Heeramandi’s Costumes: 300 Outfits, Two Years, One Vision

Rimple and Harpreet Narula break down their process behind creating the stunning costumes of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s prestige project on Netflix.
Heeramandi’s Costumes: 300 Outfits, Two Years, One Vision

What’s a Sanjay Leela Bhansali project without gorgeous, intricate costumes? For his first streaming show, Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, costume designers Rimple and Harpreet Narula were tasked with creating 300 outfits over two years. This meant researching vintage motifs and fabrics, restoring delicate archival textiles, and also crafting costumes that conveyed details of the character wearing them. Set against the backdrop of the Independence movement, the show follows the lives of a group of courtesans. This is the second time Rimple and Harpreet have collaborated with Bhansali, having previously designed the costumes for Padmaavat (2018). Their other Bollywood credits include Housefull 4 (2019) and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 (2022).

In a lengthy conversation with Film Companion, Rimple and Harpreet spoke about working with Bhansali on Heeramandi. Here are excerpts from the interview, which has been edited for clarity. 

What was the brief you got from Sanjay Leela Bhansali about the costumes for Heeramandi?

Rimple: When he called us for it, we were more than elated to take on the project because it resonated with our design philosophy — being from Punjab and hearing all the anecdotes and stories from our grandparents about undivided India, we’ve always had that influence on our designs. We have done collections called ‘Maharaja & Co’. Our outfits, our silhouettes are very much in sync with the North Frontier belt; we do a lot of capes, shararas, ghararas. So this project was a dream come true. We did a lot of research on the classical singers of the older pre-partition generation, like Noor Jahan, Shamshad Begum; and old actresses like Patience Cooper, Suraiya Jamal Sheikh. Back then, these women never had stylists. There was a lot of personal style involved in how they used to dress up and what they used to wear. So that became a study for us, and we tried to create very portrait-like, picturesque costumes.

A still from Heeramandi
A still from Heeramandi

We referred to very old books and very old photographs from the 1940s, whatever we could. We’ve been studying a lot of archival textiles, a lot of old costumes, paintings at the Calico Museum in Ahmedabad, and Victoria Albert (Museum, in London). Hapreet and I have always been collecting a lot of data worldwide through our travels. It wasn’t a one day job or a sudden project; a lot of our archival pieces and what we’ve been collecting over the years came very handy for the study of these particular costumes.

How much do your costumes, or perhaps the colours that you’ve used, reflect the personality or emotions of the character?

Harpreet: Every little thing about every character. For Aditi [Rao Hydari], we wanted to keep her very understated yet eclectic. So if you see, except for the red outfit on the mujra, she's always very uncoordinatedly dressed, yet everything is very beautifully coming together. If you see her mujra song, there is a gold dupatta, there is a chocolate brown velvet choli (which has real opal stones encrusted in zardozi on it), and then there is the Banarasi brocade lehenga. And then there is another embroidery border, which is zardozi. So they are all different regions and different colours, and it’s absolutely uncoordinated. The whole idea was to have these beautiful separates, and they all have to come together, and it has to work like magic. If you see her entire wardrobe, whatever she’s wearing, most of it is not coordinated. Same as when we were doing the blue anarkali for Richa [Chadha]. We wanted to pair it with an uncoordinated rust-coloured brocade chudidar.

Rimple: When she rotates, you can see — people have actually called me and told me that, “Oh, my god, the chudidar is so amazing.” Because the chudidar looks so not coordinated, but yet a beautiful masterpiece on its own. 

Harpreet: To be eclectic was probably the most interesting and important part of us making the costumes of Heeramandi.

Rimple: Speaking of Richa Chadha’s mujra, it could easily have a blue dupatta, but no, it doesn’t have a blue dupatta. It has a gold dupatta. So we tried many colours, and then finally the looks were presented.

Richa Chadha in "Sakal Ban" from Heeramandi
Richa Chadha in "Sakal Ban" from Heeramandi

What was it like designing for the men in the show? 

Rimple: In those times, people valued the old things which were available. Modernisation was just happening. Our very rich people were already mingling with the Cartiers and Boucherons of the world and getting the best jewellery collections and adorning it on their own Indian clothes.

Harpreet: So we used a lot of old jamawar shawls for all nawabs. For the topis (caps), we got a lot of these fur caps from Afghanistan and different kinds of furs which were used in those times. 

Rimple: It was our own interpretation of faux fur. 

What were some of your biggest challenges when putting together the costumes for the show?

Harpreet: The biggest challenge for us was actually to source all the antique textiles, and all the old fragments of prints which we had to scan and replicate. Whatever you see in this series is referred from an old textile; at least, I would say, 90% of it. And the 10% is what the script demanded in terms of the development of the character. So getting all the old brocades, old embroideries, and restoring them and collecting them — we already had a huge collection of antiques collected over the years, which helped us to do this project. Otherwise, it would have been very difficult to make these 300 outfits in these two years, because it actually takes a lifetime to collect all of them. 

And then to restore them, style them, coordinate them, mix and match them, everything. Most of the looks that you see in the show are not very coordinated — like a separate kurta and a separate salwar and a separate dupatta coming together. Since there was never any stylist or any brand forcing so much information like how it is today, that this is how you’re supposed to wear something. Women would just go to their wardrobe and pull out one dupatta, another salwar, and another kameez, and the other day it could be paired differently. That is what we were trying to do with the characters.

Aditi Rao Hydari in Heeramandi
Aditi Rao Hydari in Heeramandi

We had deployed one person on set, who was constantly repairing outfits within the shots. That is how it was possible. It was a task to pull it off in this kind of shoot, which is very hectic. There’s a crew of hundreds of people involved. With Richa Chadha’s anarkali, the sleeves and everything, that’s an old French chiffon, the blue one. You don’t even get it today. And we had some extra chiffon with us and it kept ripping within the shot and we had to keep repairing it, and sometimes time would get wasted.

Rimple: These fabrics don’t have that strength they had earlier, because they have been restored. 

Harpreet: But you have to go through all of that to be able to see the kind of world that Mr. Bhansali creates so beautifully. So by the end of it, I feel the whole exercise is quite rewarding. 

Are these outfits very heavy or uncomfortable for the actors? Is that a focus when you’re designing?

Harpreet: There is no way to reduce the weight. If something is heavy and if you’re using real zardozi — that is real metal, real copper, real silver, it definitely will have weight. So while we were very ambitious in making these beautiful clothes, the assistants and the designers of our company were constantly wearing them and taking twirls throughout, because we also wanted to make sure that the movement of the character does not get compromised. While there was a lot of weight, we were constantly working to keep the wearability and the movement manageable. That was always there. So those things you have to be very careful about when you’re doing these kinds of projects.

Sonakshi Sinha in "Tilasmi Bahein" from Heeramandi
Sonakshi Sinha in "Tilasmi Bahein" from Heeramandi

What kind of details did you pay extra attention to when designing the costumes?

Rimple: [Bhansali] doesn’t like too much tucking and pinning. He likes the fabric to flow freely. You have to get into the detail of the garment. You have to see how beautifully it falls. 

Harpreet: When we were designing the mujra outfits, it was a very interesting thing that we had to work on — the circumference of the lehenga, because we knew that he would choreograph it a certain way. Even the “Sakal Ban” song, there’s always a lot of turning and twisting around. So we would always have one of our assistants — every time when the outfit is kaccha (raw) and has to be stitched and the final belt has to be added, she would hold it and take twirls. Because the movement of the costume had to be aligned according to the movement of the character. 

How do things like lighting, setting and cinematography come together to influence your process? For example, the sequins on Sonakshi Sinha’s saris in “Tilasmi Bahein” are exquisite in the way that they catch the light.

Hapreet: Working with Mr. Bhansali on two projects, we have kind of become intuitive about what he would be thinking. He has this very beautiful, surreal, crepuscular way of taking all his shots. And so we know that this is the lighting and this is how we have to keep the materials and all the embroideries so that the light — because using sequins and zardozi is a very tricky thing. These metal yarns all catch light very differently. 

Is your approach for designing costumes for a Bhansali film different from other Bollywood projects? 

Rimple: I can’t say that there’s any difference. But with Mr. Bhansali, his involvement is a lot, and his inputs are very valuable. He is an institution in himself, so it’s a collective discussion and collective vision that we take.

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