[dropcap]A[/dropcap]ce costume designer, Subarna Ray Chaudhuri, known for her ingenious style, eye for detail and penchant for period films, speaks to Pandolin about the intricacies of costume designing for Bollywood, her take on styling, the various projects she has worked on and much more.


How did your career in costume designing begin? 

I am from Kolkata and had specialized in Fine Arts in college. But my interest in fashion goes way back to my school days. I used to style my cousins and friends and redesign their wardrobe. I also wore weird clothes, like in those days, i.e. in the 80s; I would wear a sari like a dhoti with a top. And people would find it very weird. So this thing of fashion and design was always in me. I did not take any formal training in fashion designing. I was good in sketching because of Fine Arts. I started working with Zee TV when it came to Kolkata and I started doing movies post that when I went to Hyderabad. So my first project as a costume designer was a Hollywood film called Nightfall. I was working under Nitish Roy in Ramoji Film City and I designed the entire film. I kept working in Ramoji Film City as a costume designer and then finally came to Mumbai and did my first Hindi film, Parineeta.

How do you go about designing for a film?

When we start a project we have a marathon meeting with the director, cinematographer, art director etc. It has to be a united effort from everyone. We stress on having at least one or two meetings before we make the presentation. My presentations are almost 200 pages because I give options for looks, research papers etc. Then when we sit with the director, cut down on the presentation and pick out the slides that he likes. His inputs are incorporated and we re-research on that. So it’s a process of meetings and by the time we arrive at say the fourth meeting, the presentation is complete and approved by the director. It’s like a book where you know the costumes that will be worn by the characters in every scene. Even the juniors, the background artists, the character artists, everyone’s presentations are made. I make characters and in the lower half of each page add reference images and sketches with accessories. So that the director knows exactly how the entire film is going to look like.

Then we have meetings with the art director, which is the second stage. After they finish doing the recce for the locations, we get the location pictures and decide the color board of the film – what colors will be used in which location, on which character. We put color swatches for each character and make a color scheme. I learned this during my initial days when I did a film for BBC and while working on a German film. So I’ve learnt a lot from these international projects that would come to India. My process of working is methodical. Before the actual shoot, we do a look test with the actors and make them wear everything. That is what we did in Lootera too.


What is the kind of research that goes into it?

The Internet provides a lot of research material but that is not enough. In the 90s there was no Google. So I would go to libraries like the US library or British library in Kolkata because they provide a lot of books. New upcoming designers who are doing a period film or any research-based film should go to such libraries. Also first hand experience is most vital especially if it’s a period Indian story. The best thing to do is to speak to a lot of people who belonged to that period. That’s what I did with Parineeta and Lootera. I would go and speak to the senior people who are much older and belong to that era. Everything is available but you just need to get the right thing – the right jewellery, right fringe etc.

How do you go about sourcing fabrics and other accessories for the costumes you design? Any specific markets/ areas that you prefer?

In Mumbai, the fabric market is very good but it’s largely synthetic. Also lycra, hosiery, etc. these kind of stretchable fabrics are very good here. You can pick up those for body-hugging dresses, peplum dresses and so on. But when you talk about Indian dresses, it’s much better to venture outside Mumbai and pick up fabric. The best thing is to pick up fabrics from different parts of India. That’s what I do. I went to Maheshwar and picked up lovely fabrics, which were actually saris but could be turned into dupattas. I went to Punjab and picked up different patialas. It is best to pick up fabrics from the regions where the story is set in. For example, if the story is Punjab-based or Bihar-based, you need to go there, do a recce of that market, speak to the local people, pick up the handloom of that place and then work on the design. Kolkata is very good in terms of fabrics and saris, so is Gujarat. In terms of accessories I mostly get them made. For Gunday, nothing is picked off the rack; everything is stitched and is from handloom. There is this guy in Kolkata who manufactures handloom saris and specializes in them. They have made beautiful saris for Priyanka which are a blend of chanderi and jute silk. Half the sari is jute silk and the pallu is chanderi with booti so it is transparent on the body and opaque, solid on the pleats. I have also experimented with a sari for Sonakshi in Lootera wherein I chopped up a transparent white maheshwari sari and put an old, almost 100-year-old, benarasi border, which I got from an old shop in Kolkata, on it. There are several old shops in Kolkata, which have wonderful, vintage stuff.


Period films are your forte. Isn’t it tough to get such elaborate costumes together? How different was it to style Gunday as compared to Lootera or Eklavya: The Royal Guard?

Period films come naturally to me. For instance, I’m currently doing Kabir Khan’s Phantom. Doing a present day film is very easy, like I went to London and picked up things for Saif and Katrina. You get everything readily available. In Phantom there are different shades, three kinds of looks for Saif and Katrina in three different places. There is a look in Beirut, in Pakistan and in London. So I like doing realistic films also. But I don’t look at commercial films as fashion. I follow the Milan Fashion Week, Madrid Fashion week and so on. Their costumes and look is so different, very inspiring. And vintage is also back now, that is what even the rest of the world is following. So I have an affinity towards vintage styles.

For Eklavya: The Royal Guard I went to Rajasthan and picked up everything from there including 200-300 costumes for the junior artists as well. I went there twice before the shoot to get into the zone of Rajasthan. They have different kinds of pagris, leheriya saris and ghagras, all so colorful and lovely. The royal family was my research so I would go to the Maharaja’s house and look into their portraits and albums, that added value to the film. You can replicate it or make it similar to what they wore. I was the designer for the women and the rest of the crowd while Raghavendra Rathore styled Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan etc.

For Parineeta it was much softer, easygoing and more of a Bengali look. And being a Bengali myself, it was easy for me to go through my grandmother’s album and see how they dressed. I also spoke to my relatives to get more information. For Gunday, the 80s era is known to me as I was a teenager then. The girls in Kolkata would wear a very thin sari, big block prints or dhakai sari with a sleeveless blouse. Sonakshi’s look in Lootera was very conservative as it is set in the 50s. There were no backless blouses and it was always elbow sleeves and so on. And she belonged to a conservative zamindar family in a village, so the look could not have been very experimental.

Ghanchakkar had a very vibrant and quirky sense of style. How did you go about it?

When they asked me to research for Ghanchakkar I was choosing all the good stuff. But Rajkumar Gupta (Director) told me that these costumes are very good and shows that the character has taste. But for Vidya’s character, Neetu, they needed something that was loud; something weird, which shows that she has no taste. It was difficult for me to get something which was weird and mismatched because my first instinct would be to disregard it. It was really tough to do Ghanchakkar amongst all my films because that didn’t come easily to me. Finally I would pick up whatever looked weird and make it weirder. So we put a lip pattern all over a lycra top, a guitar on the lingerie and one top had neon sleeves and Sridevi’s face on the chest. So we made Vidya look cute but at the same time it’s weirdly funny and her character thinks it is fashion.


Vidya Balan has been one celebrity whom you have styled time and again. How is it working with her?

Vidya is very willing to experiment with her style. During the shoot of Ghanchakkar she told me, “Don’t think you are styling Vidya, I don’t want to look like Vidya Balan but like Neetu”. She doesn’t care if she is looking bad, she just gets into the character and is a complete method actor. She also keeps giving her inputs on what suits her and what doesn’t. I’ve also done some commercials with her including Ranka jewellers, Jolly silk saris, Nihar hair oil etc.

You style for commercials as well as films. How different is it to style for both the mediums?

For commercials we get very little time for preparation. Sometimes you get just a day to prepare for the entire ad. When I’m not shooting films, I do ads because it is fun and you get to meet a lot of new directors and get to know their mind. You get to meet different clients and agencies and I find it very interesting. In an ad shoot every frame is important and the duration is just about 40-50 secs and there is a repetitive value at the same time. So you cannot make a mistake as people keep seeing it over and over again on TV. We have to be calculative and impromptu and keep checking the monitor continuously.

Who are your inspirations when it comes to styling? Which actor/actress do you enjoy styling the most?

I look up to two people – Bhanu Athaiya and Dolly Ahluwalia. Bhanu Athaiya has styled almost all the yesteryear heroines like Hema Malini, Waheeda Rehman etc. She established a style for people in those days. She was so enterprising. Even now she has given the look for Mahabharata (currently on Star Plus) and the detailing, colors, textures, jewellery, is all so good.

I enjoy styling Vidya, Ranveer, Arjun and Sonakshi the most. I love styling Mr. Bachchan too. I have worked with him many times, even styled him for commercials. He is one person who listens to the stylist. Even when I was styling him for Rann, I would keep two suits for him to choose from. But he would still call me and ask my opinion on which suit would work better.

Which was the most challenging film that you have worked on? How much time does it take you to get the costumes ready?

I think that would be Lootera because it is set in the 50s and is much more vintage. After Lootera would be Gunday, because there I have not only styled the main actors but also the juniors, dancers, background and everything is tailor- made.

A lot of time goes into it so you need to have backup tailors and different workshops. I have different workshops for juniors, for character actors and so on. You need to bifurcate work in different places so that you can get the work done on time. While shooting for the song ‘Tune maari entry yaar’, every day I would shop for loads of fabric, half of it was stitched in Kolkata for the dancers while the other half was brought back to Mumbai, stitched here and then taken back.


What kind of coordination do you need to maintain with the DOP and Art Director?

Aseem Mishra has a very good sense of color and Ayananka Bose is also very good. Before shooting I show 2-3 costume options to the cinematographers, and ask them which would look better. It is always good to show the DOP the color of the costume because they are looking through the eyepiece and know what will look the best. The resolutions in the monitor aren’t good.

With the Art Director, we keep helping each other. For example, during the shoot of Eklavya: The Royal Guard, one scene needed a bullet effect on a pair of shoes. We had to take the shot before and after and the other pair had not reached. So I asked Nitin Desai (Art Director) for help and his team made me a very beautiful bullet effect with some stickers, cello tape, powder etc on the shoes. So once the shot was done we removed all of it and the shoes became fresh. The art department is very important for costume department.

From Parineeta to Phantom, how have you seen costume designing evolve? Any changes that you wish to see?

Around 6-7 years back I had done a film called Hastey Haste which was largely shot in the USA. If you see the costumes that were worn in the film, they can be used even now. So the fashion hasn’t really changed. In terms of makeup and hair, yes, things have changed. Also in styling a lot of things that we wore in the 80s have made a comeback – high waists, baggy t-shirts etc. but there is nothing new that has come up in fashion. In Hollywood they have toned down so much in terms of styling and are more realistic. In Bollywood, some people are doing it but it will take time because they are commercial films and have to run in the villages and small towns too. So obviously we cannot compare it with Hollywood. But in terms of fit we have better tailors now as compared to earlier days. Also there is a lot of material in the market where you can visualize the garment and make it. The material we make stockings with, has come up in the market so you can just make a bodysuit with it and create havoc. A lot of new material that has come from China is working these days.

But my point is, why are we redoing things rather than doing something new? Also instead of making things look so loud and weird, I want to see Bollywood more sophisticated, easygoing, more relatable with the character rather than flashy . Even if it is flashy it can be elegant. That elegance is missing in the costumes and that is what I wish to see.