Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi takes its textiles seriously. The hero, Afshan (Shantanu Maheshwari) is a tailor. The scene where Gangubai (Alia Bhatt) first meets Afshan, they are separated by a sea of white cloth. When Afshan wonders how different and distinctive white blouses, white saris can look from one another, Gangubai contradicts him, waxing poetic about the different shades of white — the cloud, the salt, the froth — lost in a reverie of pain and a life of ruin, that the shadowless-ness of white, somehow, softens.
Known for his excessive, baroque costume design, Gangubai Kathiawadi is certainly not extravagant. Instead, it is elegant, the blinding whites making Gangubai radiate light, as though lit from within. In the following interview with costume designer Sheetal Iqbal Sharma, edited for length and clarity, he digs into the costumes, the choices, and the chaos on set.
Do you remember the initial brief? What were you told about this world?
We started shooting in November 2020, and I came on board sometime in September. I was never given a script, only a synopsis of characters. SLB likes to have a conversation while building a character, instead.
There was just a detail — 50s-60s Bombay, Kamathipura brothels. He wanted to see a character who has grown over there and is now a flourishing madam there. He showed me a reference image — an old image from the 40s, of an old lady at the window wearing just a blouse and petticoat. It didn’t look like an SLB costume — not the flamboyant Gulab-ji (Rani Mukerji) from Saawariya. Instead, he wanted to show the deeper, darker side. We used to meet every week. I had a bank of images, since I have worked on period films, that we used to look at.
Then, in between he asked me to do a generic outfit. He never told me it was for Alia Bhatt. I didn’t know who the actress of the film was. It almost felt like an exam — unaware what the question paper will be, how it will be graded. He sent me measurements, and asked me to make something. After 3-4 days when I came back to the office, I suddenly saw Alia Bhatt coming in with her entourage, and I was shocked. She had come all the way for a look test and I had just got one outfit. If they had told me it was for Alia Bhatt, I would have gotten more options. I had literally come with one outfit on a hanger, I aged it, it didn’t even look fresh. I didn’t want the outfit to be garish or glittery. I thought let us go English pastel-y, everything being muted.
But I don’t know what happened, whether it was that colour or something else, but he loved that outfit so much that the first time in the film Gangubai is calling out to customers, he used it. He designed that entire doorway, the entire colour palette of that scene keeping that outfit in mind. He loved it so much he made it the first poster. It was actually just for a look test shot by Sudip-da. That is where the confidence built. He asked me to take up Alia and Ajay Devgn’s outfits and I said no, I want the entire film. I had to convince him because he always has secondary and tertiary designers. He was unsure, because everyday we would have 500 people on set — the customers, the sex-workers, the characters. Eventually, he agreed.
How big was your team?
6 people. We also shot during the pandemic, all night shoots. Because of the pandemic there were also months we did not shoot, so there was time in between, to prep. There was no awareness of which direction we were going in. Going out, sourcing, was difficult, of course.
SLB does all his look tests on the set, when it was being constructed. So then he can take a call on any change in the set or costume design. He gets into every detail — who is standing in the third row of the frame. Even the junior artists — we used to call them on set and make twenty girls stand and discuss the colour palette.
How many samples did you make per costume? Bhansali is very physical with his costumes — Gangubai is throwing red gulaal while wearing white, spitting out alcohol — so I am assuming you had to have back up costumes too?
For the ‘Dholida’ song we made 6 saris. The throwing of gulaal was very last minute. He loved the idea, since it was a Navratri celebration. Overnight we had to make a sari. Then the next night, another sari. Even Alia was just dancing in a trance not knowing if the sari would open. She was bare feet, with stones bruising and scratches. The sari looks so neat and tidy on camera, but behind the scenes there were so many takas so it wouldn’t fall, so it would hold onto her body.
We didn’t use any safety pins on the sari. Bhansali also refused to zip in a sari. The beauty of a sari, he would say, is that you drape it. Me, my team, Alia’s team were just standing on the side, as soon as he called cut, the entire gang would run to make sure nothing had fallen, torn, etc.
6 nights of shooting for that song, it was crazy. That last shot of her in a trance was done in 3 takes, so we had 3 outfits. We were happy it finished with 3 takes. With SLB sometimes there are over 40 takes.
If you see the shot, it looks natural. She is running into people, pushing them, ramming into a girl, pushing a plate. We thought SLB wouldn’t like that take, but he loved it — that when you are in a trance you don’t understand space, you will slap or ram into somebody. The hair team had to keep making sure her hair would open slightly — it shouldn’t look prim and proper. SLB wanted the bun to open slightly, and the hair to fall down.
How did white become the palette?
If you see the 50s-60s movies of Madhubala and Meena Kumari, they used to wear a lot of whites and off-whites. That was there in his mind. But when he told me that she mainly wore white — even to stand out in a crowd because she was so small, petite — I was like, “Sir, what is my job now? Aapne colour scheme ko hata diya.”
He completely went mad, that white is never one shade. There are so many whites around you. You know that dialogue between Afshan and Gangubai, where Gangubai speaks of the different shades of white? That was our conversation. That there is white in the clouds, waterfall, Rann of Kutch ka salt, rose white is different from milk white… That conversation went so well, I think he just made it into a dialogue in the film.
We see it from a textile point of view. But he connects it to nature. There are so many variations of the texture of white — silk, mulmul, cotton. We used everything, keeping that period in mind. 90% of the saris were made, and we got them screen printed with florals and embroidery, like the Gujarati sari in ‘Dholida’ where the pallu and the side which is visible has more work.
That white sari from ‘Meri Jaan’ I picked up from Jodhpur, from a store that was selling vintage clothing. That sari was actually from the 40s, Banarasi with silver weave. It fell so beautifully on the body. He said he would use it in the most important scene because with the silver shine it looked like the chand itself.
How do you create a copy of that, then, as a back-up?
We went crazy. For Afshaan we created multiple costumes of course. But with her, we couldn’t, since it was a rare piece. She had a lot of action in that song. The sari was also fraying, it had dhagas coming out, but you probably can’t notice it. We tried to restore it. We also put it in Alia’s head that the sari could just tear.
It was a totally handwoven sari. If you held it, it would be 3.5-4 kgs. Even when she kicks, see the fall it gives. It flares like a ghagra. That is because of the weave. He loved it.
Was it just materials then or also shades of white you were playing with?
In the office we had an entire wall of white — different shades, froth, foam, clouds, etc. just so the team doesn’t get carried away. No beige or off-white or pink-white, peachy-white. He wanted the whiteness to be there. The beauty of the character only comes through then.
Even the sari she wears when they are doing the morcha against her, we got that sari woven. Pure cotton, even the pallu has the threads at the end. We got it made in a week from weavers in Aurangabad, with the small blue flowers. Then there is the chikan sari she wore in the first scene that was so fragile. That print I actually got from a dupatta in Chandni Chowk. I then got that chikan print replicated on the kota doria textile — a very soft white, with small checks. You can even see her stomach, it is that translucent.
But since it was white, we used to be very conscious with bleaching sprays and wet tissues with us all the time. We even had to make sure that Alia Bhatt’s chair always has a cloth so no dust touches the clothes. Even the make-up around the neck, rouge on the face, etc. was complicated because all the necklines were also high. There were lots of little things to take care of. Talcum powder was very handy. There were always three people only to take care of Alia Bhatt’s white saris — one to give her a robe as soon as a scene cuts, one to see there is no stain on the sari, and we had a masterji on standby in case there is a hole or a tear or something, to do rafu.
The way Bhansali and cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee shoot the clothes, too, draws your attention to the print. They used it in the poster, and with the harsh yellow back-light you can see all the embroidery clearly.
The quality of lighting by Sudip-da, too, helped. When she is sitting against the window, it is like an aura of a goddess walking into a brothel, a creamy whiteness around her. When Bhansali loves something, he shows it in so much detail.
The padding was very visible on the blouses.
See, whatever you do with white, it remains transparent, especially with strong lighting. You can literally see the petticoat ka detail in the poster and even while she is walking. So we had to put on an extra layer of fabric on the blouse. If the bra was visible it would look ugly. Also, these women technically never wore a bra. 70% of the time in the film, she isn’t even wearing a bra so we had to make it comfortable for her. It also had to look comfortable because Gangubai isn’t the kind of person who would be adjusting her strap. There are buttons in the blouse, one of them is open, she is sitting with a translucent lungi in her house. It was feminine yet powerful. It shouldn’t show effort. So the pallu doesn’t keep falling, she tucks it into the blouse, like many grandmothers who, even today, wear it like that.
Is that why the blouses don’t stick to the body? They are loose.
It was all about comfort. It can’t look like a designer blouse. It should never look like an actress being dainty and diva-like. This lady will also sit on the floor, lie on the bed, walk around, she can’t look uncomfortable. So even the material had to have that fall and comfort. Nothing should have a stiffness. Even with the blouses, you can’t have it stuck to your chest, because you have to raise your hand, put it on your waist, behind your back, or just sit down, even as you modulate your voice.
Tell me about Huma’s sari. That was also white.
We had made 6 variations of that sari. We first thought it should be in black, as opposed to Gangubai’s white. But in that qawwali Huma is supposed to be Gangubai’s mirror image, her alter-ego, expressing what is going on in her head. So Bhansali chose white, to reflect the connection between Gangu and the song.
That sari looks stunning, but the embroidery was so heavy, Huma had bruises on her hands, her knees, her stomach because of the sequins, the zari, the zardozi which flies and hits you on your neck and waist. Her make-up artist was sitting after every shot, looking at the bruises, trying to cover them up. We shot that song for 4 nights. All 210 days were night shoots.
And her handkerchief?
It was made by women who crochet, with silk threads so it fell beautifully. With SLB we had to do those little things that made it look interesting to the eye. It is a very English thing to have a handkerchief. Indians developed that habit from them. SLB likes those elements, like a Bombay which still has a colonial feel. Gangu’s handkerchiefs, on the other hand, are tucked on her sari waist on the side. I don’t know how visible it is.
What about Sheila Maasi and Vijay Raaz?
Sheila Maasi was a delight.
She is Gulab-ji, palette-wise, right?
Absolutely. She should look like a devil, like she will eat up the women. Lots of rani pink, greens, yellow, lots of shine. We were trying to show her fading beauty. With SLB, he talks to the technicians in such language only — “fading beauty”. If the wall is pink she will contrast it with green. All the girls around her, young and pretty, on the other hand, are in shades of earthy tones, the “English palette”. Nothing stood out.
Of course with Vijay Raaz, the man walks into the set with no clue that he is going to be playing a trans woman. He gets these outfits, he is like, “Okay”, just wearing it without asking questions, changing his body language accordingly. We were doing these fittings on the set, while SLB was shooting some intense scenes in the brothel set. We decked up Vijay Raaz as Razia bai and made him walk to the set, instead of sending SLB photos just to see his reaction. SLB clapped and everything, saying that he didn’t even look like Vijay Raaz. The thing is, we didn’t go for the cliche. There was no wig. We kept his hair the way it was, just made it more puffed. We kept gold as the common thread through the costumes.
Why did you give Vijay Raaz ghararas and not a sari?
She is a politician from the 50s, trying to look elegant like a queen, more grand, more striking than a Gangubai. So it was intentional. Ghararas were crucial because the sari was more common.
Was the last sari — white with a red border — an homage to Devdas? Even in the last scene of that film, Aishwarya Rai was wearing the same sari, a very Bengali reference.
The sari in the climax was supposed to be only white, mulmul, no texture. But when we started shooting, everything was white, the sea of people in white, white paper flying. SLB wanted a red to stand out. So we just got red cotton and stitched it on the white sari, ironing it to look as though it was part of the sari.
You did this on set, while the shooting was taking place?
Listen, a lot of things were just stitched on set. Lots of blouses were made like that. The deep back of Dholida was done on set. Initially, it was “I neck” but because she kept turning, and it didn’t give a Gujju-vibe, so we made it slightly open.
Bhansali likes that goddess-y feeling in his heroines, and red always plays a significant part. That climax sari has a very Durga Puja look, when she is taken out for a procession. That everything said and done, at the end, Gangu comes out as a goddess. Alia actually cried in that scene, on her own. She just couldn’t believe this was her. No dialogues were needed.