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So you want to be in films?

Published in Nov-Dec 2015

The Casting Director of 'Moor' shares her amusing and at times exasperating tales of dealing with 'aspiring' actors.

Disclaimer: All characters appearing in this work are (not) fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is (not) purely coincidental.

Irshad: “Baji mujhey bhi film mein ana hai...”

Me: “Ohhh... you too!”

Irshad works at the store where I buy my groceries. Over the years he has managed to figure out what I do for a living (although I have always pretended to be a banker).

Call it ironic, but over the years I have figured out what I need to tell people about my profession. For my very conservative neighbourhood auntie, I was just a teacher. The façade lasted for years until she started raising an eyebrow when I returned home at three in the morning. Finally, in an accusatory tone she asked me what kind of teaching happens at that hour? Reluctantly,

I admitted that I am a filmmaker. For the conservative relatives, a documentary filmmaker works just fine. Old-school folks are more interested in digging out any controversies about the actors I work with. The tinge of a sparkle in their eye fades almost instantly when I have nothing to offer. For the rest, I am upfront about the fact that I am a filmmaker, followed by a disclaimer that “main waisi filmein nahin banati.”

For my children’s teacher I pretend I am a freelance filmmaker who will never be too busy to attend to her children’s needs.

Then everything changed for me on August 14th, 2015 (sounding like a true patriot). After the release of Moor, I didn’t need to be apologetic or justify anything to anyone about what I did. It was liberating in the true sense of the word.

Coming back to Irshad – he is the seventh person I met this week who wants to make a career in film. If you count my inner sadist, that makes it eight in total.

The first person I met was on a shoot. Our room service attendant at the dingy guesthouse where we stayed kept giving me weird looks. On the day we were leaving for the airport, he approached me, looked me straight in the eye (I was on my guard and ready to slap him, just in case) and said “meray pass aik script hai.” I was pleasantly surprised and asked him to share it with me, but he refused, thinking I would steal it. I was blown away by his possessiveness.

Later that day at the immigration counter, an officer questioned my intent to travel to India. I told him I made films. He then thoroughly flattered me saying “aap actress hain?”and went on to ask if I could include him in the film. He said that he and his equally talented twin brother would be perfect for a film like Ram aur Shyam.

I love the fact that when I meet people they open up and tell me stories which could potentially be made into a great film. Meena, my salon girl, told me the entire story about how she misses her husband who works in the UAE and how they keep their long distance love alive. Sometimes details like these make me blush. She normally concludes with the predictable “Ma’am aap humari love story per film banain na.”

Sometimes I have to dodge a mother in my children’s school, who brings her four-year-old to me every now and then and forces him to dance to the latest Salman Khan song. While the child dances, his mother cannot stress enough how much he loves films and would be so well suited to work in films.

In the 90s everyone was in IT, or wanted to be. In 2015 everyone is a filmmaker or aspires to be one. The energy is contagious but like all things, you need to work hard to achieve a result. Research, live your story, get the basics right. There are no shortcuts.

Because I was the casting director for Moor, a director who wanted to make his debut film asked me to cast for it. He felt insulted when I asked for the script but reluctantly shared it. Like the Amitabh films I grew up watching, the originality in the script came only in the form of his addition of six item numbers. As much as my bank account protested, I refused to do the casting for item number songs. I was told that I would be missing out on the biggest opportunity of my life and would regret it. In hindsight not so much.

A foreign film graduate came to the office and wanted to talk about the film he wants to make. When asked for the script he insisted on telling the story. Attentively I waited for him to begin. He lit-up his e-cigarette and after a long pause, he started… It was a gloomy evening. High speed shot of rain... girl wearing Levis 501 with a white shirt... a guy in the latest Tommy Hilfiger collection... with his new iPhone 6s dripping in the rain...

I interjected and asked for the story; he continued... long shot of the guy and girl walking towards each other in slow motion... they cross a street with a billboard advertising an ice cream in the background... just as they are about to meet, a red Porsche speeds past... high speed shot of water splashing...

When I asked him for the story, log line, synopsis, the conflict, he went quiet. Then he resumed with more high-speed shots, designer wear and how her Mac mascara would smudge in the rain... enough to be dramatic but not too much to make her look ugly. I lost patience.

In the 90s everyone was in IT, or wanted to be. In 2015 everyone is a filmmaker or aspires to be one. The energy is contagious but like all things, you need to work hard to achieve a result. Research, live your story, get the basics right. There are no shortcuts. If you want to be an actor, train yourself. A good camera will not make a film. A good film is the perfect blend of a good story, an even better storyteller and a world of experience before you can make it to the box office. Film is not just an art – it is a science.

Saima Saleem is Associate Director at Azad Film and Creative Head at Azad Khayal.