Neeta Lulla – The Queen of Costume Design

Neeta Lulla - The Queen of Costume Design

The four time National Award winning Costume designer Neeta Lulla has given Bollywood industry the remarkable films in terms of grandeur costumes. Then be it  Jodha Akbar, Kisna, Devdas or a regional film Balgandharva, the designer is known for her high Indo-western fashion sensibilities and impeccable craftsmanships that she cleverly uses in her films. Here Neeta Lulla gets candid with Pandolin over the tits and bits of designing costumes and the creativity that went behind some of her all-time greatest fashion hits.

The designer also boasts of huge celeb clienteles and list of over 350 bollywood films that include Chandni, Lamhe, Khuda Gawah, Khalnayak, Taal, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Hum Hai Rahi Pyaar Ke, Darr, Mission Kashmir, Devdas, Jodha Akbar, and Balgandharva among many other.


Which happened to you first – Fashion designing or Costume designing?

Actually, both! 

How did you get your first film?

After graduating in arts from Jai Hind College in Mumbai, I did a fashion course from SNDT.  During my course, I felt that I like fashion choreography. Then, I went on to assist the designer Hemant Trivedi and fashion show choreographer Jeannie Naoroji. I got my first break in films when I decided to help out my brother-in-law in his film called ‘Taqdeer ka Tamasha’, and designed costumes for the actress Kimi Katkar. Thereafter I discovered a fashion designer in me. Then, there was no looking back. I went on to design for Juhi, Sridevi and so on. 

You won your first National Award so early in your career. How did ‘Lamhe’ happen to you? How challenging was the movie for you then?

I had already worked with Yash Chopra in ‘Chandni’, so he offered me his next film ‘Lamhe’ too. Though it was almost my 10th or 12th film, but I got recognition from there. In the film, I designed costumes for Sridevi’s character. Then for me, it was not about challenge but only and only work. I was only few films down and hence ‘Lamhe’ was a new experience to me.  Though, it was challenging as in each and every piece of garment had to be constructed from scratch. We used to be only three people in a team. Besides me, there was one girl who used to do little bit of running around the clothes I choose and one who just used to handle accounts.

 Costume Design

Aishwarya Rai’s costumes in Devdas brought reality to her character. How difficult was it to do her costumes for this period film? What research went into it?   

In the film Devdas, an entire era of the early 1900’s was to be depicted with vivid ambience and so with the costumes. So to fulfill the need of the film, I did my bit of research. I watched series of films based on Calcutta, visited museums, and developed a thorough understanding of the script. Intensive discussions with the director-producer Sanjay Leela Bhansali took place to create a look that would be a blend of the era as well as that today’s audience could relate to. I also went to Calcutta with the director and brought down 600 sarees, which were then mixed and matched to create unique designs. The sarees that were made for Paro (Aishwarya’s character) in the first half were of simple cotton and Dhakai cottons, in which various traditional motifs and borders were printed then be it Kantha work or traditional striped borders or all-over-checks.

For the second half, which had a married Paro, I creatively ventured into a new form of saree drapes which looked traditional but had the liberty of yardage, wherein each saree was a minimum of 8-9 meters as opposed to the normal meters. Every saree was pre-draped on a mannequin, so that it can be draped easily on the set. Each drape took approximately three hours to be pleated in a way which would look authentic and could be draped precisely in the same way, every day to avoid continuity jerks. 

What other fabrics and techniques you used in costumes for Paro’s character?  

Chinese brocade, Dhakai nets, Muslins, Banarasi tissues, organzas, Jamevars, Lucknowi Chikenkari, antique embossed brocade, all of which were inspired from the look of 1930’s pre independence era when these fabrics were popular among higher class of people. Traditional Bengali fabrics like mull, Dhakais and Tangails were also used in the costumes, to give the character more authentic look. 

You have also designed costumes for Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai in another period film ‘Jodha Akbar’, which also won you the third National Award of your career. What research and work you did for their historical characters?    

I worked on the project for a year and half. Not only for the primary characters, i.e of Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai’s, I also designed for an entire cast in the film. In terms of research, not much of the information was available about the costumes and jewellery worn during that period. The film’s director Ashutosh Gowarikar and his team had already done their research on the film and that made it easier for me to do my bit of research.  All the clothes I designed myself. While for accessories, Tanishq gave me the inputs. The jewellery were made of gold, cut diamonds, ruby, kundan and jade. The most ornate costume I designed for Aishwarya in the film was her bridal dress and the dress she wore for a celebration song. I chose red colour for the bridal dress, which had a lot of embroidery.

However for the Mughal era, the idea was to use warm tones and hence, for the colour palette I  chose warm colours such as yellows, saffron and emerald green used by the Rajputs for Aishwarya’s role, while the golds, browns and beiges used by the Mughals for Hrithik’s character.

I used a lot of woven fabrics and different textures like brocades, silks and cotton.  Also, I used a lot of zardosi, kundan and stones embedded in the embroidery. Gotta work was also done in some of the costumes. Fabrics were brought from Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai and Rajasthan. Authentic embroidered mojris that the characters wore were bought from Rajasthan. 

In Balgandharva, it was for the first time you styled a man in a woman’s role. How exciting was it? What went into your mind when this film came to you?  

This film was my second attempt into Marathi cinema. First one was a Marathi television programme. The producer of the film ‘Balgandharva’, Nitin Desai is a colleague to me and a known technician who have worked with me for a long time. Hence, he knew the kind of work I do. So when he was making the film, he asked me to design costumes for the character of the film. And I was enamoured by the character.

There were lots of reading and extensive research that went into the character. I watched the films previously made on him, spoke to his family, went to the theatres and et al.  I had to stitch two or three sarees to make a piece of garment for Subodh (who played the character of ‘Balgandharva’). The silhouettes for him had to be saree but they were cut in different way because it was for a man. Technique of cutting the garments for him was slightly different. I chose bright colours to give the authentic feel to the era.

 Costume Design

Do you think that you are more inclined towards doing period films?

I have studied fashion and have done almost over 300 films that include the commercial films as well. I think I like films with their historical significance for its magnanimity, the way they are shot, the kind of looks they require etc. In terms of national awards that I have won were mostly for the period films, yes I am more inclined towards doing these kinds of films at times because of my technical background on fashion, knowledge and also because of the fact that I know the cuts need to be used for those era.

But I am just not inclined towards one kind of film. Each and every film is a new kind of challenge for me because of the new look and style. I like to do different kind of films.    

What are the factors do you generally keep in mind while you costume design for a film?

When I am doing a project, I keep in mind the script, the vision of the director i.e how he/she sees the film, the characters, the actor who is playing a particular character and his/her comfort level. I believe, if the actor is wearing a particular garment and if he/she is not comfortable, it will show in his/her work. I focus on designing clothes that make the character look believable. I also look at the kind of background being used for a particular scene, the shade of the film or story; all these things have to be considered before choosing colour palette. At times, the camera person’s point of view also matters like how the cinematographer is going to shoot the film, which camera lens etc. 

How do you manage time between designing costumes for films and designing clothes for the market?

It is one question that I have never been able to answer. I think I just go with the flow. 

How much lighting affect the kind of fabrics you choose for any character in the film?

It does affect the choice. For example, in Jodha Akbar, the film was shot on natural lights, so we could not use lot of silk or the fabrics that have sheen to them. I had to create designs using mull and intricated resham work onto mull to give the clothes a matte finish.  

How much difference do you see in designing costumes in 80’s and in today’s era?

In 80’s the films were depicted larger than life. The only main challenge then was to construct each and every garment from the scratch. This is not the case any more in today’s time. Now many brands have come up in the market. The clothes which are available in the market such as jeans, t-shirts can be shopped, while in 80’s and 90’s the options were very limited. Getting costumes done during that time used to be cumbersome because of the lack of man power. 

How easy it is to work with different set of actors in films?

I share special bonding with all the actors I have worked so far. I believe, once you know the actor’s comfort level and once they understand that you know your job, it’s not that difficult to work with them

How do you differentiate costume designing and fashion designing?

Costume designing is always done for a particular character and that is based on the script as well as on the vision of a director. The comfort level of the actors and the color scheme of the film’s canvas also do matter. Fashion design is totally based on the designer’s perception of the fashion trends. Consumer requirements and price points do matter in designing garments. Fabrics and garment finish also play an important role.    

What are your future film projects?

‘Aiyya’ is going to release now. I have designed costumes for Rani Mukherjee for all the songs in the film. I have two more films lined up but I can’t speak about them right now.    

One advice you would like to give to the aspiring costume designers.

Work on your dream with full diligence and honesty. If you understand your core strength in the field, achieving whatever you want is not going to be difficult.




Neeta Lulla – The Queen of Costume Design