Decoding Costume In Film

‘I study a character as much as the actor and director,’ explains Niharika Bhasin-Khan, the National award-winning costume designer of Mirzya, Rock On! & Band Baaja Baaraat


Dressed to Thrill


People often ask me if I’m a fashion designer. I’m not. I’m a costume designer. I don’t know anything about trends and upcoming fashion. I come from a small town, Jamshedpur, and cinema was never at the forefront. But I did learn how to study a person. I had many hours to observe different types of people. To sit and deduce what a person’s clothes reveal about them. In my world view, when you look at a film, your initial instant understanding of the characters is by what they’re wearing.

When I read a script, I’m not just thinking clothes – I’m actually visualizing hair, make-up and wardrobe. In fact, I look at chaddis too and people think it’s very funny. A guy could be wearing kachhas, Jockey underwear or Pierre Cardin – it denotes character and economics. When we give our presentation for a film to the director, it includes the entire look of the film, the colour palettes, and the world you’re creating.

 

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My presentation for Bombay Velvet was supremely extensive. It took us over three months to make it. I don’t think Anurag (Kashyap) expected that kind of presentation from us. But then it was extensive enough to also help clarify his world. During Mirzya, we actually created the entire world of the folklore for Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. People are now understanding that a costume designer’s role is creative and not about being the wardrobe supervisor

In a TV show you can have the clothes be the same and carry it through because you’re giving the audience time to reveal who the character is. In a film, I have 1 or 2 seconds as soon as they walk in to show who they are. In India, we’re looking at how rich they are, how poor they are, and what they’re trying to portray. In Rock On!, when an older Farhan (Akhtar) walks in, I wanted to give him a pair of Gucci shoes. I had discussed this with Gattu (Abhishek Kapoor) because at that time we didn’t have an extravagant budget. But if you see a pair of good-looking shoes walking at you and then you see him in his perfectly tailored suit, you know that he has transformed from this rocker boy to this banker dude.

Kai Po Che! was an amazing experience. It was months of studying Gujarat; the fabrics, the culture, the people, and the art. Somebody asked me why I put tight shirts on Rajkummar (Rao). I said, because in my head he’s a baniya. Why would he spend five rupees more for the extra fabric that he has? He’s getting his shirts tailored by his local tailor. He’s not going anywhere to buy his shirt. Therefore, it would be made perfectly to size.

Amit (Sadh) asked me why I wasn’t giving him running shoes in the film. I said, ‘No! You’re a pujari’s son. Every time you walk into your house, you have to take off your shoes. Chappals it is.’

In Rock On!, Gattu and I had decided that we wanted to give the characters cool T-shirts and create a regular grunge look in the Indian rock space. Farhan in his head was convinced that he wanted to start the first concert with those cotton, big-sleeved kurtas Jim Morrison used to wear. I didn’t think a majority of this generation of young Indian kids would identify with Jim Morrison’s kurtas or make that immediate 1 -2 second connection. But he was adamant. And he was my producer.

Finally I went to Goa and got him 40 kurtas. Eventually he wore that T-shirt with the two shoes that had been printed. I had angered my producer and actor and was screamed at in front of 400 extras. You stand there, and you take it. You ask yourself, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’

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My beef with costume designing is that you get typecast. Karan (Johar) and Dharma films are glamorous, and Manish (Malhotra) or Anaita (Shroff Adajania) add that flair to it. Period glamour like Bombay Velvet? Yes, I can be called to do. I would be top of their mind as it is period first. But contemporary glamour, not yet. That is still for me to prove myself. However, if I am a costume designer, it’s about designing a character top to toe and I should be able to do it. I should be able to do everything.

My other big fight is to be able to do an entire film. We are reaching that stage slowly. In India, we’re used to telling different people, ‘You do the actors. You do the actresses. You do the background.’ Actors think that we won’t have time for them. I met an actor/director for work recently who said, ‘I’m a big fan and I love your work but everyone says you don’t have time.’ How don’t I have time? You’ve seen my work. If my work speaks for itself, then I must be doing something right, putting in the time and effort towards every project, small or big. I’m not required to be there daily. Continuity is for my wardrobe supervisor and new changes and important scenes are my focus. And being on set, this is at the discretion of the director and producer.

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We are trying to create stories for who the actors are as characters. We normally have really stringent budgets. On Roy we had chosen this beautiful Victoria Beckham dress – really expensive for my budget but I wanted to have it. We couldn’t use it because some actress had already worn it to an appearance. We had to change it. Why can’t you as a character wear clothes that are identifiable and worn by someone else? But it doesn’t work that way. And we have to take into account ALL the variables. I don’t think this is the actor’s vanity – it’s just not being on the same page. If it doesn’t work, we won’t do it. But at least give me the benefit of the doubt to try it.

Farhan is really particular about his costumes. I’m doing Farhan Live right now. He said, ‘What are you getting me? These pajamas?’ And I said, ‘Just wear them. Just try them.’ And I have to say he did look good.

In Fan, Shah Rukh and I had a deal that I would listen to everything that he had to say about Aryan as it was true to Shah Rukh the superstar. However, where Gaurav was concerned, I was going to add my own colour and design sense that may not appeal to the sensibility of fashionable clothing.

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I had the same argument with Ranveer Singh on Band Baaja Baaraat. The clothes given to him were not clothes he had expected for the character. I would never make someone look bad or ugly unless I was supposed to. As for The Dirty Picture, I had to tighten Vidya’s (Balan) blouse so that I could create bulges for her. I was making a point. And she had to trust me to do that. I’m studying a character as much as the actor and director are. I have to convince the viewer of who that person is in those few seconds. And we all have to be on the same page for that.

In the ten years that I’ve worked, I’ve done 15-18 full films. I started really late in life and so I had to make up for it. I hadn’t studied this and my brother Arjun (Bhasin) had. He had gone to NYU, he knew where he was coming from, and what he wanted to do. I didn’t. I got thrown into it with glee. Also, we all work for the money.

 

“When I read a script, I’m actually visualizing hair, make-up and wardrobe. In fact, I look at chaddis too.”

Please understand that costume designers do not make money. Advertising is where you make the big bucks, not films. Films are great to showcase your work and get more work. And advertising is very good for people who have an actor who will recommend you or who will work with you. So, I style for events and anything that requires a design sense from me. I also work on Farhan and Ajay Devgn’s advertisements. For some reason, I have become the male designer. I don’t know why I don’t get called to style for women much – Typecast, perhaps?

My depression after a film was only Bombay Velvet. That broke my heart. It was finally a film that got majority of my team to come on board, which you normally never get to do. And to think that nobody would see our work was huge for me. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my god. We’ve done so much work and it doesn’t get seen.’ Each and every pin we put on Karan (Johar) was well thought out. We made a dress entirely out of peacock feathers. We had made headgears and sourced all kinds of accessories. We worked long, long hour days. And the work would not be seen by the vast majority. It was pure heartbreak.

Band Baaja Baaraat, Rocket Singh, Delhi Belly and Rock On! are some other films I’m proud of. But I don’t like being typecast. When these came out, there were offers for similar films. I had already done that, I was not averse to doing them again but you need a break from similar so you can come back fresh with a new design point of view.

When you see a film, you can decipher the designer’s signature. I want to show my daring. Whatever you throw at me, I can do it. I am a Costume Designer.

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