After working on four films with Vishal Bhardwaj - Haider, Kaminey, The Blue Umbrella and Omkara- costume designer and actress Dolly Ahluwalia is adept at dealing with the filmmaker’s last-minute flashes of creativity. Or so she thought. Ahluwalia says Rangoon, their fifth film together, was unimaginably hard to pull off. The period romance set against the backdrop of a war was demanding on several counts. Here she tells Film Companion about her experience.
REFERENCING OTHER FEMALE STUNT WOMEN: I saw a lot of movies on female stunt artistes - both old and new. So there was Fearless Nadia, Nadira and Spider Woman. I was looking at textures and cuts of their costumes. Since most of these films were black and white, it was challenging to understand colour. Fearless Nadia was a general reference, but I wanted to my own baby to take birth. Besides Nadia’s body type was completely different from Kangana’s. The things that Nadia could wear wouldn’t have looked nice on Kangana. Her movements were also very different.
My actors were great inspirations for me. Once I knew who was playing what, I immediately pictured the textures to give them. We had lot of help from the actors. Saif (Ali Khan) came in with a lot of ideas because it’s an era he’s in love with. He has lot of references and pictures of his great grand father. Even Kangana was a delight because she knows her fashion. You can’t take something wrong in front of her - she’s very intelligent and will immediately point it out.
GETTING FACTS RIGHT: Rangoon shows different armies - there’s the Indian Army, INA and British India. It was really difficult to get all their uniforms right. I was watching this old film by Shyam babu (Shyam Benegal) where the badges shown were totally different from the actual references I had. I got hold of old pictures of badges and I met this amazing 102-year-old gentleman who actually served in the INA to find out which was correct. I really wanted to be authentic so had to do a lot of personal research. But I realised everyone is just working on guesses! I had to make army water bottles, INA caps and helmets especially made for hundreds of actors. I’d really panic because if we had a 10 AM shoot, they would only arrive at 8 AM.
A MASSIVE COSTUME DEPARTMENT: There were so many different colours of khaki during that time. They used to dye them so much that you couldn't tell the real colours. What the Chindits used to do is that they would locally dye them so that they would blend with the forrest. We also had guys on the sets dyeing material on the spot. I always had a huge team on set to look after these things.
It would also rain during the shoot so there was no way we could wash and dry the clothes on time. So I had to make sure there were multiple versions of the costumes. There was one dress of Kangana which had a long continuity so we had to make 10 sets of that. In many of the scenes she had to wear corsets with a big buckle with multiple metal zips and buttons - like people did in that era. If was really hard for her to do stunts in that outfit but she performed beautifully.
Even for the men, they were given very heavy shoes to wear so we had to make lighter replicas. For the scenes in which they had to run a lot they wore the light ones and closer shots they wore long leather boots.
VISHAL BHARDWAJ’S LAST MINUTE CHANGES: The script may say something but Vishal can come during the shoot and shock us by changing things around. With a big smile he says, ‘Dolly ji I know you’ll be able to do it’. This takes me back to the time we were shooting Haider. We had only 50 dancers for the song ‘Bismil’ and a day before Vishal said, ‘Dolly ji I’ve changed it. Now there will be 100.’ I was sitting in Kashmir and everything was being done in Delhi. I kept saying it’s not possible and then the biggest smile comes on his face. Even with Rangoon he suddenly added 100 more Japanese soldiers and their khakis are very different from the ones Indian soldiers wear. It was extremely challenging but we managed.