The south Mumbai apartment of actor, model, and now film-maker, Shaana Levy-Bahl is an unabashed ode to film and fashion. In the living room, an iconic black and white portrait of Kate Moss by fashion photographer Mario Testino hangs on one wall, a gorgeous Roger Moore on another, a seductive Sophia Loren overlooks the room, and Audrey Hepburn is in the embrace of Gregory Peck in a far corner. Levy-Bahl and her businessman husband Uraaz Bahl have taken their love of cinema a step further and dived into film-making with a documentary on Indian archer Deepika Kumari, titled Ladies First.

“My husband and I read about Deepika’s story one day in the newspapers in early 2015. Uraaz had been going through very tough times dealing with red tape and bureaucracy in his own professional life and somehow Deepika’s story really struck a chord with us. We both instantly decided that this was a film we wanted to make," says Levy-Bahl. She has previously acted in off-Broadway theatre in New York, interned with Mira Nair in New York and Steve Tisch in Los Angeles, and acted in the Bollywood films Namastey London and Bhoothnath. “Acting will always be my first love, but producing and directing a film really takes you through the entire arc of making," she says.

Leading up to its 8 March release on Netflix, “on International Women’s Day", Lounge caught up with the film-maker about her personal style and the people who have shaped it. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Tassel fringe earrings by Misa Los Angeles.
Tassel fringe earrings by Misa Los Angeles.

Did working on ‘Ladies First’, set in Jharkhand, add a new layer of understanding to how you dress?

Purely out of respect for the place we were filming in, I did go shopping for some kurta-pyjamas, just classic, beautiful, traditional clothes that are comfortable and appropriate to the weather and culture. And I realized how elegant they are. Now, I find myself wearing kurtas with Patiala pants. They have found a way into my wardrobe now.

If we were to look inside your wardrobe, what else would we find?

You will find a lot of dresses. I’m a curvy girl and I like silhouettes that come in at the right places (like the waist) and flow out at the right places. I dress for my body type, so I don’t necessarily take trends into consideration that much. I fluctuate in terms of colours from very monochromatic on one end and bright block colours on the other. I’m a huge white shirt fan. It’s my little black dress. I have a few different styled white shirts: the classic that I’ll wear with jeans or high waist-ed pants and skirts and even lehengas. You can wear a necklace with it or tie your hair up. I have some cropped white shirts, some with tails, and my current favourite is a Dsquared white shirt. The Italian fit is perfect.

Dress by Missoni.
Dress by Missoni.

So style for you is individual to each body type rather than what’s trending at large?

A woman’s body is so elegant. Style is knowing how to champion your body. We all have our own expression. When I was younger, my friends used to joke that I wear costumes, not just normal clothes. I didn’t know how to wear just jeans and T-shirt. There has to be some element of expression, like crazy big earrings, or a big bindi. That’s what fashion is for, a bit of transformation has to happen.

Do you find that you can compromise comfort for fashion?

There have been moments, for instance, at a wedding, when I’ve worn the most fabulous lehenga, even if it weighed 10 kilos. Or I’ve worn heels even when they’re killing my feet, or the most amazing earrings even though my ears hurt. But it’s a slight departure from compromising on comfort. I like to have fun. By the end of the night, I might be dancing and my heels are flung somewhere, my earrings are in my handbag and my lehenga is knotted up or tucked in, so that I can dance. There’s a point where, yes, I want to come in and look fabulous, but through the duration of the night, I’ll eventually get comfortable and just express myself and have fun.

Necklace by Mawi
Necklace by Mawi

You’ve lived in many cities around the world. Tell us about the sartorial influences you picked up along the way.

My mother is a Gujarati from Kenya. I was born in Mombasa. Tribal art, photography, vibrant Masai colours and patterns are part of who I am. My father is Swiss Jewish. In my growing years, we lived in Switzerland and I love clean, minimalist lines and angles. We moved to London afterwards, and the city is so cosmopolitan. The architecture and design is so fantastic. It really opened my mind. For school, I went to New York, and I remember walking into college in heels, where everyone was in trainers, and they looked at me like “what are you doing?". London, and Europe in general, is more elegant and dressy. America was about jeans and T-shirt. It brought out the more comfortable, functional wear for me. And then there’s India (she moved to India in 2011). Just discovering what is it within Indian fashion that really spoke to me has been so wonderful. I love the big Bengali bindi. I love Kolhapuris. I’m a Sabyasachi loyalist and love his kind of low bun and middle parting look. For me, it’s about mixing Eastern and Western influences, like wearing lehengas with shirts and satin dhoti pants with a little crop (top). I’ll wear a beautiful black gown for a black-tie function, but instead of earrings, I’ll wear a maang tika.

Apart from Sabyasachi, which designers do you return to?

Dress by Self Portrait
Dress by Self Portrait

I love Stella McCartney. I feel conscious of the kind of fashion we consume, and she’s a pioneer in fashion being ecologically conscious. Plus she cuts amazingly well for women and I love her slightly androgynous style. I like fun resort-y clothes like Zimmermann and Mara Hoffman. For jeans, I always go to rag & bone.

It’s about mixing East and West.... I’ll wear a beautiful black gown for a black-tie function, but instead of earrings, I’ll wear a ‘maang tika’.-

Films are clearly a source of style for you. Any stars or an era that particularly speaks to you.

I’m a fan of the Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Brigitte Bardot era. They were so elegant and sophisticated. I love the sex appeal that Sophia Loren, Catherine Zeta Jones and Monica Belluci brought to film and fashion. I feel currently, there’s such an overdose of social influencers. Yet I will look at, for instance, the Golden Globe Awards to see what everyone was wearing. It’s amazing how within the confines of black, each actors’ gown was so individual and expressive of who they are as people.

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