Casting with a Conscience
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Raadhika Dosa is a casting director in India. Dosa has worked on the film Life of Pi, on films with Italian director Federico Brugia, and on many commercials. She speaks on the challenges and importance of casting. How you can impact cultural and social norms by saying ‘yes’ to the right project and ‘no’ to the wrong ones, even if it is to Google.
Tell me a bit about your work as a casting director.
You have to want to work with people. You have to be able to talk to people and understand what they think — to get them to perform in front of the camera.
You have people who are good looking who look into the camera and they just can’t perform. It’s like a deer in the headlights. Then you have people who look like nothing special, and they can just blow you away with what they can do in front of a camera.
How do you select the right person for the role?
You have to try and envision; find out what the director is seeing in his head. Only he knows what he wants. It’s a big miracle. We’re all walking in the dark because, as we see more and more people, it stops forming a clear picture in people’s heads.
There is obviously boring casting: we just want someone to sell detergent or cereal. Or do we want somebody new, who’s a great performer? That is not always possible because if they’re very new, they’re very raw.
With experienced actors, we call them based on their portfolio and the amount of work they’ve done or if we think they’re interesting or if we know them.
A lot of my casting happens through networking rather than just going through agencies. Luckily, we can work with people who we like. We don’t have to select everyone through an agency.
I was casting a commercial in Romania and I needed a little girl. We would be searching through agencies or going to casting directors. Or I walk into people at a party. There are a lot of people in your head. You’re constantly looking at them and thinking, “That’s a great grandpa and that’s a great grandma. She would be really good. She has really lovely skin.” It can get quite stressful.
Are people afraid of inviting you over now?
No, they love it! They’re all excited to be on TV. I’m like, “I’m here for a party! I don’t want to come as a casting director!” [Laughs.] You have to be talented; you don’t just get in just because of me.
Then there is a lot of psychology. There are people who are wealthy and you want them in a film because they are so fun. You have to know how to get them to give their time, because you’re never going to be able to pay them enough to be in it.
How did you become a casting director?
I was a flunky in a production house, and somebody told me, “You are the lowest of the low, you have to do everything.” From fetching tea and coffee to carrying tape bags. Then they said, “You’re a production assistant, you’re new, do the video tests.” I spent months filming people and started getting into it because you basically translate the script for the director.
You start working with people and then you realize that you enjoy it. It’s almost like making a mini film each time with the person. Acting for them, reading the lines for them. I worked with some good directors. You learn from them. It was fun.
What has been a surprising learning element in this whole process?
I guess no film is the same. People can always surprise you, always.
Last week, we were doing the Romanian commercials for the Lodha Group. We were looking for a little girl. Just a few months ago, my husband’s cousin paid a visit to her great-grandmother in our city. I met the cousin for the first time. She came with her three little girls and they were performing for my grandparents-in-law. The girls are 12, 5, and 3, or something like that.
I just asked one of the girls, Isla, to audition. I didn’t know how good she was, because this has been many months. I only met her that one time for a couple of hours. She did her audition on Skype and through Facetime. She was just brilliant. We said, “You know what? Let’s just go with her.” The kid was good.
I was still nervous because she was five and a half and you don’t know how kids can be. She was so cool about the whole thing. She laughed, she was pretty smart, and she was quick, which is rare for five year olds.
One time, I worked with an Indian child who kept saying, “I’m tired, it’s cold, it’s early, it’s dark.” With children you can’t say anything.
With this little girl, it was brilliant because she just did it. It took her a bit to get into because she’d never faced a camera before in her life. I know she’s going to do something with it. She’s not just going to be another little kid who modeled for a few years. It’s always amazing when you see that in somebody. You feel like you’re doing something to nudge her there.
That’s what I love the most because it’s always a surprise. You don’t expect to. You think it’s just a cute kid, you make it work, then suddenly there’s magic.
What happens when someone freezes?
Yeah, that happens. I had a mother who once bribed her kid to finish a commercial for a bar of chocolate.
The mother gave her one square every time she did a good take. Nothing if she didn’t do well. That kid just wanted that chocolate bar. I felt horrible. I felt like a really bad person. But she finished that shoot with lines and everything in six hours which was a miracle. Nobody expected it. You sometimes have to standby if it’s a kid.
You worked on The Life of Pi?
Yes. It was fun because I got to see my name and all my friends clapped for me at the theater. I wasn’t the main casting person. We had a whole team in India when we were looking for Pi. Avy Kaufman is a big casting director. She did Salt with Angelina Jolie for example.
Avy Kaufman got in touch with somebody in India who then hired the bunch of us. I handled two or three areas and we compiled everything because we had like four different areas.
We looked for over a month. One of the rules is you don’t turn anybody away, because you never know who will surprise you. Three of the kids I choose made the final. But another kid was selected.
What is the difference casting for a commercial or film?
Film is about performance and you have to be able to be there for the long run. It’s a lot of pauses; it’s not just seeing a cereal box and saying, “Buy this.” In a TV commercial a lot of it is on looks, not necessarily on performance. The scale is very different. The turn around time is a lot faster.
Can you share an example of a piece you did where you could see that it had a social or cultural impact on people in India.
It was an important commercial for me because we had a lady director. We had a lady actress and a lady singer who made the music video. It was a women’s project. It was for the UN and a good cause. It was being shot in a very interesting manner. Something I am very proud of.
It was just a music video but it talked to people about keeping baby girls.
The best part: the girl who acted as the pregnant woman is one of the most critically acclaimed actress in India.
In the video, the actress did something extraordinary. She bared her big pregnant stomach facing the camera which nobody in India would do because we’re all so superstitious that somebody will give you the evil eye and stuff like that.
We were all so excited when her own baby was a girl because it just sort of came full circle.
It was culturally inappropriate to see a woman baring her pregnant belly — is it different now?
It’s still very conservative in India. I grew up in the ’70s and ‘80s seeing mothers breastfeeding their babies wherever they are, because you couldn’t buy bottled milk and feed. There was nothing else. Now it’s such a big deal whether you do or you don’t. I have a friend who is going around with this whole campaign for breastfeeding and we’d be like, “But we’ve always done it!”
What are the major issues in India now?
There is too much happening in India right now. The current issue is animal cruelty. The girl child issue has taken a step back. But it keeps coming up in the statistics because we have a very low female sex ratio. They are saying there is going to be a time when there will not be enough women.
They are killing the girls of tomorrow, but the girls are going to be the most valued because there are so few of them. It’s like 800 girls for 1,000 boys in some states.
Are there campaigns about this?
We’re not allowed to disclose the sex of the child during an ultrasound. There are undercover cops who do sting operations, because women want to know the sex of the baby. There have been huge scandals with very wealthy families; the women are so scared that they’re not going to have a boy. The boy is the prince and the heir, and the whatever. There are actually cases of female infanticide.
In America, everybody says, “I’m having a girl, I’m having a boy.” We never know.
There have been abandoned babies in the trash, it’s quite sad. A lot of women do it out of fear. Some women who have multiple girls keep trying because they’re desperate to have a son. My maid has two daughters and finally got a son. I think if she hadn’t had that boy her husband would have left her and married somebody else.
How do girls grow up and feel appreciated?
It really depends on your father. I had a father who traveled the world and said that I could become anything I wanted to be. There are plenty of fathers who just tow the line and never cross that line. It is always social compulsion.
It’s the kind of system you’re brought up in. Because there are so many religions and ethnicities, castes, and communities everybody has a different way of doing things.
I’m quite the black sheep on my father’s side of the family. Because I got divorced and got remarried. But the family still loves me because they know me. I didn’t have the arranged marriage and the rich bridegroom.
What insight would you give the next generation of casting directors?
My most practical advice is that you need to understand the casting of a TV commercial or a movie. It’s unfortunate but people want to see good-looking people. You have to be really fantastic like Meryl Streep to be a star and classically good looking but not people’s perception of good-looking. Everybody can’t be Aishwarya Rai. The industry is making an effort to cast other people. They are trying to bring about a little change here and there. It’s just harder in India.
Then, I was casting for a bunch of commercials for Google in India. Every commercial had a little boy who was being a smart ass with his mother.
I talked to my husband and said, “I don’t like these commercials. I’m not going to be happy casting them.” Moms are expected to be really dumb in them, she Googles to help her become smart. Which I get; Google can help you get smarter. But the message came out of the son who tells his mom, “You don’t know anything.” If my son spoke to me like that, I wouldn’t like it.
They’re making it okay that a boy can tell his mom that she can’t help him with his homework because she’s not smart enough or she’s not as educated as he is. Which, I get, is a reality. I’m sure it happens, but why do we have to make that point?
I just thought that there was something off with that.
Who has made an impact on your professional DNA?
I worked for Brad and Angelina. I was with them when they were in India filming A Mighty Heart. What I got from them was that they are really humble people. I’ve seen Indian stars and Indian actors with more attitudes. I remember having a conversation with Angelina and saying, “So how many spot boys have we given you?”
She said: “What’s that?” She was carrying her own bag and walking over to her car, not having someone running behind her scurrying around. I mean she’s a superstar and she is used to seeing an entourage with everyone else.
I joked with her, I said, “Have they given you the full star treatment? You need one guy to carry a chair around, for any time you want to sit in the chair; another one with an umbrella so you don’t get a tan; another one with a mirror and a brush so you can do your hair in between takes.” She looks at me and says, “That’s terrible!”
They were trying to keep it as down to normal as possible. They spoke to everybody with so much concern. I realize that you can be one of the biggest stars in the world and still be a regular person without making a big deal about it.
I think that was the biggest impact, because I realized that people can be really nice. You don’t have be an asshole to be a star.
Give me a word to describe your journey so far?
Super challenging and interesting. Always interesting, because you’re dealing with people. There’s always the challenge of finding the right person for a role and then seeing that magic happen.
I took a break because I thought I hated casting. I was so tired and bored with it. I have decided now that I’m back I’m just going to do projects that I really like rather than taking them on for the sake of taking them on.
Like I said about the Google ads. I didn’t agree with them, and said: “Why am I casting for something I feel revulsion for?” I never saw them on air, so I’m hoping they never made them.