A blood-splattered Kangana Ranaut astride a horse charging towards her enemies, flashing a naked sword in the trailer of Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, would have given many women goose bumps. The fierce look and the resolute strength she portrays give Indian women, repressed by a patriarchal system, something to cheer about. A desi version of the DC Comics’ science-fiction Wonder Woman, she does aerial flips, fights men and skillfully wields weapons.
Ranaut convincingly brings alive the larger-than-life persona of the historical Jhansi ki Rani. However, a major part of the superwoman aura is created by the clothes that she wears. The khadi angrakha kurta trapped in a leather vest and armour and fluttering in the air blurs gender quantified roles and emphasises the tenacity of the dainty woman who puts up a fierce fight to protect what’s hers.
Neeta Lulla, the go-to costume designer for Bollywood period films—Khuda Gawah, Devdas, Jodhaa Akbar and Mohenjo Daro —reveals she did extensive research on fabrics for about two months before deciding upon khadi to create the battlefield costumes of the warrior queen. “The costumes had to exude the power and the strength of the queen. I wanted a strong and elegant fabric. Khadi compared to silk was thicker and heavier, it fit the bill perfectly. I was attracted to the way it fell and draped. Its sturdy texture added to the strength of the character,” says Lulla.
Besides Ranaut in the titular role, the movie also stars Jisshu Sengupta, Atul Kulkarni, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub and Ankita Lokhande. Costumes for the entire cast have been designed by Lulla.
A Tie-up with KVIC
To source authentic and quality fabric, Lulla reached out to Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC). “They were kind enough to support us. They understood our requirement and showed us fabrics in Khadi that many didn’t work with as they found it too stiff. But it was the sheer lack of awareness that stopped these fabrics from becoming popular. Only after a wash, the fabric became softer and draped beautifully,” she says.
According to an article published in www.moneycontrol.com, the designer picked up fabrics–including silk, cotton and wool–costing around ₹ 26 lakh from KVIC for costumes. Lulla evades putting a figure to the transaction, but says, “The whole film has a lot of Khadi, apart from Ranaut other characters also wear Khadi. So, yes we bought a lot of fabric from KVIC.”
But how did she fit khadi, a humble handwoven fabric known for its ascetic Gandhian association, into a queen’s wardrobe? “I used a lot of resham embroidery to give it ornateness, especially in the saris,” she answers. She also points out that handspun and woven cotton fabric was endorsed by royalty in the 19th century, only they weren’t called khadi then. In fact, there’s a scene in the movie where Ranaut is seen spinning on a charkha sourced from KVIC.
Character Evolution and Vegetable Dyes
Lulla admits it was challenge to create designs for a queen immortalised in texts. She began by digging up information available at libraries and museums. “I had to create a character based on my research. The problem was most of the material, I found were textual and not pictorial. Reading books and how historians discussed Manikarnika and her attire, I came up with the looks,” she says. It took her four months of trials and a team of 152 people to create the costumes for the cast.
The designer drew upon her experience as a period drama costume specialist to give Ranaut four distinctive looks—a tomboy, a royal bride, a widow and finally a revolutionary. Lulla shows this evolution of the character through a range of colours. Fabrics were dyed in organic vegetable dyes as per the colour scheme.
“Before marriage, we have used pastel shades to depict her tomboyish persona. For the married woman look, we gave her a lot of bright colours like reds, oranges and greens,” says Lulla. Muted, darker colours are introduced when her husband falls sick and her child dies. This is where Ranaut dons a lot of khadi saris. And then for the warrior queen, Lulla has created Khadi angrakhas and achkans in shades of beige and ivory. From rich reds and oranges reflecting her joy and prosperity to somber blacks and darker blues emphasising the turmoil that she undergoes, the play of contrasts heighten the poignancy of Lakshmi Bai’s life. Besides Khadi, a lot of Paithani, Benarasi brocades and zardozi have been used for Ranaut.
Lulla uses colours to bring alive the other characters as well, for instance Ankita Lokhande, who plays Jhalkari Bai wears a lot of saffron, this highlights her devotion to patriotism. Jisshu Sengupta, who plays king Gangadhar Rao gets lighter pastel shades as his is a sensitive and softer character.
The film puts the focus on a home-bred female hero and a home-bred fabric. Though khadi has had a favourable 2018—shooting sales, big brand tie-ups and international runway outings—will the glory of the queen rub off on the fabric or some of the good luck that khadi has run into spill over to the movie, time will only tell. As for Lulla, the movie does a good job of bringing awareness about indigenous weaves. “The aspirational value that films hold for the audiences, makes them an effective platform to promote textiles and crafts,” she concludes.