Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus Ponniyin Selvan I is a unique 10th century drama in that the film unfolds with a sense of a realistic expression, leaving the bombast associated with the genre behind. And apart from Ravi Varman’s visuals and Thotta Tharani’s art work, a big part of this realness comes from the film’s immersive costumes and jewellery.
Costume designer Eka Lakhani and jewellery designer Pratiksha Prashant explain how they brought alive the charm and personalities of the characters on screen using specific fabrics, colours, and stones.
Having read two instalments of the five-part novel, Lakhani went on a trip to Thanjavur to read the temple scriptures and speak to the weavers in 2019. “We went to a lot of temples and spent days looking at the sculptures, ceilings, and pillars — there was so much detail. Along with this, I had a guide (Jayakumar) who explained what the symbols and motifs denoted,” she recalls.
This journey also helped her discover the kind of accessories that existed back in the day. Talking about a few prominent findings, she says, “I distinctly remember one engraving that had evidence of a handbag, something like a purse. So, we realised they used to carry things like this. We used that knowledge and then took our cinematic liberties to make it look beautiful and comfortable for the actors. Along with this, Mani sir also set up meetings with weavers who have been into weaving silks and kanjeevarams for generations.”
Maniam Selvan, the illustrator for Kalki’s novel series in the Fifties, served to be a huge inspiration for Lakhani. “These images have stayed in the minds of readers for over 60 years. That effect was something that we wanted to create in a similar world in the film. For example, in the sketches, Nandhini (Aishwarya Rai) has an andal kondai - a side bun, while Kundhavai has a top knot bun. It is not that she has to always have the same hairstyle. We have taken the reference and have given it our own touch. So that the audience is not completely taken away from what they have imagined all these years,” she says.
Pratiksha Prashant, the CEO of Kishandas & Co, learnt the trading routes during the Chola era to add detailing to the film’s jewellery. “The designing for jewellery was done by Prashant, my husband, and his brother, Nithin. We learned about the trade routes and the kind of stones that might have been used in that era. We mainly used rubies and uncut diamonds in the jewellery because these stones were the most used in that period. We have also used fewer emeralds, as ambassadors who came from different parts of the world would bring them as gifts during that era,” says Pratiksha.
But when it comes to jewellery designing, Pratiksha says the most difficult part was designing for men. She says, “Mani sir didn’t want the men's jewels to look feminine. We also had to create a signature piece that defined the character of each person.” Apart from this, the team also incorporated intricate detailing of the Chola period motifs through the jewels.
“We used the emblem of the Chola kingdom such as tiger claws to create jewels for the men. Since the Cholas were Shaivites (bhaktas of Lord Shiva), we used some related motifs. Some armbands for the men had snake motifs on them. We also used birds, flowers, and flora-fauna motifs, which we see in temple sculptures,” says Pratiksha.
There is a difference between designing for a period film and a film set in contemporary times. Just like the landscapes, the costumes and jewellery worn by almost everyone in the epic would be different. Whether they are the crown prince or common men, they needed specific designs that reflected a sense of that era. So, the designers divided the character designs into primary, secondary, and tertiary characters.
While the primary characters wore gold, the secondary ones donned both gold and silver, and the tertiary ones did not feature any gold on them.
Both designers credit filmmaker Ratnam for the authenticity they managed to achieve. “We got a lot of guidance because Mani sir is very sure of what he doesn’t want,” says Pratiksha. And what he didn’t want was the gold to shine brighter than the actors.
For instance, when they first showed him the jewellery, Ratnam thought it was a little too yellow and shiny. This is when Pratiksha’s father-in-law had a suggestion: to de-age 24-carat gold and get an antique feel. Pratiksha says, “As the caratage of gold keeps decreasing from 24 to 22 to 18, the gold keeps getting more yellow. So, when we tried to age them, they became blacker. Later, we started to make 22-carat jewellery and coated it in 24-carat to get the colour right. When we made the first signature piece with this method, Mani sir liked it.”
Speaking about the sketches of important characters in the film, Lakhani says they designed the looks based on the adjectives associated with the character.
While Karikalan, Arulmozhi Varman, and Kundhavai were real Chola figures, characters such as Nandhini and Poonguzhali were born out of Kalki’s imagination. For such fictional characters, Ratnam’s descriptions were the base point. “Every time Mani sir spoke about Nandhini, he had this spark in his eyes. Nandhini is someone who is very aware of her beauty and she uses said beauty to reach a certain position. These were the terms that he used. And when Aishwarya Rai came in, it completed the whole picture,” notes Lakhani.
The brief was to make her mysterious with a touch of magic. “So instead of giving her plain outfits, we layered them. We used modern corseting into kanjeevarams to give that structured look. Then we layered it with see-through organza silks, so you have a play of translucency and opacity. It is like you can see little jewels from within the transparent fabric. It is there but it is not there as though she is there but yet not there,” recalls Lakhani.
In an interview with Film Companion, Vikram recalled a 12-kg crown worn by Jayam Ravi for the film, detailing its challenges. Pratiksha agrees, adding that it was one of the most tedious things to design. “We didn’t have the expertise to make a crown. Our kaareegars who make kireedams for the temples said it would be very heavy. A person should be able to carry it and Mani sir also wanted many details in the crown. Then we coordinated with someone in Bombay and got it done. We used the type of stones that would go with the rest of the jewellery,” says Pratiksha.
And the filmmaker wanted it to be perfect and authentic at the same time.“We often see history mainly from the past 300-400 years, so we only think of the Mughal era or the North Indian princes hailing from Rajasthan. Mani sir didn’t want things to start looking Rajput. But without a turban or headpiece, the men might look incomplete standing next to the actresses because they had different hairstyles. We had to strike that balance with head gears, turbans, and the crown,” the costume designer says.
The song ‘Ratchasa Maamaney’, a visual delight in the movie, also went on to win people's hearts for its creative staging. In the song, Vandhiyathevan (Karthi) dresses up as Kamsan and performs in a play to hide from soldiers. Talking about Karthi’s look in the song, Lakhani says, “We were trying various approaches to see what would make the perfect Kamsan - a ratchasa look retaining Karthi’s charm. After a lot of unsuccessful attempts, Mani sir showed us references to the Bali Indonesian Topeng Mask. Though we didn’t take that route, the idea of using a mask and costume layers arose from there.”
Looking back, Lakhani looks at the project as not only her most challenging one, but also her most fulfilling. “Ponniyin Selvan is the most challenging project in my career not just because of the fact that it is Mani Ratnam’s dream film but also for the era of the film belongs to — the golden age of the Chola dynasty. There wasn't much evidence and references about the 10th century, so it was challenging but it was such a satisfying process.”