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,” 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.
Filmmaker 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 – filmmakers 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.”