationally, starting off with her music,” she observes. However, Latif vehemently defends stereotyping in Hollywood. “The stereotyping exists in the story-telling not in the casting—the cast is only going to try and be authentic to the demands of the story and its world. But yes, it’s not easy for an Indian to get a headlining role in a Hollywood film, but if it’s an Indian story, then yes it would be an Indian actor playing the lead,” she says. If someone is looking for a role, then Latif suggests they be fluent in English, with a neutral accent and have their travel documents in place. As for her upcoming films, Latif has her hands full. “There is Sense8, a Netflix TV series from The Matrix creators, The Wachowskis, which will be out mid-year and I am working on an Indian independent film called Bioscopewalla.”
Top clients: Wes Anderson and Doug Liman
On the job: Ten years
Freelance media professional, Tess Joseph, has seven years in television production. She started as an associate producer in 2000 and went on to direct India’s longest running children’s programme,The Bournvita Quiz Contest, for four years. Life changed when director Mira Nair’s team met Joseph while they were in Kolkata for The Namesake (2006). Some of the big names that Joseph has worked with include Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited) and Doug Liman (Fair Game). “The scope for work is more with Oscar winners like Jeffrey Brown or Richard Robbins. In a commercial sense, Life of Pi was a big film (we cast young Pi), as is the latest one by The Weinstien Company called Lion,” says Joseph, who initially worked as a casting director before turning first assistant director for several international films. “My bond with both directors and actors is very rooted,” she says. In Girl Rising, the revolutionary film that follows the life stories of nine girls from the developing world, they worked with the real girls who played themselves on screen. ‘‘We are now creating a version with Bollywood actors voicing and supporting the Hindi version of the film and I am their producer for India. In both Sold by Jeffrey Brown (which dealt with trafficking as a theme) and Lion (which is about identity and adoption) we worked with young children. It’s always challenging because we don’t want the kids to act; we want them to be real, to be aware and mindful,” says Joseph.
Life has changed for Ali Fazal who was recently seen in Fast & Furious 7, playing Zafar. “The experience taught me to shed my pride, to improvise and to think on my feet,” he says. As for less screen space, Fazal is pragmatic. “You wouldn’t want to see Tom Hanks walk into Bollywood and replace Salman Khan in Dabangg. That can’t happen. Unless we tailormake it for someone, such roles won’t happen automatically.” Fazal admits that Indians are getting typecast abroad, and blames it on Canadian comedian Russell Peters. “He is responsible for spoiling the Indian face across the globe. Many a time we have been (typecast) but the West is slowly warming up to us. That said, my part in Fast & Furious 7 was not that of an Indian. Some of the people on set thought I was Italian or Persian,” shares the actor.
The actress is part of Mira Nair’s upcoming film, Words of God. Casting director Nandini Shrikent got Chadda a meeting with Nair, who instantly liked her. “It was brief but I learnt a lot as an actor and as a woman. We are conditioned to believe that a strong woman is a bitch, but I learnt that you can be assertive yet compassionate,” she begins. Chadda admits that an audition can teach you a lot, too. “Unfortunately, some actors believe it is not correct for them to test for a part after they have done a number of films. I always look at screen tests and auditions as a part of learning,” she says. A lot depends on the production when it comes to stereotyping of actors. “That and the story, too. We should really not comment on the stereotyping of Indians in the West. Our film industry is the first to stereotype actors and label them, some of which are so dumb and don’t even mean anything, like ‘glam’, ‘de-glam’, ‘boy next door’, ‘grey character’, etc,” she says.
Desai is excited about her role in Sense8, directed by The Wachowskis, especially after she was part of both The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films.The 28-year-old is positive about getting to work more in Hollywood. “We have some great scripts, too. But our audience likes escapist films and we have more of those here. When our audience changes its preference, we will start making different films. Hollywood has bigger budgets that allow for extremely modern technology. But I have noticed that Indian filmmakers here have begun using several technicians from the West as well. So, in a way, we’re all doing pretty well,” she says. One aspect of filmmaking she admires in Hollywood? ‘‘Their discipline,’’ she concludes.