Here’s a question. When was the last time you watched a movie in which the heroine pranced about in a pink frilly frock? Our guess is that, unless you have a fetish for films of the ’80s and therefore a large DVD collection of them, it was a very long time ago. Possibly in the ’80s itself.
Though the films of the ’90s were a little more palatable in terms of what the actors and actresses wore, there’s been a huge change since the turn of the century. Films, not just contemporary films, but period films as well, have become more realistic.
The costumes have not only become more like the clothes people-like-us wear, but they also stand out – give a film a certain defining look that can be very, very attractive.
This look, fashionable though it might be, often has little to do with its star’s personal sense of style. Instead, it comes from the vision of the film’s director, based on the ideas of the film’s costume designer or stylist.
And for the costume designer, those ideas come from the way the character the star plays ought to look. It is the character that matters, and nothing else.
The trend began, says fashion designer Aki Narula, who has designed for Bunty Aur Babli, Bluffmaster and Don among other films, when a new breed of directors arrived on the Bollywood scene. “They were younger, more experimentative (sic!),” he says. “They had scripts they wanted to direct that featured characters they identified with. So the protagonist had to be true to the character and the costumes had to be part of the character.” These directors have a story to tell and a vision of how it should be told and that, no matter what the status of the film’s principal cast, is all that matters.
Film-maker Karan Johar, known for his insistence on styling, makes things very clear: “Styling is critical as it has to blend in with the tone and atmosphere of a film, but it has to be about a character and go with the character. Styling and costumes should not stand out unless the film is about fashion. In the west, for instance, you don’t point out Will Smith’s or Tom Cruise’s clothes.”
Two other factors brought about this change. For one, Bollywood began to become more organised in its working patterns. Where once scripts were written on the sets as the films were being shot, now both the cast and technicians are presented with a bound script.
This, naturally, is a great help for the people behind the look of a film – the costume designer, the production designer and the director of photography – because they can do scene-by-scene break ups and come up with a holistic look.
And now that filmmakers have ceased to regard their audience as a single amorphous mass, the focus on character has become more important. Films have target audiences these days – film-makers cater to a certain kind of viewer rather than every single person in the world who happens to be Indian. And that smaller, slightly more niche audience is not only more discerning, but more demanding of a quality product.
“A contemporary story cannot be larger than life,” says Lovleen Bains, costume designer of Rang De Basanti, Shikhar, Mangal Pandey and Sarfarosh, among others. “It depends on the director’s vision – he usually wants a realistic look that you as the viewer can identify with rather than look up to as a dream.
It also depends on the kind of audience he wants and how he wants to reach it. If his audience is the youth, then his characters demand that stylish, stylised look.”
Character study: When it comes to the contemporary look, it doesn’t matter how not into films or fashion you might be. If you live in India, you can’t escape either films or fashion, and frequently these two fields are bound up in each other. Whether in a newspaper, magazine or television programme – and, oh yes, let us not forget, a movie! – film stars are all over the place.
And because of that, they have grown more conscious of the way they present themselves to a public that is very quick to react to anything that its favourites do, say and wear.
“Fans keep a tight watch on the film stars,” says Anaita Shroff Adjania, stylist of films like Dhoom and Dhoom 2, Being Cyrus, and Hope and a Little Sugar, as well as personal stylist to some of the stars.
“They react to a new look in an instant.” But here’s a paradox. In the ’70s and ’80s, the stars, having found their personal styles, stuck to those styles even in their films. Today, even as the stars get fussier about their images – going to the extent of taking on personal stylists such as Adjania rather than relying on their own fashion sense – when it comes to a film, they do as the designer and director say.
“When I design for an actor, it isn’t about his personal style,” says Bains. “Is he the character or himself ? That’s the question he has to answer.” Difficult as it is for us as viewers to separate actor from character, for a costume designer, it’s a must. The actor must be, as a far as possible, a blank slate.
His / her physical structure has to be taken into account of course, but aside from that and his comfort factor with the clothes he is to wear, nothing matters but the character.
“The job of a costume designer is to make people look as they should; to allow the actor to breathe within the parameters of the character,” says Arjun Bhasin, costume designer of Monsoon Wedding, Dil Chahta Hai, Lakshya and the soon to release Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd and The Namesake.
“To do that, you need to take your actor, strip him of every thing that is the actor about him, and turn him into the character.”
Much as we may hate to admit this, clothes do make the man. The first thing a costume designer does after reading the script is build up the characters through their clothes.
“My team and I ask questions like, ‘What would he wear?’” says Adjania. “And, more important, ‘What would he not wear – ever!’ Is he cool or wannabe cool? For instance, Uday Chopra’s character in Dhoom 2 is wannabe cool – he tries, but he doesn’t get it 100 per cent right.
And then we brainstorm on hair and makeup so it all comes together, and then create a mood board that we show the director.”
Since a film creates a make-believe world, its costumes, props and set tings make for authenticity. And if it’s a contemporary film, every single person, from the film’s director, cast and crew to the viewer, has very strong opinions about how authentic it turns out to be.
So gone are the days when an actor could wear any old thing simply because the film was not a period film. Now a costume designer has to display the character exactly as he or she would be in real life. “There are no random decisions in what a character wears,” says Bhasin.
“Not even a pair of shoes is on screen at random. When you put together a character, it’s like weaving a story. You can’t just say, ‘here are clothes, wear them.’” For example, as Bhasin says, outfitting a character even in basic jeans and T-shirt requires a multitude of decisions.
“Jeans – there are 500 different shades of denim to choose from. T-shirts – there are thousands of them available,” he says.
“You have to zero in on one pair of jeans and one T-shirt that will work for the character. So you need a process.” The process could work this way: The character is a clerk in Mumbai, going out to a movie with his friends. “There – you’ve already cut out a whole section of the kind of jeans and T-shirts he will wear,” says Bhasin.
“The jeans will be from Linking Road, and they won’t be funky – he’s not the guy to have eight pairs of jeans, he will wear this one pair in many situations. He will have paid only Rs 400 for the jeans… There – you’ve found the right pair of jeans for him.”
Look who's watching: Here’s how today’s movies are different from those dating backwards from the ’80s. In those days, films set the trends. They had to – India’s fashion industry pre-’80s consisted mainly of tailors in gullies adapting outfits from pictures in film magazines.
In other words, what a film’s costume designer or star’s personal designer came up with was what the fashionable people – aside from those who could afford to shop for clothes abroad – wore.
Now of course we have fashion coming out of our ears, so we’re not going to be fobbed off with even last season’s look, let alone what the west wore three years ago. As Bains says, the audience is very clothes conscious these days. It can both identify with the clothes a film’s cast wears, and identify any discrepancies in the way they dress.
That’s why, when she worked on Rang De Basanti, Bains created what she calls “globalised costumes”. “In urban India, college students look much the same as their counterparts in London or New York,” she says.
“So the students in Rang De Basanti had that look – with certain touches that localised them in Delhi.” That means a costume designer has to be up to the minute with the latest look, the kind of clothes the target audience would wear or be familiar with.
Existing trends become important. So important that, for some films, a costume designer is not required at all. A good fashion stylist can do the job by putting together a look that works for both the character and the film simply by buying the necessary clothes and accessories off the rack.
“Styling is not about creating each piece,” says Adjania, a stylist who does not so much as even dabble in design.
“It’s about creating a look, a persona.” Adjania’s background is strictly fashion. Though her first job was with an ad film production house, which was where she learned about filmmaking, Adjania realised that the only part of her job she liked was dressing people and sets.
So she quit and worked with the fashion magazines Elle and L’Officiel as fashion editor, and made a name for herself styling photo shoots and ad films.
Now about to begin her new job as fashion director with the soon to launch Indian edition of Vogue, Adjania is in demand with filmmakers who require a high style quotient in their contemporary films – films like Dhoom and Dhoom 2, for which producer Adi Chopra’s brief was to make the actors – all of whom were already Bollywood style icons and larger than life – look their hottest ever. Still, the characters they played had to come first.
“When I work on a film, I ignore the actors’ real lives,” says Adjania. “So Dhoom 2 was a reinvention of style. It was also the first time I worked with Hrithik Roshan. Hrithik’s clothes have always fitted like second skin, he’s always had every strand of hair in its place. I felt I needed to chill his look a bit, so I gave him a slightly grunge look.” The look worked. While the entire cast of Dhoom 2 stunned everyone with their highly stylised, super sexy look, it was Hrithik – no slouch in any case in the sexiness department – who made the female portion of the audience swoon.
Stars & style: Here’s another paradox. Even if contemporary films make use of contemporary fashion trends, it does not mean they cease to be trendsetters themselves.
The look Bhasin created for Dil Chahta Hai was contemporary, but every young man in the country went for it.
Rang De Basanti also made a style impact, and if Dhoom 2-type clothes aren’t already on the clothes hangers of Fashion Street and Sarojini Nagar stalls, they will shortly appear.
Two years ago, there was that rage for the ‘Babli kurti’ created by Aki Narula for the film Bunty Aur Babli. He took an existing trend – the kurti – and gave it a twist that propelled it out of the realm of costume-dom into the world of fashion.
And early last year, Surily Goel, former assistant to designer Manish Malhotra, was established once and for all in the fashion industry when she dressed Preity Zinta in the film Salaam Namaste.
The look was contemporary, and in keeping with the character – “Sporty, because the film was set in Australia and girls there dress like that,” says Goel. Which shows that no matter how much the fashion industry has grown in India, the biggest impact that any designer can make still comes from movies- and movie stars.
Yes the stars favourite designers are back, but this time, unless they do a full film – i.e. take on the looks of all the characters from principals from the passers by- they work with the films overall costume designer.
And their work is not necessarily all about fashion. The character comes first. “In Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai we had different designers for different cast members. Karan Johar for Uday Chopra, Manish Malhotra for Tulip, Rocky S for Jimmy Sheirgill. But for Bipasha we preferred to use Manish than Rocky who is her personal designer,”says Sanjay Gandhvi the film director.
"That’s were the power of the producer comes in. It was important to make sure each designer understood the character’s graphs, interactions with other characters, colour schemes and sets.
The art director nd costume designer has to work very closely. Finally, it is the director’s call. Over all though, it is better if one stylist/ designer is in charge to give a uniform look.
Plus it is less jhanjhat.” While the fact that they could be responsible for setting a trend or two would make any designer or stylist excited, the fact remains says Bains, that setting trends is not a costume director’s primary motive. “ The costume is part of the character,” she says. “ A film is not a fashion show”.
Full Circle: Styling has always been part of a costume designer’s job. After all, when it comes to creating a look for a character, it does not matter whether the clothes are individually created or bought off the rack. And there’s more to a look than clothes – there’s hair and makeup as well as accessories.
“Depending on where my character is placed, if I feel she needs a top from Fashion Street and one top from Ritu Kumar, that’s what I’ll get for her,” says Bains. Bhasin agrees.
“To say, ‘oh no, you’re not a designer because you’re buying’ – that’s a silly thing,” he says. “True, if the film is set in the 16th century, the characters wouldn’t shop for their clothes. But in a contemporary film, the characters would shop, just as we do. And they wouldn’t buy from just a single store. I even borrow clothes from friends and relatives if I feel they have what I need.”
There’s also the fact that, whether it’s a contemporary film or not, the clothes cannot look too new: ageing is very important, says Bains. Clothes do fade and fray in real life. Also, not many of us wear an outfit just once and never again, says Ameira Punvani, costume designer of Mani Ratnam’s Guru.
“Aishwarya reminded me of that,” she says. But designing is important when it comes to period films – ‘period’ meaning everything from the late 1980s backwards, since every decade, never mind every century, had its own fashion trends. Great amounts of research is required, and because the clothes definitely cannot be bought off the rack, they are made.
Once again, styling is involved: the characters may have lived in an age long gone, but they were people of their time.
“Everyone has a style,” says Bains. “How you show it matters.” For Punvani, who put together the looks of the principal characters in Guru – Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai and Mallika Sherawat – and headed the overall costume department, the mix of film characters and their styles came full circle. Guru traces the life of a man over four decades, from the 1950s to the 1980s.
Punvani’s primary references came from the films made in those decades. Mallika Sherawat’s ’50s look was based on Rita Hayworth’s look. “Rita Hayworth had so much oomph! The look suited Mallika, who plays a belly dancer,” says Punvani. Aishwarya wears Rekha-style blouses of the ’70s and ’80s, and Jaya Bhaduri’s bun. And Abhishek’s long legs were perfect for the James Dean and Marlon Brando look.
“I did go through a lot of books, but I got most of the costume details from films,” says Punvani. After all, characters grow from their settings. And movies present and reflect those characters...
E-mail author: kushalgulab@hindustantimes.