Sanjay Leela Bhansali lets you heighten the drama through costumes
Upcoming costume designer Maxima Basu gives us an exclusive peek into the conceptualization and execution of costumes for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s dream film, Bajirao Mastani
After Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram Leela you are once again working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali in Bajirao Mastani. Can you tell us what connects you’ll to each other?
First, our sense of art – in terms of understanding the color palette, role of costume design in a film, importance of the mood and texture of each frame – is something that connects both of us. Costumes are actually a part of his production design, which very few people in the industry know how to incorporate in the aesthetics of the film. Both of us don’t look at costumes as just something that the hero and heroine wear to look gorgeous.
Second, I think he has a larger-than-life vision, which is great for a costume designer to go wild and create something spectacular. Sanjay sir wouldn’t confine to what is right or wrong, he just lets you do it if it is going to heighten the drama. It is like opera on-screen and we all die to do it. I remember that we were working on the costumes for the dancers of Ramji Ki Chal, and he told us that it had to be a mad vision of the folklore. He didn’t want anything that is extremely contemporary or traditional, so we designed bizarre costumes of Hanumans and Krishnas in the song.
Third, the way we look at fabrics and colours. Like in the song Deewani Mastani (Bajirao Mastani), it was his idea to have everything in a single tone. When I was designing clothes for the dancers I knew that the dancers had to be two shades different from Deepika otherwise she would be lost. So, most of the times Sir would just share his thought over the phone and end up liking what I would do eventually. We have this incomprehensible working chemistry that binds us.
What brief did Sanjay Leela Bhansali give while conceptualizing costumes for the film?
Anju Ma’am (Modi) has designed costumes for the lead characters – Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, whereas I have done the design component for the entire film and designed for the secondary cast. We also had a special team to make costumes for the background cast and another dedicated set of designers for armour.
Coming to the costume design concept, we both are lovers of Indian couture – the antique look, Indian fabrics, patterns and silhouettes. The problem with Bajirao Mastani was that there is limited evidence of the garments between the 16th and 18th century. All the physical evidences and sketches are inspiration from paintings. Sanjay sir was very clear that techniques, embroidery and inspiration had to be from that time. However, there was an understanding that we don’t have to follow it verbatim. Even the Persian or miniature paintings were the artist’s imagination and rendition as there was no way to know if a certain fabric or embroidery was available at that time.
Weaving, embroidery and textile in India is so varied that it changes every few kilometers. During our research we came across outfits that were so outrageous that we wondered how one could wear it. Or sometimes some outfits were very minimal and bare. We came across so many contrasting things that we had an open canvas. The only thing he stressed on was the color palette – since we were deriving inspiration out of the paintings – we stuck to pastel tones, antiquated metal effect and so on that we saw. When we did Ram Leela, it was so colorful and intricate. Whereas the Peshwa and Maharashtrian culture, which is just a few hundred kilometers away is so sober and toned down. Sanjay sir wanted that austerity in the whole canvas.
What kind of research did you do to understand the styling and dressing sense of the 17th and 18th centuries?
There are a lot of authors and designers who have collated work on the monarchical Indian garments. There are a lot of exhibits on it in the Victoria Albert Museum in London. Although there are only one or two exhibits on the 18th century, most exhibits are 19th century onwards. We visited the Calico museum in Ahmedabad, the Raja Dinkar Kelkar museum and Peshwa museum in Parvati mandir in Pune. Again the paintings weren’t from that era but, perhaps, made in the 20th from imagination. There were portraitures of Peshwa characters so we got the drift. Also, locally there is a lot to gather in Pune. They really take pride in their Peshwa ancestry. Then, thanks to generations of active Maharashtrian theater and films, people have been preserving knowledge on who wears what. I remember I came across beautiful writings by a French traveler on what kinds of clothes Indians wore. So, we gathered information from all over. If you see the film, you will notice that the costumes are not only from the Peshwa family. We have the Mughals, the Nizams and the Peshwas, so it was about monarchs of India from that time.
What was the design template followed for the lead characters Bajirao, Mastani and Kashibai?
Raja Ravi Verma’s paintings are essentially the backbone of our colors – shades of pale blues, soft pinks and lemons and yellows. For Bajirao, we stuck to costumes that depict royalty and flamboyance, but Sanjay sir is such an impromptu director that he would ask Ranveer to dress in bare minimal for an important scene just to create drama. As such there was no color template for him. We had a colour palette for Mastani and Kashibai.
For Mastani we wanted pinks, greens and off-whites, and very translucent and effervescent silhouettes. For intense passion and love drawn scenes, Sir would either opt for a bare white or deep red and magenta. He was constantly playing with two ideas either purity of love or intensity and passion of love. You will also see a slight green silhouette also to show her Muslim descent. You have to give it to the man for complete juxtaposition of colors. He would team olive yellow with light blue and pink shela for Kashibai. He wanted a lot of colors for her sarees, but they were always deep and intense shades, like deep green, deep maroon, et al simply because it looks richer and austere. Kashibai was a rich woman so we chose zardozi and brocade antiquated blouses. We used chanderis and light featherweight sarees in various colours. Since Kashibai was a very pure and pious sort of woman her sarees were never jarringly ornate or revealing. We took inspiration from the personal wardrobe of the Maharani of Gwalior.
One thing is that Sanjay sir never froze the costume way before. He always kept room for last-minute impulse depending on how the actors perform and are emotionally.
What fabrics and accessories did you use in the film and where did you source them from?
The Peths of Pune have a lot of Puneri style jewellery and PN Gadgil are our jewellery sponsors. They have been in the jewellery business for more than 500 years and have a lot of antique jewellery. A lot of stuff is from them. We got a lot of Kolhapuri mojris and Kolhapuri cumberbands from Kolhapur. We got our fabrics and accessories from Maharashtra, essentially Kolhapur and Pune and Jaipur was also a major source for jewels.
All our clothes are either in malmals, cottons or chanderis. Clothes of 70 per cent of the cast are made from malmal. We used a lot of Puneri silks for Peshwa women, chanderi sarees, nets, malmal and sheer muslins and a lot of Persian lace work for Deepika. We also incorporated a lot of metal embroidery in costumes for Bajirao and his brothers. We used a lot of pearl studded embroidery ornamentation for the head gears. And also used brocades for the regal family.
What is the ratio of real and creative imagination in interpreting costumes for the film?
I think 80 per cent is real and 20 per cent is creative imagination. Maybe we have extended the canvas of richness but I don’t think we were inaccurate. You have little screen time and want to capture and depict the beauty and richness in it, so there is that jump of imagination. Richness is captured in every single corner of the frame, however it is still austere and not over-the-top. If you actually see the Tipu Sultan armor that was really auctioned in London, it had real diamonds, sapphires and cobalt. We were one of the richest countries in the world then. In that sense we have been real however everything is open to debate. I am okay to increase the canvas for the beauty of the film.
What was the most challenging task while putting together costumes for Bajirao Mastani?
Mr Bhansali himself is so challenging and demanding….One of my problems was balancing the weight of armor and the action. But my biggest challenge was to dress up Bajirao’s mother, played by Tanvi Azmi, in a plain white saree without anything underneath just like the way they wore it originally. One of the scenes is lit up from all directions so my challenge was trying to figure out how to make the white saree work without revealing anything. It’s not like international cinema where it doesn’t matter if anything gets revealed.
Then there were production issues. Getting authentic jewellery because we don’t have that kind of karigari anymore was tough. We had to break our backs to get authentic designs and get it crafted. But everything came along eventually. During a lot of scenes jewellery would break, gems would fall, and dressing each character would take so much time. Most of the men characters in the film were bald so that was another task. But all these are a part of filmmaking.
Which is your favourite costume or design concept in Bajirao Mastani?
I will be brutally honest to say that this is an Anju Modi film because she has done fantastic stuff with the main crew’s costumes. However, if I were to talk on the whole I feel that the Deewani Mastani song is my favourite. From the color of Deepika’s outfit to the dancers’ costumes to the background, you will see that it all blends. I don’t think you can pick out a reference like this on Google or Pinterest. It is so unique. The set had 20,000 mirrors put together but we didn’t go all bling with the outfit. We used subtle glitter to reflect the light. It was a very evenly and weighted choice on how much bling we want. Can you imagine how many people would have to be working in tandem to be able to create that?
Someone who is in this business will understand that if I have a certain background then I will always highlight my foreground, so that it stands out. But to consciously blend the foreground and background and yet create separation is a technical art. It is like playing white on white. Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga have experimented with white on white and stripes on stripes. But these are difficult concepts.
My other favourite is the Malhari song. When you watch the entire film you will notice that the secondary characters like Mahesh Manjrekar or Milind Soman for whom I have designed, they all look beautiful. Mahesh Manjrekar is in all white. He is this huge man wearing this 30 meters long ghaghra kind of angrakha, with a white beard, white pagadi and brocade shela. As a costume designer, I love it! When you see Moulin Rouge you don’t look at just the lead characters you look at the periphery characters too who are so quirky. You will experience the grandeur not just in these three main leads but overall in Bajirao Mastani.