Shanoo Sharma is always in the zone. "Yesterday, I was in a rickshaw, and I saw this girl in the rickshaw adjacent to mine. I just reached out to her and asked her, do you want to act," she recounts.
The casting director of Yash Raj Films - who has blockbusters like Dhoom 3, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Ek Tha Tiger, My Name is Khan and more than 30 others to her credit - habitually stops at traffic intersections, pubs, malls and coffee shops to search for interesting faces, potentially changing their lives forever. "It's just this feeling I get, I believe in that sort of destiny," she says.
The clout of casting directors is on the rise in B-town; among them, Sharma has become a cult figure of sorts. Actors spotted by her include Ranveer Singh, Parineeti Chopra, Arjun Kapoor, Swara Bhaskar, Bhumi Pednekar: the who's who of Bollywood's star roster.
Born in Mumbai, Sharma grew up all over the country, changing seven schools before moving with her parents to Johannesburg where her father had set up an Indian restaurant. Her hotelier father counted several film directors and producers as close friends, while her elder brother, Sameer, is a writer and director (Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana).
Sharma herself was a drifter. She ran her father's restaurant for a while, finished her schooling, and decided she has had enough of the academic life. At 17, she returned to Mumbai, and took up odd jobs that ranged from assisting designer Manish Malhotra ("lasted a month"), to bartending, working in a PR agency, managing events, styling and acting.
"None of these jobs was wrong, but I just kept getting bored," Sharma says. Casting happened quite by chance. She had injured her leg and was confined at home, where she started a talent management service. But soon she started to tire of it too ("actors and their baggage"), when her brother suggested her to try casting Sudhir Mishra's upcoming film. After Khoya Khoya Chand, Sharma just didn't have to look back, since "work just started flowing in."
Until a few years ago, the job of a casting director didn't exist, though an Amita Sehgal or an Uma da Cunha were casting. Mostly, this peripheral task would be performed by the producer, director and assistants, who would brainstorm together and make the decisions.
Sharma recalls when she came in people would ask her, "Script padhne ki kya zaroorat hai?" She, on her part, was adamant that she must read the script and learn the parts. Now, about a third of all Bollywood films have a casting director. And the biggest name in the business is Sharma.
Mishra calls Sharma "a gutsy, spunky girl who is not afraid of thinking out of the box." The advantage of a casting director, according to him, is to go wide and allow a surprise to happen. "I saw that potential in her; with Sharma even a two scene part becomes as important as the main part," he adds. "Casting directors have structured the process for directors in a way that enriches the whole film. Sharma takes time to understand the script and breaks the cliche of the part."
Sharma is grateful to Karan Johar for her first big break. "He offered me Kurbaan, and I got to cast very big people and it made my name." They are so close that Sharma has an ongoing deal with YRF that she will never say no to Johar. "I'm doing Ae Dil Hai Mushkil [which is being shot in London], before that I did Bombay Talkies and Ungli for him," she says with pride.
Ranveer Singh, widely considered one of the biggest milestones of Sharma's career when she launched him in YRF's hit Band Baaja Baraat, recalls they were friends first before they began working together. "She had paramount conviction and belief in my talent and went all out to make it known to influential industry professionals. She's always given me solid advice; I trust her with my life," says Singh. According to him, Sharma is "very sensitive" but also "very straight and frank with her feedback".
After seeing the success of Sharma's finds, a lot of Bollywood hopefuls have lined up at her door. Singh has advice for them: "Be honest with her and present yourself as you are. Don't try and pretend to be someone you are not. Listen carefully to her advice and work on the aspects of yourself that she feels need to be improved." Come December, Sharma will finish a decade in casting.
Bollywood insiders claim that Sharma got her breaks because of her family's film connections. Still, Sharma has built a reputation for openness to relative newcomers. To reach Sharma, one begins with sending her photographs at the email address on her door, as well as on her verified Facebook page (Shanoo YRFcasting), which is also where she announces casting calls. "YRF is looking for their next LEAD BOY" says an entry dated July 11.
Sharma is quite at home with YRF. Having grown up on Kishore Kumar and Manmohan Desai's films, she counts Mr India and Ram Lakhan among her all-time favourites. "I love Sooraj Barjatya. I love Hum Saath Saath Hai when Salman Khan comes into the bedroom and doesn't find his photograph there and finds it in Monish Behl's room. I have tears, I go crazy. I'm desi at heart," she says with a contented sigh.
Her Twitter bio has an interesting occupation: future homemaker. I ask her about it, and she is empathic. "I didn't sign up to be a fierce independent woman, I wanted to get married and have children and learn how to cook - and I still do, that is my dream." She says she won't ever date an actor "even though the word out in the market is that I've dated everybody I've cast," she says laughingly.
It's increasingly clear that Sharma isn't ruffled easily.
She is obsessed with casting right now, with four YRF projects in her kitty, but doesn't "know what god has in store next." Her pal Singh calls her "the best auditioner in the business, which is why I feel someday she will also make an excellent film director."
Sharma has a warm relationship with Aditya Chopra, the maverick producer-director and chairman of YRF. "I love the way he works, the way he keeps me on my toes." Sharma categorically states that "my boss is not a recluse. He lives his life and has a fantastic time, only he doesn't want people to know about it!"
It's Sunday night and we are wrapping up an hour long conversation, while Sharma is still at work. Her office starts at 10.30 am every day, her army of assistants comes in and takes auditions, and each one is shown to her by the end of the day.
And talent can pop up anywhere. Pednekar, the star of Dum Laga Ke Haisha, YRF's first critically and commercially successful film of this year, was Sharma's assistant for six years before Sharma saw her potential and decided to cast her.
"Some of my assistants are aspiring actors, some are aspiring directors, aspiring DOPs, even aspiring casting directors! Which is cool because when I started doing this, they weren't any aspiring casting directors - so you can say I've done it," she sums up with a laugh.