Designing the costumes for any film is a time-consuming, labour-intensive process. But when they have to be historically accurate as well, it only gets trickier. Throw 154 characters and a tight schedule into the mix and the difficulty level gets cranked up to 11. Just ask Abhilasha Srivastava, costume designer of The Accidental Prime Minister.

The film, based on policy analyst Sanjaya Baru’s memoir of the same name, deals with Manmohan Singh’s tenure as India’s Prime Minister between 2004 and 2014 and his contentious relationship with then Congress president Sonia Gandhi. A recently released trailer features Anupam Kher as Manmohan Singh, Akshaye Khanna as Sanjaya Baru, German actress Suzanne Bernert as Sonia Gandhi, Aahana Kumra as Priyanka Gandhi and Arjun Mathur as Rahul Gandhi.

“We had to create their looks from scratch, not just put them together. Everything has been made to measure and then stitched, nothing was bought ready-made. We started working on this film in November 2017 – three months of research and then stitching, which began in February 2018. Around 80 workers took three months to stitch clothes for the film’s 154 characters,” said Srivastava, a National Institute of Fashion Technology graduate who worked as an assistant costume designer on The Dirty Picture and Delhi Belly.

Research spanning the decade between 2004 and 2014 took up a bulk of the designer’s time. “We looked for references of what they used to wear in old newspapers and magazines and took a little bit of cinematic liberty in terms of fabrics and colours. The director, Vijay Gutte, also showed us old footage from news channels. We’ve achieved accuracy in terms of using the same colours they wore and looks that they had during rallies or oath ceremonies,” she said.

Assisting Srivastava was makeup artist Shrikant Desai, whose 17-year-long career in the industry includes work on films like Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), Court (2014), Masaan (2015), Bombay Velvet (2015) and Raazi (2018)Desai also describes himself as a stickler for accuracy, saying he decided on his choice of career after reading a Mayapuri Magazine article on how makeup artist Vikram Gaikwad transformed Mammootty into Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar in Jabbar Patel’s 2000 film.

“We referenced a few books and magazines to achieve a likeness. We wanted people to be able to identify the characters on sight. The casting directors found actors who bore a facial resemblance to these personalities and we all we had to do was contour. There were little things – Lalu Prasad Yadav has hairy ears, but the actor who plays him doesn’t, so we had to achieve that on the makeup chair. We gave some people dentures. But we tried to avoid prosthetics as much as possible. A few actors shaved their heads for the role. I appreciate their dedication,” he said.

The two broke down what went into some of the main characters’ looks in the film:

MANMOHAN SINGH

Designing costumes for Anupam Kher took up most of Srivastava’s time as the character has around 70 wardrobe changes in the film. “We took a little cinematic liberty with his clothes. For example, Manmohan Singh wore nothing but blue, but we’ve given Anupam a few subtle colours in line with what the director wanted,” she said.

Transforming the actor into Manmohan Singh took an hour in the makeup chair before each shoot, of which half the time was spent applying his facial hair. “We couldn’t do a look test for Anupam Kher as he was travelling between the US and the UK. We had to do the test on the first day of shooting, which is when we finalised it. He was quite happy with how he looked. We did not use prosthetics for him. His entire look was achieved with contouring and facial hair,” said Desai.

SONIA AND PRIYANKA GANDHI

Transforming German actress Suzanne Bernert into the Italian-origin Gandhi was a challenge for Desai, who said the problem was compounded by their age gap – Bernert is 36, while Gandhi is currently 71. “My first test was the Sonia Gandhi look. Bernert is a blonde and so we had to make a wig for her. She’s also much younger than Sonia and during the film she plays Sonia over a 10 to 12-year period so we had to show the age progression. We gave her wrinkles and also used a small, lightweight prosthetic to achieve the effect we wanted.”

Working on Priyanka’s look was relatively easier, he said.  “The actress playing her (Aahana Kumra) has long hair so we had to get her a short-haired wig. We also gave her artificial eyebrows as hers were not as bushy.”

To get the Gandhis’ wardrobe right, Srivastava got in touch with their personal designer. “We looked at Sonia’s and Priyanka’s clothing and saw that they actually promoted Indian designers and wore a lot of handwoven pieces. We contacted designers who procure such clothes from Kutch and Gujarat and got sarees from them. We also got in touch with Sonia’s personal designer and took a lot of sarees and raw materials from her. We used a lot of Hyderabadi silks and pure pearls to give the film that richness. Sonia has almost 35 look changes in the film,” she said.

SANJAYA BARU

Srivastava said she tried to steer clear of clichés while coming up with the look of Sanjaya Baru. “Akshaye Khanna has been given the look of a modern journalist, someone who’s very outspoken, very critical. We’ve sidestepped the cliched ‘journalist look’ and put him in three-piece suits and double-breasted checkered retro suits, which are currently back in fashion. We did rounds and rounds of look tests for him as we were initially unsure what kind of a look would suit him. We tried at least 70 pairs of spectacles. At first, Akshaye did not think the salt-and-pepper hair and checkered suits would suit him, but once he saw the look tests he was happy.”

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