ONE OF THE FIRST LINKS TO COME UP when you perform a Google search for Shanoo Sharma, the casting director for top Bollywood studio Yash Raj Films (YRF), is a blog called ‘Chasing my only dream…’, written by Dilip Merala, an engineer turned aspiring actor based in Mumbai. The blog, which began in Oct 2010, documents Merala’s journey as what is in Bollywood parlance known as a “struggler”. In this particular post from May 2011, titled “My meeting with Shanoo Sharma”, Merala recounts his numerous failed attempts to contact Shanoo over the course of months, and his eventual success. “I was anxiously waiting for Monday because I realised how important this meeting with Shanoo was!” he writes. “It could change my life forever. Shanoo could say—‘Ok, I am casting for this film and you fit the bill…come and audition’.” Given just 20 minutes to get to her office, Merala bikes there in a jiffy. “I was getting all kinds of thoughts … What the hell do I tell her? How do I start? … Shanoo must be meeting thousands of aspiring actors … how do I make myself look different? I think I should just be myself … but myself?”
The meeting, on the face of it, ended badly, with Merala riding away with a standard assurance of “I will let you know if anything comes up”. But the comments on his entry, from a few days after the incident up to a few months ago, are breathless in their admiration of his guts and his luck, and infused with the conviction that his fleeting encounter with Shanoo Sharma signalled the beginning of a change of fortunes too dramatic to be described. Of the nearly 50 people who responded to his blog, most are aspiring actors, including a seven-year-old boy. Practically each of these responses ends with the same question—dressed as exhortation, admiring request or just plain entreaty: “Can you give me her contact?”
Finding Shanoo Sharma, for those who seek her with such fevered anxiety on such forums, is the first step on the road to stardom. Ironically, her intense fame in these circles is matched by her near-invisibility in the larger public sphere—an absence that she takes some pains to maintain. Like many truly powerful people, Shanoo works behind the mirrors, hiding in plain sight. Since 2006, she has cast for almost 30 films, working with a range of directors, from Sudhir Mishra to Aditya Chopra. In a career spanning just over six years, at the age of 34, Shanoo has become one of the most powerful casting directors in Mumbai, and certainly the most flamboyant. “She’s a star casting director,” said actor and friend Ranveer Singh, whose ‘discovery’ by Shanoo in the 2010 romantic comedy Band Baaja Baaraat has become one of the best known milestones in her career. “She can be at a party full of the top actors and directors in the city, and she will be centre of attention, she will own the space.”
Anecdotes about her whirl through the choked networks of the industry and its ancillary enterprises. In the discourse of strugglers, she is immense, a being as powerful as she is ruthless, as wise as she is ephemeral, like the fiery deity of a querulous tribe. Having her number, I was told by Suleman Khan (not his real name), an aspiring actor of five years’ vintage, marks you in the internal ranks of aspirants as top tier. It set you apart from the “local train from Dahisar types”, who have to commute from the city’s far-flung suburbs to auditions, and whose aspirant-skills are so low they “don’t know how to approach [people]”. It allows you to indulge in that beloved pastime of Mumbai’s filmi suburbs of Yari Road and Lokhandwala, ‘hawabaazi’, or posturing. “Oy,” you can say from that exalted position, “I have Shanoo’s number, missed call marega? Want to give a missed call?” In a city thick with casting agents and directors, only a part of Shanoo’s mystique is explained by the clout of her employers, Yash Raj Films, who churn out tinsel-coated blockbusters as a matter of routine. “During the course of the last five years or so,” explained Suleman, “she has become a brand in herself.” Suleman’s own life over the past two years has been a mere build-up to a (possible) meeting with Shanoo, one he is planning to orchestrate sometime in the next four months. This is because, he told me, “She used to be known through YRF, now YRF is known through her.” He paused to admire his line and then asked me, “If I tell her that, do you think she’ll be happy or annoyed?”
SETTING UP MY OWN MEETING WITH SHANOO also took some persuasion, a complicated routing of phone calls through assistants, and a bit of drama. (“Why me,” she giggled on the phone, in mock horror.) When she finally agreed to meet, it was at her parents’ home in a quiet lane near the suburb of Versova, where she lives and frequently works out of. When I walked in, she sat sprawled on the floor, clichés of casting and couches be damned. She wore a black kurta and loose black pants, with a brightly coloured scarf. Her eyes were lined thickly with dark kajal, and she wore heavy silver earrings, several oversized rings and a large bindi. There was a laptop covered almost completely with stickers, from which she played music constantly. Her assistants hovered around her, and she would dismiss them only to summon them again, like a fickle queen with her coterie, addressing them in tones that ranged from haughty courtesy (“Please go eat your salad somewhere else”) to friendly familiarity (“What did you offer her? Your body?”) to plain imperious (“Just deal with it”). Seated next to her was a young man with a hearing impairment, whom Shanoo was training to say the letter ‘cha’. (“Like chacha, like chootiya,” were the examples she gave me later.) “His father called me recently to say thanks, and that in all his life nobody has taken such trouble over him,” she said. “That’s the best part about this job, is the fucking blessings, the parental blessings. And the food. I keep getting these loads of keema and yakhni sent to me.”
Born in Mumbai, Shanoo grew up in the curious position of being the child of parents who were the only non-film professionals among prominent film-linked families. Her father, who made his name as a hotelier, numbered several directors and producers as close friends. His hotels would often host film crews and shoots, recalled Shanoo’s brother Sameer Sharma, who recently debuted as a director with the romantic comedy Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana. “We were always around film folks, and really influenced by cinema,” he said. His junior by seven years, Shanoo grew up across the country, attending 13 different schools before moving with her parents to Johannesburg, where her father set up an Indian restaurant. “And I just wanted to work there. So I started waitressing on weekends,” she said. After finishing her schooling, Shanoo had had enough of the academic life. At the age of 17, she returned to Mumbai, where she shaved her head and took up jobs that ranged from assisting designer Manish Malhotra, (“I was fired in a month”), to bartending, working as a receptionist and working in a PR agency, while establishing a reputation for being a ‘wild child’. “It was just rebellion, like Saira Bano in what’s that movie,” she explained, one of many film references she peppered our conversations with. “I was bullshitting my way through life, saying yes to whatever work I found first, and then figuring out how to do it later.” Somehow, through this restless wandering, Shanoo also discovered the skills she would later hone for casting. “People would always ask me things,” she said. “‘Do you think I should wear this?’ ‘Do you think I should go to that party?’ And I was always spot on. That’s how I started casting also. People would just ask.”
Her formal move towards casting came after she broke her leg and, to fill the hours of inactivity, started a talent management service from home, where she worked with aspiring actors, giving them tips on grooming and styling, and connecting them to casting directors. After her recovery, Sameer pushed her into casting for Sudhir Mishra’s upcoming film. “He [Mishra] asked if I could cast for Khoya Khoya Chand. ‘Piece of cake,’ I said. Then I came home. And I shat. An Eiffel Tower!”
In part, Shanoo’s career trajectory coincided with a growing sense of seriousness about the idea of casting. “When I started there was no real job called ‘casting’. People would just say, heroine ke liye koi khoobsurat type le ao (Get a beautiful type for the heroine), get a Rani-Preeti type. Rani-Preeti type!” said Shanoo, laughing in exasperation at the memory. Sometimes, she said, she would even be asked why she needed a copy of the script to cast. “Until a few years ago, the job of a casting director didn’t exist,” said Atul Mongia, who has acted in the critically acclaimed 2010 release Love Sex aur Dhoka. “The task would be done by the producer, director and assistant, who would jam together for half an hour.” The lead roles would be given to stars they could afford or were friends with, he explained, while “the leftover bits would be filled by assistant directors”. Now, he said, “about a third of the films being made in the industry would have a casting director. This is the biggest change.” And within this larger surge of increased attention to casting decisions, Shanoo has carved out her own signature style.
Director Karan Johar, who worked with Shanoo on selecting the supporting cast for Kurbaan and My Name is Khan, described the experience as “being on a ride that could end anywhere”.
“Many of her choices have been unconventional, but they have made an impact,” he said. As an instance, he cited the supporting cast of My Name is Khan, which included Zarina Wahab, Sonya Jehan and Jimmy Shergill—an array of acting talent that “gave a certain reality to the film”. Her own “mad personality”, he said, had “worked very well for her job. Being the dramatic and drastic person that she is, she has elevated the profile of the casting director.”
In 2010, Shanoo took over as casting director at YRF. She works on every film produced by the studio, including those made under the label of Y Films, which are targeted at the youth. Ashish Patil, vice president at Yash Raj Films, describes Y Films as “a platform for young talent”, and a kind of incubator for people from every department of filmmaking. Since 2011, Y Films has released two features—Luv ka The End and Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge—and is ready to release Mere Dad ki Maruti, with a pool of young actors such as Saqib Saleem, Saba Azad and Taaha Shah. The lead actors in Y films are between 18 and 24 years old, which makes Shanoo’s approval the Holy Grail for aspirants looking for a dream debut.
In part, she is here at an interesting time. Actress Swara Bhaskar, who has been cast in the upcoming YRF film Aurangzeb, said, “Each year there were five to six good new people being discovered. People who have been around for years are getting a chance now.” This is something that Shanoo recognises, but prefers to play down her own role in. “Some of the recent actors we launched would not have made it to YRF a few years ago,” she explained guardedly. “Things are changing. I can say I’m a part of that change.”
But in part Shanoo has also helped usher in that change, by—among other ways—working from wherever she is, all the time. “She’s fully plugged into all the hunting grounds to find talent,” said Patil. “Whether she’s in salons, cafés, schools, gyms, her mind is always ticking. I’ve seen her go up to people in coffee shops and say, ‘Come here. Acting karni hai?’” This image, of talent finding recognition, of life changing in a heartbeat, which could be straight out of a movie, is what makes Shanoo so beloved to the aspirants’ heart. It is the reason why they track her in their blogs, and inundate her phone with messages, and search for her email—just for the chance of hearing her say, “Come here. Acting karni hai?”
“Beta, just don’t eff with me, OK” said Shanoo, her expressive eyes now narrowed as she gazed down at her former assistant, Ashrut Jain, who had come over to rehearse for an audition with her. “Sorry ma’am,” he replied, and continued his dialogues with his partner in the scene, a baby-faced male model whose air of studied cool was fast evaporating. There was no camera—just Shanoo, perched on a chair at her parents’ dining table.
It was an innocuous setting, perhaps, for what may have been the first steps towards creating the popular culture for much of the country. The scene they were rehearsing involved the boys ogling a young woman’s breasts as they talked to each other in language so robust that Shanoo belatedly sent her assistant scurrying to shut the door so that her parents wouldn’t hear it. They all agreed that the scene was “epic”. Midway through the rehearsal, the model had a meltdown, and Shanoo administered a rough form of first aid. “Tu nervous ho raha hai? Agar ho raha hai to bata, main nikaal doongi. (“Are you getting nervous? If you are, spit it out, I’ll take care of it.”) Is it me? My hair? My face? Have you heard horrible things about me?” she asked. “No ma’am. I’ve heard you’re a very kind and sweet person,” he managed. “Don’t lie,” Shanoo flashed back. And somehow, through this exchange, the actor regained his precarious balance, and they continued.
It was going slow, but Shanoo never let up, pouncing on lines, yelling and encouraging in turns, breaking off only to hand some task to her assistant, her voice going from an actor’s rich lilt to bellow (“RAUNAK”) in a heartbeat. I watched as she hammered away at a scene for nearly 30 minutes, focusing on its dramatic crescendo that revolved around a single piece of dialogue: “Just.” She made the actors repeat it, over and over again, in rising and falling pitches, correcting their coordination and timing, “jus…t. JUST. Just,” until she was satisfied. She let the model go, but called Jain back for some parting advice. “Stop eating him up,” she said. He nodded, and agreed, and continued to nod through the rest of her parting lecture. The only time he was moved to demur, ever so slightly, was when she told him to shave. “But ma’am, pores dikhte hain,” he said, rubbing an anxious hand over the merest beginnings of a beard. “Listen, I’ll tell you. Use vitamin E lotion,” said the ubiquitous Raunak, her (then) assistant, with an air of experience. As he left, Jain fumbled with his sunglasses, a gesture noticed by his stern mentor. “And don’t wear those aviators, please,” she snapped. “No ma’am,” he said hurriedly, tucking them into his shirt.“I was just putting them away.” In all the time I spent with her, nobody disagreed with Shanoo Sharma.
SHANOO’S ‘OFFICIAL’ OFFICE OCCUPIES an entire floor of a nondescript building near Juhu, at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac. It is a world away from the fortress-like YRF complex in Andheri. Here, only a simple printout on the door marks it as the YRF Casting Department. I walked in to see about two dozen young men and women, dressed identically in white tops, the girls in denim shorts, the boys in jeans—the ‘dress code’ specified by Shanoo for the day. At one end of the room, a notice read: “Please don’t cross the black line without permission.” I hovered uneasily around the line until I located Shanoo’s office (following the cry of “RAUNAK!”) across from it, and wormed my way through the protective cover of assistants and the lone security guard. She sat behind a desk, wielding a small camera, flanked by large mounted lights that wobbled precariously each time the door opened. The actors walked in one by one. As I watched from a corner, she zoomed in on and out of the faces that appeared before her, all the while maintaining a rapid-fire series of questions, putting the actors through what she called a ‘casual conversation’, and what is referred to in her office as an ‘introduction’.
“Do I know you?” she asked one grinning young man as he swaggered to the chair. “Why are you laughing?” The next girl was sent scurrying off with her assistants to fix her eye makeup, to “look sexy for the camera”. “You’ll have to fix your teeth,” Shanoo told another young man who charmed her with the story of how his father’s transfer to Mumbai was a “sign from above”, a blessing given to his dreams of being a star. “The rest is interesting, your presence is interesting. Just do something about your teeth. Your girlfriend’s an actor, na? Ask her for the money.” He left, like so many others, with a handshake and her murmured benediction, “Good bye, god bless”. But each time a new face walked in, she hitched up the camera with renewed curiosity, and asked the question that I had come to dread, “Why acting?” “Actually ma’am,” came the answer with deadly inevitability, “acting is my passion.”
The proceedings were watched by large cardboard cutouts of Bollywood stars, such as Sridevi and Amitabh Bachchan, which Shanoo occasionally uses as stand-ins for scenes. One wall of the room was covered with press clips on Shanoo, the others had an assortment of posters and pictures, including images of the Jackson 5, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. The wall opposite Shanoo’s chair was covered by a large mirror, to which all the actors gravitated almost unconsciously. A poster on one corner of the mirror showed a cartoon with the caption: “Before you meet a handsome prince, you have to kiss a lot of frogs.”
Every once in a while, Shanoo stopped rolling to ask for more coffee, or to scare away the pigeons outside her window (“PIGEON!”), or to demand that the precariously positioned lights be fixed. “I don’t know how lights work,” she said with haughty precision when an assistant made the mistake of asking her what she needed fixed. “That’s your job.” She asked each of the actors virtually the same questions: age, name, height, acting experience. With some she continued talking a bit longer, to others she gave quick advice. “You need to fix your skin,” she told one man, followed by the damning line, “and think about character roles.” It reminded me of something I’d heard about Shanoo—that she tells you the truth, doesn’t lead you on. “In this city,” she told me later, “everyone will give you an opinion. And between all this talk, you’ll get spun. People can take or leave my advice, but I think they should feel fucking blessed. At least I know what I’m doing.”
On this day, Shanoo saw around 30 aspirants. It was an easy day for her team, which sometimes handles over 100 people at a time, each assistant working in a separate room. Towards the end of the day’s quota, her senior assistant Bhavesha Kumar came in to ask if Shanoo would see the last few girls. “Ek thodi old si hai” (One is a bit old-ish), she said apologetically. “How old is ‘old’?” I asked with an inward quake. “Thirty-one,” Kumar replied, with the oblivion of a 20-something in a universe of 20-somethings. Shanoo ran the last few aspirants through their introductions, ending each one with the routine instruction to “Smile for the camera.” “No, like smile,” she insisted with the final girl, who obliged with tremulous enthusiasm. Shanoo waited for a few beats, then switched off the camera with a musical flourish. “We’re done.” The girl left with a handshake and a “Good bye, god bless.” Shanoo pulled out a bottle of hand sanitiser and splashed it onto her palms. “So many handshakes.”
Before all this, when Shanoo was just another rising star in Bollywood, she sparked off a legend involving an auto rickshaw. According to it, Shanoo would deal with her severe claustrophobia by being driven around in her personal autorickshaw. The vehicle would take her everywhere, to work and parties. And sometimes when the driver grew tired, she would tell him, “Take a break, I’ll drive.” I asked Shanoo about this story, and she laughed, but didn’t elaborate further. She did tell me that the rickshaw driver graduated to driving her car, but is currently out of her favour. Later, I looked at the many pictures and figures in her room of auto rickshaws, and asked her if they’re linked to ‘her’ auto. “Yeah,” she said musingly, looking at the collection as if wondering how it got so large. “That story got out of hand a bit.”
Besides the autos, the other overwhelming presence in Shanoo’s room is her set of religious icons, a range of them. Images of Hanuman, Krishna and Guru Nanak brighten and dim on small light bulbs set on a switch board; Durga Ma is on the wall; and verses from the Quran make up her laptop’s wallpaper. On her arm, she has a large ‘Om’ tattoo. Several times in our conversations, she mentioned not doing things that are “karmically wrong”, and said she often undertakes mannats, or pledges, to fulfill special prayers. With her usual flair for the dramatic, she vowed to give up meat ahead of the release of her brother Sameer’s debut feature. As things turned out, the film was delayed, and Shanoo, who normally ate meat every day, remained vegetarian for almost a year, until the film came out last November.
But what matters most to her is music. “I love Michael Jackson, I have his name tattooed on my body. Whitney [Houston], Sultan Khan, anything I can jive to.” She also has a reputation for hosting parties where she only plays songs from cheesy Hindi movies. It was one such party that was famously gatecrashed by a then-teenaged Ranveer Singh. When he returned to India after studying abroad and decided to act, he said, “I would often go to Shanoo’s and dance and act out scenes from our favourite films like Ram Lakhan or Mr, India.” This is the universe Shanoo is most familiar with, one she has played a part in shaping, and one that she cannot function away from. “I got offers to work abroad but I’m too much of a desi girl to leave,” she said. “I’m the girl who dances to Mithun. When Salman rips off his shirt in Dabangg, I’m the girl who gets it, who cries.”
THE CLOSEST SULEMAN KHAN, the aspiring actor, has got to Shanoo is on Twitter, when she replied to a response he made on her response to her own tweet. This ‘direct’ contact from Shanoo got him so excited he didn’t eat dinner that night, and went the next day to his friends in high spirits to receive their congratulations on his achievement. “It was a great moment for me,” he confessed with disarming candour. In the peculiar logic of the aspirants’ community, “I felt unke through (through her) I’m just a touch away from Adi Chopra, and then on, anything may happen,” his words an echo of Dilip Merala’s musings on the dizzy heights to where his meeting with Shanoo could take him. “But of course,” Suleman added hastily, the words a quick superstition, a verbal crossing of fingers, “it doesn’t work like that. It all depends on your Talent and Luck.”
To reach Shanoo, one begins with sending her photographs at the email address on her door, as well as on her Facebook page, which is also where she announces casting calls. “OK PEOPLE! So I am looking for the next lead BOY for YRF’s most ambitious project!” says an entry dated December 13. The page also has her office address, the names of her “ONLY assistants” and warnings against hoaxes. Facebook, Shanoo said, is one of the places she “sources from all the time”. In addition, she and her staff insist that she sees each of the photographs that are emailed to email@example.com, her official email address. These are then filed into a database that currently has over 50,000 entries. In addition to all this, Shanoo is also on Twitter, but that’s “not about work”. All of this has given Shanoo’s office a reputation for openness, at least in relative terms. “In Mumbai the struggle is actually to find out where the auditions are, and then to get in. In most places casting happens andar hi andar se (internally). Yahan ladka Lucknow mein baitha hai to bhi chance hai” (Here, even if the boy is sitting in Lucknow he has a chance), said Suleman, who currently lives in Delhi. In the words of her former assistant Jain, “Those people in small towns who dream of YRF and Dharma productions should stop dreaming of those places and start dreaming of Shanoo Sharma.”
But Shanoo’s own relationship with these sentiments is complicated. She never receives calls from unknown numbers, and her phone has several numbers either blocked, or saved as variations of the format “Sidharth DONT”. “We [her assistants] are very approachable to even fresh actors with no experience,” explained Kumar, “but not everyone can approach ma’am”. Shanoo herself usually holds meetings with actors “only through reference”. In one of her effusive outbursts about her mystique in the strugglers’ network, she told me, “Just because you’ve decided to act, doesn’t mean I have to cast you.” But she also admitted to being obsessed about looking at every picture that is sent to her. “If I just turn over a page without focusing, I’ll feel compelled to go back. Because, that’s a life, you know.”
A few days earlier, Shanoo had shown me videos of actors she had “worked with”—people she sees as potential lead performers, or who show long-term promise. Most of them were a step ahead of being newcomers—maybe a few films old, looking to break into the next league. With them, Shanoo goes through a process of grooming and training that is unusual, especially for an industry where, until recently, audition tapes were simply actors reading their lines to the camera. “She’s a big friend of the actor,” said Saba Azad, who acted in Y Films’ Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge. “If she believes in you, she’ll put her time in you, and she’ll get what she wants out of you. Until she feels you’ve done your best, she won’t let you go.” Her assistants speak in hushed tones of rehearsals that go on for hours every day, and span weeks. And Bhaskar recalled being taken shopping for a new wardrobe to spruce up her look, once Shanoo had decided she was worth the effort.
“I think transformation of any kind is hot,” Shanoo said, as we watched on her laptop the various stages she had taped some of the actors through. Most of the videos were shot in her house, and sometimes the actresses were even wearing her clothes. There is a touch of the rough-and-ready to the tapes—she ‘cuts’ for instance, by moving the camera to her feet. But as the process unfolded , the actors got more polished-looking, the lighting more flattering, the look more Yash Raj. I watched a sizeable portion of the acting community of the city baring cleavage, ‘hevage’ and acting chops for Shanoo—dancing in her living room, acting at her dining table, or improvising in the small space between her bed and cupboard. The same space, I realised, where I was sitting watching the video. “Acting or sex,” came Shanoo’s voice from behind the camera on the tape. “Acting,” replied the young man on camera promptly. “Acting or food?” she continued, and, before he could answer, “Acting or this audition?” The camera shook with her silent laughter as he fumbled for a response.
THE NATURE OF SHANOO’S FAME IS NUANCED. Certain people in Mumbai, for instance, know her from one of her many previous avatars in a restaurant or salon. For others—those disinterested consumers of mainstream Mumbai cinema—she is just one of the credits that flash past before the movie. (Before, not after, as Patil pointed out, to illustrate her clout.) But the idea of being famous, said Shanoo, makes her uncomfortable. “In my own head, I am not that big. I never go to Bombay Times parties. I enjoy being with my own people.” She often spends time with non-film friends from her many schools. She also claimed to often go to places where she might meet the kind of men who ask, “Who’s Karan Johar?” “And I dig that,” she insisted. The eventual plan, she told me early in our conversations, “is to be married and have kids”. But until then, she plans to cast.
On the day I visited her office, her big plan had been to go home early to celebrate her parents’ wedding anniversary, but that thought seemed to have got lost in the bustle of work by the time dusk fell. As her office thinned out, Shanoo tried out another pair for the same role I had watched Jain and the young model attempt earlier. Through mouthfuls of egg fried rice (“I forgot I can eat chicken now!”), she took them through the drill. “Just,” they trilled, “Just,” she instructed, again and again. “It’s really funny, you’re not getting it.”
Soon, she was ready to leave again, but agreed to stay on to meet an older actor who had been trying to see her for months. They talked about his work, and about how he needed to get back into the game after some time abroad and a recent illness. He talked for a while, until Shanoo cut his ramblings and tentative questions short with surgeon-like precision. “Don’t meet anyone until you look the way you want to look,” she said. “And once you’re ready, get a good folio done. Don’t make it the usual stuff, things have changed,” she cautioned, and the actor, who has been in the industry for over a decade, just nodded in agreement. They decided on a plan, much of which seemed to be based on his continued invisibility. Finally, he rose and shook hands, and prepared to leave with a quip. “In the meantime, if you should ever need a fat guy…” he started. Shanoo didn’t skip a beat: “I never need a fat guy.”
Taran N Khan is a filmmaker and journalist based primarily in Mumbai. She has also worked from Kabul, collaborating with Afghani filmmakers and TV professionals.