Suneet Varma can’t say he wasn’t forewarned. When the Delhi-based designer told actor Priyanka Chopra that he was styling the clothes for Kites , a film starring Hrithik Roshan and produced by his father Rakesh Roshan, Chopra cheekily asked him what product he used on his hair to get the spiked look. A somewhat baffled Varma replied that he gelled his hair. “That was when she laughed and told me that I could forget about gel till Kites was finished because Hrithik would make sure my hair stood up on its own,” Varma recalls with a laugh.
Roshan Jr may not have simplified Varma’s grooming regime, but the designer admits that the actor was “very involved”.
“He is a perfectionist and wanted to know everything about the way his character should look. I could not just pick up a good-looking jacket and say this will work. I had to convince him why it works for the character, why the character would be wearing it at that point and whether he would be able to afford such a jacket or not,” he says in a phone interview.
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Varma and other designers such as Narendra Kumar, who have recently started styling for Bollywood movies, are discovering that Indian films are not what they used to be. Costumes are no longer only chosen to best showcase an actor’s vital statistics and film-makers are realizing that sartorial authenticity, never a USP of Hindi films, might not be such a bad thing.
“Today directors and actors value the opinion of a designer,” says Kumar, seated in his central Mumbai office-workshop. “We have a greater role to play and greater responsibility and accountability.”
Kumar is a rare specimen in the fashion industry. He’s one of the very few who believe that fashion is not about fantasy, but is, or at least should be, driven by current events and reflect the mood of the world around us. He used his Lakme Fashion Week show earlier this year to make a statement about the country’s new-found passion for sports; previous shows have had themes such as “Freedom from Illiteracy” and modern love.
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One would think that automatically places him somewhere at the bottom of the list of designers the industry approaches to style their films. But Kumar’s resume lists Babul, No Smoking and the soon-to-be-released Fashion, in addition to four upcoming films starring Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjay Dutt, Viveik Oberoi, Akshay Kumar and Neil Nitin Mukesh.
After Manish Malhotra transformed a gawky and unstylish Urmila Matondkar into a short-red-dress-wearing siren in 1995’s Rangeela, the next turning point for costumes in contemporary Hindi films was Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), with its emphasis on in-your-face logos of international brands. “Karan is the original stylist of new Indian cinema,” says Anupama Chopra, film critic and author of books such as Sholay: The Making of a Classic. “But now there is definitely a thorough process that goes into creating a character; actors go through a complete change that includes hair, demeanour and costumes.”
Chopra points out that film styling’s latest watershed was after Dhoom, when Anaita Shroff Adajania proved that films do benefit by having a stylist. “Dhoom without her contribution would be a lesser film,” Chopra says. For Adajania, who is also fashion director of the Indian edition of Vogue, films were never a planned path. She started by styling songs for Karan Johar’s movies and then decided to try her hand at taking on entire films, such as Dhoom and Dhoom 2, Being Cyrus, Hope and a Little Sugar and Race. After years of working with high fashion for magazines, Adajania found herself hunting down policemen’s outfits. “I prefer to take on an entire project rather than dress just the lead stars. I want even the passers-by to look right,” she says.
Kumar, too, fell into the film world by chance. On John Abraham’s request, he started out by styling the actor’s character in Ravi Chopra’s Babul. Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion, starring Priyanka Chopra and Kangana Ranaut, is the first movie where he has been involved in the looks of all the characters, which he styled in collaboration with fashion consultant Rita Dhody.
Dhody, who supplies international fashion houses such as Armani, Valentino and Pucci with embroidery and who regularly visits various international fashion weeks, was as unlikely a candidate as Kumar. She started on the project as a consultant, “but before I knew it, I was soon styling it myself”. Dhody says a big challenge was not letting the clothes overpower the story; the script, not fashion, dictated the look. “I didn’t want the audience to be looking at the actor’s shoes in an emotional scene,” she says.
For Varma, who worked on Zooni and then on Cash, designing for films has not been a smooth ride. Zooni never took off, though he camped in Kashmir for almost a year while the project was on, and “the producers of Cash expected me to put everything together in three weeks,” he says. Varma, who has studied the history of costume at the London School of Fashion, usually takes about two months to design a custom-made wedding outfit for a bride. For Kites, however, he had almost six months to work on the looks of four characters. He had Polaroid shots of every outfit—complete with accessories— attached to his script and extra pairs of the same costumes prepared for important scenes like the long climax in which Hrithik will be seen in the same costume for about 20 minutes.
He was approached by the Roshans last year after they attended a fashion show in Singapore where he was showcasing his clothes. Varma was unaware of the filmi family’s presence till he got a call from Rakesh Roshan a month later, asking him if he wanted to work on Kites, directed by Anurag Basu and starring Ranaut and model-actor Barbara Mori. “At that point, Hrithik’s Jodhaa Akbar had just released and his look was very different—traditional and steeped in Indian design. Since his character Jay in Kites is that of a guy based in LA and Las Vegas, they were looking for someone who could create a contemporary and international look for the film,” says Varma, who hotfooted it to Mumbai to meet the Roshans.
In a similarly serendipitous incident, Delhi designers and siblings Shantanu and Nikhil Mehra met Dia Mirza during the Femina Miss India 2007 beauty pageant for which they had designed cl othes for the contestants and Mirza, the show’s anchor. “When Mirza signed up to play the role of a powerful, sexy gangster, Max, for Sanjay Gupta’s production Acid Factory , she suggested to the producers that we design and style her look in the film,” Nikhil says. The duo’s clothes had been used in films before, usually by stylists such as Adajania. “We have designed clothes for shoots but that has been on the basis of what a stylist wanted. To create a look and feel for a character from scratch is a first for us.”
To prepare, the two sat through a scene-by-scene narration and met director Suparn Verma.
The director deconstructed each scene and that helped the duo to figure out what Mirza would be made to wear. “The way Max would cross her legs, what her body language would be in a scene, whether she would be in a cable car or in a boardroom—all these factors defined what kind of outfit we should design for a scene.”
The clothes had to be elegant, stylish and upmarket—looks the Mehra brothers are comfortable with. “Since hers is an evil and powerful character, we included more reds and flame colours and some blacks. As far as the silhouettes go, we decided to keep the outfits fitted, and more structured with stark lines,” says Nikhil. They opted to work with luxurious fabrics such as silk, leather and stretch-satin. Even a fitted kimono jacket that has been designed for one of the scenes has been made from pure Merino wool with a satin lining. “The necklines are deeper and the hemlines shorter,” he adds.
Max’s character is modelled on Brigitte Nielsen’s character as the sexy power-dressing assassin Karla Fry in the 1984 Hollywood hit, Beverly Hills Cop II. “During the narration itself, we got a clear image of the character and that is where we did our preliminary sketches. Reading a script on your own cannot replicate the vision of a director,” Nikhil says.
Niharika Khan, the stylist for the Abhishek Kapoor-directed Rock On!!, agrees. She and Kapoor sat for hours discussing the back story of the characters, a step Khan says is very important to her. “That’s how you can work on really subtle details, which we hope came across.” Farhan Akhtar’s character was from a privileged family, so he could afford to dress in brands such as Diesel and G-Star. “On the other hand, Joe was not loaded, so though his T-shirts are similar looking, they are knockoffs or more affordable brands,” Khan says.
Khan’s current project, Aamir Khan Productions’ Delhi Belly, starring Imran Khan, Shahnaz Treasurywala and Vir Das, is an English language film targeted at international audiences, about contemporary India. The look for the cast, very much an East-meets-West vibe, uses the very MTV-sensibility of Indian pop culture cool. “Manish Arora does this look very well. The look portrayed in Indian films is sometimes very typical. In reality, we have evolved far beyond that,” says Khan. She says the younger generation likes to coordinate a piecemeal look—for example, an ikat-print skirt or block-print halter top works for them rather than a salwar suit.
The Mumbai-based 38-year-old silver jewellery designer and mother of two never thought she would be a Bollywood film stylist. She started out by styling the lead characters in Sudhir Mishra’s 2007 period film Khoya Khoya Chand because the film’s associate director and Khan’s friend, Sameer Sharma, was convinced she would be great for the job. Before Rock On!!, her first contemporary film, she had also worked on Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya.
Khan reiterates the fact that today, Bollywood film-makers realize the character should be bigger than the star. “It’s all about the character, not the actor,” she says. Khan has no qualms about making a character repeat outfits, if required, in the same film. “It keeps things authentic. We all repeat our clothes, so why shouldn’t a character?”
Added authenticity also comes in when stylists, used to putting disparate colours, fabrics and styles together, mix and match clothes by various categories of brands and designers, as opposed to being dressed in designerwear from head to toe, which is often the case when a fashion designer does an entire film. “The biggest difference between a designer and a stylist is that a designer is limited by their own aesthetic, while a stylist can borrow and combine many designers’ styles,” says Adajania.
As Dhody did for Fashion—luxury labels such as Lanvin, Versace, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana will be seen sharing space with Indian designers such as Gauri and Nainika, Shantanu and Nikhil and high street brands such as Miss Sixty and Guess. Besides putting together the film’s look, Dhody and Kumar, both fashion industry insiders, also helped Bhandarkar and his team with insights on how the industry works. “They wanted to know what the mood and energy is like backstage, what the audience in the first row chatters about and how designers sometimes graze work,” Kumar says.
As movie stylists, they are now insiders in film industry too. Khan says, with a laugh, that she knows the measurements of the stars she’s worked with (though she declined quite firmly to share them with us). Varma has custom-made most of Hrithik’s outfits because the star does not wear clothes off-the-rack. “About 95% of his clothes had to be tailored. He prefers them to be tailored to his size, since he has broad shoulders and a narrow waist,” Varma says. Adajania had taken a tailor along on a month-long schedule in Rio while shooting Dhoom 2, in case there were “fluctuating waistlines”, among other clothing malfunctions. But like most film industry insiders, they’re not sharing the juiciest gossip.