She is the one who designed those to-die-for lehengas for Deepika Padukone in Ram-leela. Designer Anju Modi talks about her Bollywood debut and fab-bodied Priyanka and Deepika.
She has been designing clothes and experimenting with textiles for the last 20 years, creating new blended fabric in Varanasi, new colourways and designs in Venkatgiri, reinterpreting bandhini by giving it geometrical patterns and neutral colourways, and trying variations in tie and dye techniques. So, when filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali went looking for a costume designer familiar with traditional Gujarati textiles and attire for his Gujarat-based film Goliyon Ki Raasleel Ram-Leela, he picked Anju Modi.
Deepika Padukone's vividly printed ghagras have now become one of Ram-Leela's talking points. So we decided to catch up with the rather shy designer on a sunny afternoon over an Italian lunch of thin-crust pizza, risotto and more at La Piazza at the Hyatt Regency, Delhi.
What made Sanjay Leela Bhansali choose you for Ram-Leela instead of Sabyasachi, who seems to be his favourite?
It was Sonam Kapoor who, impressed by my Meera indigo collection based on Rajasthani work, recommended me. Sanjay was specifically looking for someone who has worked in the Kutch region and who understands its costumes. His team did extensive research on the kind of work I have done in Gujarat, and only when he was satisfied did he call me. As far as Sabyasachi is concerned, he hasn't worked that much in Gujarat.
We've heard that Sanjay Leela Bhansali is a harsh taskmaster. Was he really?
Firstly, I must admit that I'm a big fan of Sanjay's films. I love their grandeur and larger-than-life images. So when I got this call, I was very excited. He had initially wanted me to design costumes for all the three leads - Ranveer, Deepika and Priyanka [who appears in an item song] - but I refused to do it for Ranveer, because I had to design as many as 30 costumes for Deepika alone.
After our meeting, Sanjay handed the entire script to me as he wanted me to completely understand Deepika's character, Leela, before designing the costumes. Sanjay is a perfectionist and has an eye for detail. He'll keep improving on things till he is completely satisfied. He is very passionate about his work. In a way, I'm also like that. I also want everything to be perfect down to the last detail.
Sanjay doesn't talk too much but he would interact with me regularly on Skype. He definitely knows how to get the best out of someone. I will always remember one comment of his. I asked him about the need to put so many tassels on Deepika's lehenga when they wouldn't even be seen on screen. He said, "Don't worry about whether they will be seen or not. You just be true to your work and do it to your complete satisfaction."
How long did it take to work on the costumes and what kind of embroidery and fabrics did you focus on?
It took me a full year from the time I came on board. Each costume had as many as two-three duplicates. Since Sanjay wanted the heritage and craft to look alive and vibrant, I looked at giving old techniques and arts a contemporary twist, which is also my signature touch. The character of Leela was that of a modern-day Gujarati girl who lives in a port town. She's a firebrand non-conformist with a rebellious streak. So her clothes had to stand out from the rest of the cast. The lehengas for Leela were more like ghaghras, with three different layers of fabrics and borders, but in a leaner skirt-like silhouette. I utilised the old technique of the 80 panel lehenga that makes you look sexier and slimmer by adding volume [or flares] to the lehenga.
The one shown in the posters of the film has a ghera of 50 metres and for many major scenes, like the climax, I used antique lehengas sourced from the interiors of Bhuj. Even some of the bandhini dupattas that were folded into a thin strap and artfully tucked into the ghaghra were antique. I've used pure silver foil printing on the lehengas and dupattas. The embroideries were sitara and tarkashi work, which are both typical of Gujarat. I also used tie-dye and did a lot of colour mixing, which is my forte. I have mixed antique pieces with newer fabrics, a challenge in itself and worked with 'desi' fabrics, which were sourced from all over the country - khadi from Andhra Pradesh, bandhini and mashru silk from Gujarat and gauge cotton woven down South.
But, when Leela takes over from her mother as the new Dhankor, her costumes need to showcase everything that she has gone through. So, I gave her colours that not only exuded power but also showed her in a more mature and serious light; deep brown, dark purple, maroon and even emerald green. I also gave her high-collared blouses with full sleeves and some jewellery for the neck (which she hardly wore earlier) - more like power dressing. So, the transformation in the character automatically got expressed in the dressing style.
Priyanka, on the other hand, looks relatively plain, with just one costume. Why?
I was very satisfied with the way Priyanka looked in the item song. Interestingly, there is a story behind her final look. The brief I got from Sanjay about the song was that Priyanka has just stepped out of the bath and is rubbing her hair with a towel. Through the song she is actually commenting on the plight of Ram and Leela and there is a Sufi feel to it. So it was decided to make a blouse and dhoti-lungi with some mirrorwork. Sanjay initially asked me to make a pink dhoti-lungi set and then asked me to make a black one too in cotton khadi. But I was keen on white.
Then suddenly I got a call one day that the shooting of the item song has been advanced and Sanjay needed the sets in triplicate. I was in a big fix but went with the pink and black. However, once the shoot started, we realised that both the colours weren't making any sense. So, I flew back to Delhi that same day, called my karigars at night and worked the whole night to get the white costume ready as we only had Priyanka's date for that day to shoot the song. Next day, I took the morning flight to Mumbai with the white costume with my fingers crossed! Fortunately, the moment Priyanka saw it, she screamed and said that she loved it. She stood patiently for the next two hours getting the Sanskrit tattoo done on her body for the final look.
What was it like to work with two big female stars of the industry?
I must say that I have been very lucky to design for both Deepika as well as Priyanka - two women with the best bodies in Bollywood. And I'm completely impressed by their discipline and commitment. They have no tantrums, no starry nakhras at all and were always there on time. Both of them realise the importance of costume to get the right look and made no fuss about anything at all. Deepika follows a very disciplined regime and never misses her gym in the morning. I also admire Ranveer for his simplicity and his dedication towards his work. In fact, I must say that the whole industry has become very professional and organised now. If there were any changes in any costume, Sanjay's team made sure that I was informed immediately.
With the success of Ram-Leela, have you got any other offer to design costumes for a film?
Yes, I have already got busy designing costumes for Traces of Sandalwood, a low-budget Spanish film being shot in India starring Nandita Das. I quite admire her and that's one reason why I agreed to do the costumes, though they are not as demanding as the Ram-Leela ones. Nandita didn't want any elaborate clothes, except for one that I'm designing for a dance sequence being choreographed by Saroj Khan. That costume will have a Rajasthani touch to it.
My favourite filmi costumes
* I loved the costumes in Asoka especially those of Kareena. The earthy khadi look given to her by Manish Malhotra was superb.
* I also liked the costumes in Jodha Akbar. There was a nice historical feel to them.
* As I love Sanjay's work, I have loved the costumes in Devdas, Guzaarish and even Black. All these films showcase how important costumes are to a film.
The stars I'd love to dress
Sonam Kapoor: To be honest, after designing for both Deepika and Priyanka, I really feel very happy and content. But in case I get a chance, I would love to design for Sonam Kapoor. She looks good in anything and everything.
Kareena Kapoor: Again a versatile actress who can carry off everything.
Rekha: I really admire her dressing sense.
Madhuri Dixit: I have already designed a few costumes for her for Jhalak Dikhla Jaa. I really enjoyed designing for her.
From HT Brunch, December 1
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