The Fabrics Always Talk to Me: Neeta Lulla on Dressing Samantha for Shaakuntalam

“The film took me back to my childhood where I grew up seeing the visuals of magazines such as Chandamama and Amar Chitra Katha,” she says
Interview with Neeta Lulla
Interview with Neeta LullaFilm Companion

Neeta Gupta remembers what it was like to be a fashion designer who also did costumes for cinema in the late 80s and early nineties. It was a time when costume technicians were looked down upon vis-a-vis fashion designers. “At a time when I was doing Darr (1993) with Juhi using these off-shoulder blouses, people who came to me for blouses and saris would say 'I don't want filmy costumes'. But at the same time they would be like, 'Can you do something like what you did for Juhi in Darr?' Their instant reaction was that they didn’t want ‘filmy',” she recalls with a smile. 35 years into the industry, Neeta is still juggling the two roles, but the line between street fashion and cinema fashion has blurred. 

“Today, brands are available from where stylists are picking up clothes for the actors and people are picking up clothes from brands. The new generation wants what is in cinema, and cinema, too, is taking a lot of inspiration from Gen Z. That line has diffused a lot, and the aspiration has become a reality." But there is still one aspect of audience expectations that remains unchanged over the years. “It is their hunger to see something new.”  

A still from Darr
A still from Darr

Lulla is back to doing what she does best with Gunasekhar’s Shaakuntalam, a period piece (based on Kalidasa’s play, Abhijnana Shakuntalam) exploring the romance of Shakuntala (Samantha Ruth Prabhu) and King Dushyant (Dev Mohan). And when Lulla was approached for the film, the first thing that came to her mind was “mythology for millennials,” in keeping with her quest to achieve freshness. “Millennials don't have the access to magazines like Chandamama and Amar Chitra Katha to have seen the visuals of what we as kids saw in Shaakuntalam. It kind of took me back to my childhood and felt excited to bring it back to the youth of today,” she says. 

The film features Samantha decked up in two looks — one as the child of the forest, and another as queen. Lulla dressed the actress in organic cotton and flowers for the first look, and silk and silver for the regal look. And for the imaginary portions, chiffon, zari, zardosi and gold were played around with “When you are using fabrics that give you that yesteryear feel, you can go godly wrong if the texture of the fabric is wrong. If I had to use silks, which is a pure weave, it could create a lot of jarring colours on the screen. But using sustainable fabrics like raw cotton and using weaves with textures that youngsters of today relate with, you bring in a millennial aspect.” 

Her research included scouring through sketches, etches and books in the library to study fabrics of a different era. The challenge also was to keep the characters grounded even if the subject on hand was grandiose mythology. “Once she becomes queen, Shakuntala’s family dresses her up and sends her to the kingdom. But within that, we had to look at what their inference grandiose would be. For instance, since she is coming from an ashram, we went with saffron as the colour. The cut was also based on what she would have worn in the ashram, but a little more grandeur. Instead of going all out in gold and zari, we have gone for pearls and beige.”

Lulla tells me that Samantha makes for a perfect Shakuntala. “It was very exciting to work with Samantha on something like this because there is a certain body language that is already prevalent when an actor has already done such roles. But to work with someone who has not done a period drama, it brings a newness to the table.”

A still from Devdas (2002)
A still from Devdas (2002)

In her years of experience as both a costume and fashion designer, does her artistry in one help the other? “My experience as a costume technician, knowing the cuts and stitching, has helped with my designing. In Shaakuntalam's clothes, the first prototype has been stitched by me and then I handheld the masters to give me the cut. Even in Devdas (2002), each and every drape was done by me. My techniques have helped me create different looks. The fabrics always talk to me,” says Lulla, who continues to look at a director as the artist and technicians as their paint brushes. 

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