Some of costumier Neeta Lulla’s best work has been with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in classics like Sanjay Leela Bhansali Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), Devdas (2002) and Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar (2008), all of which are films high on visual aesthetics. But one of her first collaborations with the actress was in Shankar’s Jeans (1998). Unlike the films mentioned above, neither was Jeans a piercing tragedy nor was it a grand historic retelling. Yet, the Tamil comedy, which was one of the most expensive Indian films at the time, managed to transport us to the seven wonders of the world, at the comfort of a theatre screen with the song ‘Adhisayam’.
The AR Rahman number begins just as Visu (Prashanth) and Madhumita (Rai Bachchan) reconcile after appalling secrets are spilled. Even as the twins’ fate is left hanging in the air, Shankar takes us on a gorgeous escape across the Pacific. In an interview with Rediff, the director revealed how he finalised the list of wonders, for no two sources agreed on the same landmarks. "Each list is different. For instance, some include the Hanging Gardens of Babylon -- which no longer exists. Another place, I read about a St Sophia's Church in Istanbul which qualifies for the honour. So it was a matter of researching, and finalising our own choices."
So, Shankar’s list included The Great Wall of China, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Empire State Building in New York, the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Pyramids in Egypt, the Colosseum in Rome and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The song primarily had two looks for almost each landmark. “One was the historic look, and the other, interpretative,” Lulla tells us. So for every chic gown that Ash leaped in, she was also decked up as the queen from the region — she comes alive as Empress Mumtaz Mahal beside Shah Jahan’s work of beauty, while she shapeshifts into Chinese empress Zhao Feiyan at the Great Wall of China. On the actress’s 50th birthday, Lulla tells us how Aish and team managed to take us on this wonderful trip:
It was Shankar's idea to shoot in all of these countries. We went through extensive research to figure out how the song’s futuristic costumes should be. I had to access magazines and other references from Milan. At that point in time, we didn't have access to too many fashion magazines and brands. So, I had to travel to various countries to dig out the fabric, bring it back here and make the garments. Since I've studied fashion, I could access many libraries too. In terms of the contemporary looks, we had to source fabrics. The French fabrics, for instance, weren't available readily in India. And I travelled with them for the shoot to every location. I've seen the seven wonders of the world thanks to the film.
Each and every costume was challenging because there was a lot of technology and detailing of cuts that came from the era and the country where it was shot. For the Egyptian costume, for instance, there was a lot of metalwork; for Paris, we went for a futuristic look and another with 16th-century Parisian sensibilities. She is dressed like the queen from each region, too. So, for Egypt, we had a gold outfit to replicate Cleopatra's aesthetic.
Shooting the song was an unbelievable experience, also because I was one of the first costume designers to travel abroad for work at the time. It was like having a mini South India in various countries. I am from Hyderabad and didn't really miss my idli-dosas. The production team ensured that we had biryani at the shoot while we shot the portions at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Just imagine, everyone else was having pizzas and wine while we were having our biryanis!
Since I had worked on Kaadhalan (1994) with Shankar before, he completely trusted me with this film. Even if he hasn't studied fashion, he knows what he wants. That is what's brilliant about him. I don’t know if you know this, but I did the costumes for the ‘Vaaji Vaaji' song from Sivaji (2007), and even till date, I have many directors reference the clothes from the film and tell me they need something like that. Shankar is extremely ahead of his time and knows what he wants. He gave me his reference and told me what he wanted. We would go through the magazines and fix the looks.
And Aishwarya is a dream to dress. She looks fabulous in whatever she wears. She had just won the Miss World crown at the time and was at her prime in terms of fashion. She was enjoying her clothes and we were enjoying dressing her up.