She brings alive the Bombay of yore with her costumes in Anurag Kashyap’s magnum opus, Bombay Velvet. Ace designer Niharika Khan shares the experience of working on this spectacular period drama and designing costumes that have already become the talk of the town.

Niharika Khan

Niharika Khan

Bombay Velvet being a period drama, what was the approach towards the costumes?

We had to study and research the time periods that included the 40s, 50s and 60s and then translate that into the characters we wanted to create. Our main characters went through a big age graph as they start very young and grow in age through the film. So we have covered a period from almost ‘47 to ‘69 and have recreated those 20 years, show the evolution of our main characters through these years. Since we had many extensive characters, we had to translate each character into an individual. For example, we had two Parsis in the film and both of them belong to the media world. So we didn’t want them to look similar at all. Each character has been treated with great detailing.

What was director Anurag Kashyap’s brief for the costumes?

We read the script and then got the brief from Anurag as to how he had envisioned the characters. Each of them had specific characteristics that he was looking at, the background from where they came, where they were going, the strength of character, etc. Anurag knew how he wanted his characters and we just had to translate that. We created an extensive presentation that translated his vision into what we were trying to create.

So what kind of style influences and references did you have in mind?

We had lots of references. For the women we had from Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn to Saira Banu, Waheeda Rehman, Madhumala. I’ve also taken a lot of references from my mother-in-law Begum Para and my parents, since my mother is Parsi. So I put in a lot of photographs of her family in our costume presentation. We had a lot of Maharashtra characters, but naturally, as the film is set in Bombay, so we took pictures of my Wardrobe Supervisor, Keerti’s parents. And everything was collated together in our presentation. Our research was very varied from Western to Indian, Hollywood films, Indian movies et al. In fact Ranbir’s tousled hair is inspired by a Hollywood actor. There were lots of different influences that come into play because we are looking at it as a period. I even put in pictures of Russi Modi and J.R.D Tata. On the whole, I’ve translated a lot of my real life influences into the film’s characters.

Anushka's Green Dress

Green gown with the train

And was there a color theme that you’ll followed?

We did have a color theme that we followed. Each of our characters had a particular color palette. Even the smaller characters had their color palette. Also each section like the mill workers, the port trust, the politicians had a palette of their own. The places too had specific colors, for example the Red Light area had a particular palette and so on. So the theme was as per different places and characters. We had to work with the DOP and Art Director so that it all comes together.

Have you designed all the costumes or did you source some as well?

We have designed all the costumes. You can’t really source for a period film. We had a lot of designers make the different outfits but they were all designed by us. So Varun Bahl has done a lot of the men’s suits for Karan and Ranbir. We also had Swapnil Shinde, Babita Malkani, Urvashi Joneja, Gauri & Nainika and many other designers do the outfits for us. Nikhil Thampi has also done some outfits. I had Madhuri Mamgain make me the shoes. So we roped in a lot of designers to make the outfits happen.

Coming to the characters, how would you define the look created for Anushka who plays a jazz singer?

We had to transform Anushka’s character from someone who didn’t have a lot of money to a girl that gets money and becomes a famous singer who performs on stage. The performance outfits on the stage were very well calculated and put together to create a certain look. The hair, make up, shoes, etc. was all assembled together in a particular manner. In today’s day we don’t really match things or put them together, perfection is not something we look at. But at that time it was. It had to be perfectly in place, everything had to match in a certain way. And therefore her wardrobe was on those lines as well. It was all about showing her as the star, the singer. The difference between a Rosie (Anushka) and a Dahlia (Raveena Tandon) is that while the latter is a flamboyant, overtly showy singer, Rosie shows more strength of character, she doesn’t have to go over the top but look perfect. Raveena’s character is showy and outward so her headgears are also bigger, more elaborate. Her character is about showing off more than about singing.

The Peacock Dress

The Peacock Dress

Which also brings me to the question of the fabrics you’ll worked with, considering the time period? What kind of fabrics is Anushka donning in the film?

We have tried to avoid newer fabrics and looked at fabrics from that time. Our presentation had three sections with fashion of the 40s, the 50s and the 60s. Whatever we were working around was within the framework of those time periods. Not just the fabrics but the embroidery too. Embroidery was a big deal for us as we were making performance outfits. So while we have used subtle embroidery for Rosie, Dahlia’s costumes have more flamboyant embroidery. And even though Dahlia has just two outfits, we have created them in such a way that you can see the difference between a singer that is not as popular as a growing popular singer.

There’s a lot of talk about the weight of Anushka’s costumes. What is it that has made them heavy, was there a lot of layering involved?

I’ve used one outfit that is a purely sequinned one with a really long train. It is this green outfit with gold flames running up her legs. It’s got a huge train because we had a very big stage and I wanted that beautiful train to flow as Anushka walks. In the olden days they had trains and it looked beautiful. Also we have worked with velvet and other such fabrics to stay true to the period. A lot of thicker fabrics were used and we had to double layer them to give it a particular embroidery and look. And when you are shooting in the heat, any fabric besides say mull; will feel much heavier than it actually is.

What kind of accessories have you used to compliment the various looks? Were they designed or sourced?

We made a lot of the accessories. We wanted Little Shilpa to design all the headgears because she is an expert at them. We got one done but realised that getting all of them made by her would go beyond our budget. So one of my assistants Riyaz volunteered and made all my headgears. It was amazing because we have those really big headgears. I did buy a couple of things when I was in London, did some thrift store and antique store shopping, because I wanted some specific things. Like I needed a hat for the funeral scene that had a net covering and we couldn’t make it so I got it from there. I picked up a lot of broaches for Karan. I also got hats, tie pins, hat pins and other such things.

We had Shoebiz make the shoes for the guys because I wanted that crocodile skin look, even though fake, but I wanted that look. We had to make shoes for our background artists too and that was a lot. We were dressing around 300 people a day! And this was not including our 15 odd primary and secondary cast. And I was looking at the hair and make up also so that they go perfectly well with the costumes. I had to bring in my entire team for this film.


Pearl & Ostrich Feather Gown

Tell us about designing for Karan Johar who himself has styled other people. What was his involvement in the costumes like?

Karan was so professional and cool. He asked us what we had in mind and then all of us sat together. The look was a bit of a shocker for him because normally when Karan is styling himself, he largely wears black or white. Not even that much white. And here I was putting him in mustard jackets, electric blue suits and all those colours. But he was really good and got into his character really well. His character is a flamboyant dapper Parsi man. And I wanted him to have that flamboyant streak about him so I gave him colour. I had two Parsi men in the film and I needed to show difference between their characters, therefore their costumes.

I have to say, never once did Karan question the costumes, he would just go ‘Oh My God’ on seeing the colours (laughs). It was great working with him. All of us had a lot of fun on this film.

Finally coming to Ranbir’s character. How have you shown his transition from a street fighter to a big shot?

His character grows in economic status, so that reflects in his costumes. He will be seen donning suits. Also he has an outward influence that encourages him as you can see in the trailer when Karan takes off his dark glasses and hands them to Ranbir. And you see him changing from there and becoming a big shot that he wants to be. Simultaneously you also see his best friend Chiman (Satyadeep Misra) who also gets money but doesn’t change as much. You see him grow but it’s not as flamboyant as Ranbir. That’s how we have worked around it and hopefully the audience will notice it too.

Was there a particular aspect of designing for Bombay Velvet that proved challenging?

Everything was a challenge starting from budget to the quantity of people. I’ve never worked on a film that was this vast, cumbersome, challenging and brilliant. And to have a director that allows you to show your creativity and trust you the way Anurag trusted me, was simply great. Hopefully we have lived up to that. That is the drive behind us working the way we worked on this film. We did have a lot of our disagreements too. For instance, we had this lovely Peacock dress for Raveena, which is my piece de resistance. This and an ostrich feather white dress that we did for Anushka, were the big dresses. Raveena has one song in her peacock dress. And the crew placed a blue light on the dress. All of a sudden you realise that a blue light kills any detail, it’s a yellow light that shows detail. And we argued about it. I was literally howling, saying, ‘You can’t do this to my dress. You can’t kill it’ (laughs). And Anurag’s reasoning was that we are making a film and it’s (blue light) the requirement of the mood. It was hilarious. But those were the fun things. And you realize that it’s all about the bigger picture and how we can enhance the film.