I have never worked as hard as I did for Begum Jaan – Rick Roy
Costume Designer Rick Roy is a delight to speak to. And so are the costumes that the vibrant designer has designed for the Vidya Balan starrer Begum Jaan. In his penchant for exploring new work, Roy has moved away from his comfort zone of mainstream cinema to enter into a realistic world while designing for this period film where he just had 23 days to complete the entire work. Roy who is partially nervous and excited for Begum Jaan opens his heart out in a freewheeling chat with Pandolin.
How would you describe the look and feel of the costumes for Begum Jaan?
This is the first period film that I have done. Even though I have studied costumes in detail in New York, I have never been able to use my expertise in that field as all my films included big Bollywood blockbusters and I am known for shiny clothes. Even though I have done costumes for films like Gabbar and Inkaar which had realistic clothes, I am mostly known for the glamorous roles. I was very excited to be able to utilize the things that I have learned in this film.
The main thing for the film was the reality. Usually, in films, we take cinematic liberty and create characters which are not exactly real but we choose from real life and then add a bit of glamor to them. The difference in this film was that I did not take, or rather, I was told not to take any liberties at all. When it came to the characters, they had to be real. The cinematic liberty was quite minimum as my director was clear that I should do whatever I want as long as it looks like ‘Begum Jaan’.
What was the brief given to you by the director?
All my characters were my brief. If it was Salim Miya, it had to be that gunman guy. For instance, there is a pimp in the film and the director wanted him to look exactly like a pimp. Keeping it 100 percent original was my brief. And we had to create something that the moment one looks at it, one should find it interesting.
I did not see Begum as a brothel owner. I saw her as a woman
You came on board quite at the last minute, were there any inhibitions from your end?
I came in literally 23 days before the beginning of the shoot. We were doing a film which had to be pre-costumed. So there was nothing that I could change at the last minute, also because we were shooting in the middle of nowhere. And there was an enormous amount of research that needed to be done and a lot of clothes that needed to be made. To be honest, I was not skeptical but I was really scared. Had it been a mainstream Bollywood film, I could have done it with my eyes shut. But Begum Jaan was not only new but massive as its scale is huge.
Since it was a period film, I had to be authentic as there was nothing I could pick up from the store and put on anybody. Every costume had to be customized, made and aged. And that was a lot of work. But I was not scared of the work as such but the volume of it. So I had two different teams working simultaneously. And I was supervising everything.
And I’m not being diplomatic when I say that I had an amazing cast and crew. I would call them in the middle of the night and they would be ready for it. If I would call VB (Vidya Balan) at 10.30 in the night and say that I have finished a particular costume, she was too kind enough to try it. Not just Vidya, but every other person was so supportive. Even my director was available 24 hours for me. I would call him anytime. My whole film team was extremely supportive and we managed to pull it off.
How many people were part of your team?
I had two assistants here in Mumbai and I had hired another person in Calcutta who was doing work from the local market. I would send them designs, which they were making locally. And then there were three dress men from here and four over there.
Is there a palette of colors that you’ve largely worked around?
The palette of colors was decided by the time period. At that time there were no chemical dyes. In the time and space that we are showing, all the clothes were basically handwoven cotton. We had to call for handwoven cotton, which is so rare nowadays. So I had a friend who called for cotton from all over the country, from different weavers. Then we got them naturally dyed by using vegetable dyes as that is what they used back then. The thing with natural dye is that the colors never pop. Even if it is an orange, it will not be bright but a muddy orange. We followed a color scheme but more than deciding on the color, what was more important was the color that came out. So I would ask my dyer to dye a costume in orange but whatever orange came, we had to use that. So everything was based on research and more of practicality.
Were there any reference points given to you as well?
Not at all. Because even though the director has made the same film before but that was placed in Bengal and this one was placed in Punjab. So there was absolutely no reference point given to me. He understood that I came in quite late, therefore he was available for me 24/7.
The difference in this film was that I did not take, or rather, I was told not to take any liberties at all
Since it is a period film, tell us about the research you did?
Internet was a huge help but then it is not always reliable. So, my assistant and I actually went to different libraries. Even my friends were really helpful. I told them to pick out any and every information that they could because it was definitely not a one man job. I had an army with me, literally. My friends Shonali, Shanti, Sejal, Dipti, Geeta and Bapu are the women who weren’t related to Begum Jaan but made it happen for me. Since they are all associated with the medium of cinema, they understood what I needed.
My research was basically between my two assistants and these friends of mine. They would send me random pictures and I would select and show Srijit (director, Begum Jaan) those that worked. It was constant crazy work. And I’m glad that people are liking it because generally in a film, people just see the front work. They don’t understand the amount of hard work that goes behind the scenes and the pain people go through for creating that. It is my 15th film in four years but I have never worked this hard and gone this crazy on a film.
Which places have you sourced the fabrics and accessories from? What kind of fabrics have you mainly used?
A lot of fabric was sent to me by a friend who works with a lot of weavers. I showed them pictures of a texture that I wanted. And one of my assistant’s aunt lives in Ambala, Punjab. We called for some phulkari from there.
I was about to ask you about the use of phulkari in the costumes. Was that a deliberate choice as it is based in the partition era?
The film is based in Punjab and phulkari is the pride of Punjab. You can’t show Punjab without phulkari. It is the most beautiful craft that our country has. When a girl was born, her mother and grandmother would start making phulkari for her wedding. It was that significant in their culture. The actual phulkari takes years to complete. How could I not show something which is that rich and embedded in that culture?
I’m a student of fashion and have done my bachelors here and masters abroad. I have done craft documentation all over the country when I was in college. This was my opportunity to showcase the knowledge that I have accumulated over the years, which one generally doesn’t get to. Also, the phulkari that they do now and the one they did back then is very different. Now, it is more of machine work but earlier it was all handmade. The thread and motifs are very different now. Earlier the motifs were very simple and not very modernized. We were quite particular that the motifs and threads had to be correct.
Phulkaris are basically big chadars called baghs. We got a couple of them, which were cut and patched at a lot of places. Also, phulkari is a costly item and Begum couldn’t have afforded just phulkari in her costumes as she wasn’t that royal. So there were some outfits that had more of it and some just had prints of it. It all had to be practical. If it was a mainstream film, I would be making 20 phulkari kurtis. But when you are doing a period film, a person can’t have only phulkari. They were different kinds of clothes, moods and situations.
Vidya doesn’t interfere in the decision of any professional and will wear anything as long as it is not uncomfortable
There are various stereotypes associated with the way brothel owners and workers dress. In what ways did you try to break the stereotypes?
I did not see Begum as a brothel owner. I saw her as a woman. The story is not just about brothel owners. Fortunately or unfortunately, that is their profession. When I approached Begum, it was never about her profession but who she is as a woman. Because we were not making a film about hookers but about the struggle of women who are protecting their home and struggling for their own space. They could be anything. They are fighting for themselves and this is what their character is. Of course, as a designer you keep their profession in mind but my approach was designing them as characters.
Were there any inputs from Vidya Balan about her look?
She was a delight to work with. She is one of the most non-interfering people I have ever worked with. She doesn’t interfere in the decision of any professional. You can give her anything and she will wear it as long as it is not uncomfortable.
What challenges did you face while preparing for the film?
It was a massive challenge to get a tailoring and embroidery team together to produce those clothes. Designing on paper is very easy but bringing it to life is the challenge. You are basically dealing with people. My biggest challenge was to get everything in place, production wise. I can’t tell you how my people have been up all night for all those weeks to make sure that everything was done on time. Also my friends who had nothing to do with this film but they not just helped me with research but also kept my morale high. There was a big blunder with one of the outfits and I was really upset. I went to the extent of questioning myself if I would be able to do the project or not. But they made me understand. We underestimate people in our lives. Even when they are not part of anything, they somehow are.
I’m working with Vidya again in Tumhari Sullu. Her look in the film is quite far away from that in Begum Jaan. At times when I see the picture of Tumhari Sullu and then of Begum, I can’t believe that it is the same Vidya. And I think that is the magic of being Vidya. You can transform her into anything you want. You will be amazed to see how phenomenally different that woman can look.