How the Casting Director of ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’ Braved Floods in Kashmir Scouting for a Little Girl

Casting director Shoumie Mukherjee narrates a definitive turning point in her Bollywood career, when the professional became intensely personal.

As told to Varsha Adusumilli. Excerpted from Wonder Girls with permission from Juggernaut.

Each director I’ve worked with is different. Anurag Kashyap is impulsive and improvises on the spot. For example, it’s not uncommon for him to add lines to the script on the spot. The actors need to be receptive to his impulsiveness. Whereas for Kabir Khan the script is the bible. He won’t change a thing. As a casting director I need to think deeply about my director’s needs and recruit actors accordingly.

There are times when a casting director will have to butt heads with the director if required. If a character is described as a fat person and a casting director doesn’t see why the character needs to be fat, you can question his or her choice. But I must be honest; it took me a couple of years to muster up the confidence to do so.

For Salman Khan’s blockbuster, Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), we were tasked with finding the little girl who plays the Pakistani kid in the film. In 2014 we conducted India-wide auditions for the actor. Five months and no luck. So my colleague and I decided to go to Kashmir in September that year. It was the year, right when we were there conducting the auditions, that Kashmir was devastated by floods.

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The Kashmir floods in 2014 left over 450 people dead and 300,000 stranded (photo credit: EPA / Mail Online)

The hotel staff advised us to remain indoors because the situation outside was dangerous. My colleague and I didn’t comprehend the gravity of the situation at the time. We ordered a ton of food and stayed in. The electricity was cut off, so we were stranded without television, Internet and soon, our phones too.

That evening the hotel staff informed us that the water levels may rise any time. We didn’t believe them. We thought things would get better, not worse. The next day, we woke up to loud noises outside. When I opened the window, we saw that the hotel was submerged up to the second floor. My colleague and I panicked.

It was only when the army rescue boats evacuated us from the hotel that I realized the full extent of the devastation. There were streets with hospitals and buildings that were completely under water. At the rescue camp, a temple, there were 20,000 people crammed in, waiting for help. There was no food, medical aid, blankets or any protection from the brutal cold.

Everyone was waiting for a miracle.

We moved from one such rescue camp to another, hoping our turn for the rescue choppers would come. Our singular focus every day was to get through the night and see light the next day. As the days passed the situation grew even more desperate. For the first time I witnessed the human instinct for survival take over. The mood in the camps was angry and restless. And rightfully so. If you throw 25 packets of food at 20,000 people, they are going to fight like animals for it.

In one of the camps I saw a 20-something woman helplessly walking around with her dead baby. It was horrific.

A week later, a rescue chopper took us to Delhi. Even though I went back to work soon after that, I experienced severe trauma that lasted a few months. I would find myself going completely numb, staring at random things without any purpose. My sister once asked me to turn on the AC, but I could not immediately register what an AC was.

My doctor assured me that this was due to the shock I had been through and my lack of access to vital nutrients during that time. He said I would be alright in a few days.

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Actors Salman Khan and Harshaali Malhotra in Bajrangi Bhaijaan

The funny part is that we ultimately found the perfect girl for the role in Delhi! All that pain and trauma for nothing. If you watch Bajrangi Bhaijaan you’ll never know what we had to go through to recruit that little kid.

Sometimes it takes getting stuck in a flood to make a good movie.

First published in the October 2018 issue of eShe magazine