The premise of director Anurag Basu's latest film, Ludo, borrows heavily from the game itself. His nine main characters function like actual Ludo pieces in the game of life and their arcs are coded by the game's colours of either red, blue, green or yellow. For instance, Abhishek Bachchan's Bittu, and the characters he interacts with, either wear red clothes or use red props.
Similarly, Shruti (Sanya Malhotra) is coded in yellow and so wears an Anarkali suit of that colour to meet a potential groom, Akash (Aditya Roy Kapur). Aaloo Gupta (Rajkummar Rao), who has harboured a one-sided love for Pinky (Fatima Sana Shaikh) since his school days, has been wearing green for an equal length of time. Nurse Sheeja (Pearle Maane) and department store worker Rahul (Rohit Saraf) both wear blue uniforms for the better half of the movie.
The characters are all connected through the don Sattu Bhaiya (Pankaj Tripathi), whose movements cause tremors in their lives, just like a dice disrupts the static pieces on a Ludo board. "We had to dress him in black and white because he's the dice," says costume designer Ashish Dwyer. "We gave him a lungi because the character's from Bhopal, but made it out of satin and added a leather jacket to show that he's rich."
Not every character's costumes fit into a single colour palate. Unlike Akash and Sattu, who consistently wear a single colour, Bittu doesn't stick to red, sometimes wearing plaid and dark shirts.
"His look is a little ragged as he's just been released from prison. He's not a happy man at that point in the film so we could not dress him in red," says Dwyer. "Instead, we surrounded him with red objects, like the doll he takes for his daughter. When he meets Asha (Asha Negi), she has a red dupatta. Inayat Verma (who plays the young girl Mini) also adds colour to the frames."
Every female character in the film wears red at least once to depict either love or passion. On a mission to extort money, Pinky wears a short shimmery red dress with a thigh-high slit. Shruti attends her wedding rehearsals in a red choli and dupatta. Sheeja wears a red floral dress and her superior Lata (Shalini Vatsa) wears a red jacket once their fortunes take a turn for the better. All these sequences spur romantic emotions in the men in their lives. While Aaloo is mesmerised by Pinky's beauty, Akash's feelings for Shruti are rekindled after he sees her dancing.
While it's common for costume designers to get scripts to reference while working on a film, Dwyer says Basu only briefed him about the characters and their backgrounds. "The other directors I've worked with decide everything in advance. We do look tests and then go to the location and shoot. But with Dada (Basu) it's a little different. We have discussions, but the costumes are not pre-decided in absolute terms," he says. "For example, something might look good during the look tests, but if it does not look up to the mark on set, then he would ask me to change it."
No costume was truly finalized as any could be swapped out before the take. On any given day, Dwyer would not only carry a character's pre-selected costume to set, but also 10 alternatives. "We had three trials to make sure Pearle's red dress looked right. I also carried four to five dresses on the day of the shoot in case the one we selected did not seem right," he says.
He also asked the actors and assistant directors for help if he felt that the brief given to him was incomplete. "For the scene in which Pinky follows her husband, I had to first understand the details of that sequence, like the time of day. Since it's nighttime, she's wearing comfortable clothes. Since she's in a hurry, she won't have time to change her clothes. How does she follow him? On a scooter, which means she can't wear a skirt. That's how I ended up making Fatima wear a nightie for that scene."
The shooting schedule was divided according to the four colours, making the task of arranging for costumes for such a huge cast easier. Dwyer knew that if the green storyline (Aaloo's) was being shot, then he'd only have to arrange for costumes for the two main characters – Rao and Shaikh. "We would tackle one colour at a time and then move on to the next one. That's why most of Pankajji's sequences were shot during the last leg of the schedule," Dwyer says.
The costume designer has worked with Basu on four other projects, including Hrithik Roshan-starrer Kites and musical Jagga Jasoos. By now, he says he knows how to navigate the director's methods. "A lot of the film happens in his head and he changes many things spontaneously on set, where he gets a lot of new ideas. And he wants to make his project better. It could be difficult initially, but after working with him for so long I have found ways to give my best work."