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Published: Verve Magazine, Features

Indian cinema has proven with its recent offerings that it can confidently step up to the plate and serve style that matches the character and mood of the movie rather than cook up a half-baked stew of fashion and metre. As Verve pointed out last year, couture has found a definite place in Indian cinema, whether through a subtle pair of designer shades or through a statement handbag. The good news is high fashion isn’t being used as candy floss on the big screen – it’s playing a specific role. Costumiers are equally willing to turn to village threads for authenticity, or design garish, bordering-on-the-vulgar outfits for a real-life character, as they are to doll up their actors in an international label. While there may not be any path-breaking moves here, costume design 2011 has been authentic, stylish and character-oriented. It sets the stage to push the envelope further, away from the sensationalist and dysfunctional ensembles of the past. Sitanshi Talati-Parikh picks out four movies that impressed with their true-to-the-grain styling, and Verve recreates these looks with young actors Sarah Jane Dias and Sahil Shroff.


Lovleen Bains for Sonam Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor


For the clothes to take a backseat for a change and let real-life fashionista Sonam Kapoor’s character shine is no easy feat. Playing a simple Kashmiri refugee in Punjab, she faces Shahid Kapoor, a small town boy, in Mausam. You find the costumes hold their weight in their sheer subtlety – from the gaucheness of Shahid’s college blazer to the sophisticated tailoring of his air force pilot outfit; his character transitions in the very seams. Sonam’s transformation from youthful girl to a mature woman is rooted in her ethnicity: even as she dons international garb when living abroad, the Anamika Khanna-crafted red gown worn in Scotland has Indian embroidery on it, and the Kashmiri embroidered shawls are reminiscent of her Indianness.


Shades change with seasons and locations: the young lovers’ innocence is portrayed with the use of whites and creams in a wintry Punjab, picking up earthy hues along the way, through geographical displacement and character maturity. For instance, Sonam’s pale Kashmiri kurtas and dupattas soon reflect the happier shades of Punjab. When the characters meet again, in the church in Scotland, they are both, once more, in white. “Colour is almost a leitmotif in the film,” says Bains. Intentionally imperfect hand-stitching on Shahid’s college blazer, ageing of clothes to show wear, a fixed wardrobe with repetitions (Shahid had one pair of jeans through the first season except for the song sequences), researching the right length for Sonam’s kurtas, having Shahid’s sweaters woven by Punjabi village folk over gossip sessions and sarson ka saag, there is a thread of authenticity and rootedness in Lovleen Bains’ costume design of Mausam that is devoid of the trappings of Bollywood sensationalism.


Arjun Bhasin for Hrithik Roshan, Farhan Akhtar, Katrina Kaif, Abhay Deol and Kalki Koechlin


If last year’s Aisha had Dior handbags floating on every arm, 2011’s ZNMD makes ‘Bagwati’ a character – with her own position in the plotline. And the ostrich Hermes Kelly is styled with shades and a scarf occasionally, when the weather requires it. This is probably the first time fashion is used as a plot device in Indian cinema – an obvious barb at Kalki Koechlin’s prissy couture- conscious Natasha. Her blunt cut with sharp bangs, kitten heels, Chanel jacket and designer-everything says more than the pinched expression on her face ever could. The look is reminiscent of Molly-Ringwald-in-Pretty-in-Pink – except that unlike Ringwald’s second-hand, hand-stitched attire, Koechlin/Natasha’s clothes are an expensive combination of fresh-off-the-ramp and couture classics. In sharp contrast – as each character forms a fashion foil to the other – Katrina Kaif’s easy-going Laila philosophises in flowing dresses and tresses, easy-breezy beach wear and minimal makeup. Even a basic transformation into biker-chick requires her to wear a lightly ruffled-edged corset over jeans, always feminine and sexy.


With the boys, each actor’s personal tastes and style are visible. Abhay Deol has a naturally leggy, geeky look. The design takes it a step further for his character, Kabir, with over-the-top nerd spectacles, quirky shirts – think birds-taking-flight – teamed up with sneakers and a backpack that he hoists defensively when grilled about his life’s choices. Hrithik Roshan’s beefy look is toned down with buttoned shirts as the audience can’t be allowed to question how Arjun, a work-obsessed investment banker finds time to go to the gym while ignoring his girlfriend. (Of course, the toned shirtless body on the hoardings makes for a happy box office draw.) As the story unfolds, he loosens up, and so do his hair and styling. Farhan Akhtar is pushed further into a character scripted for him: quirky, philosophical poet, entirely boho chic. Aviator shades, loose pants, kurtas and long-sleeved t-shirts teemed with a random neck scarf and hat that he sports, on occasion, even outside the film.


Every look comes together cohesively, billed directly to director, Zoya Akhtar’s vivid visualization and stylist Arjun Bhasin’s recreation: detailed character-oriented styling and couture that slides into everyday life. We just wish it could’ve been a little more experimental – there is no room for a subtle overflow like a preppy artist, for instance. While ZNMD’s picture-perfect styling serves to
perpetuate stereotypes rather than demolish them, it does so rather appealingly.


Aki Narula for Ranbir Kapoor


Polish artist Grzegorz Domaradzki set the stage with his poster sketch of Rockstar. You couldn’t help but know that the look and performance would be iconic and the movie didn’t disappoint – at least on those counts. Tight-assed Janardhan (Ranbir Kapoor) in his too-fitted jeans, too-snug sweater, too-crisp shirts and too-short hair is an obvious exaggeration to the transformation that becomes rock star Jordan. Free of inhibitions and full of angst, Jordan dresses exactly the way he feels – unfettered, irreverent, defiant and often unwashed. As he moves to his own tune, treating societal norms, business conventions and geographical boundaries in the same dismissive manner that he does anything that comes in the way of his single-minded vision, he becomes an unwilling anti-authoritarian cult figure. And to that effect, he redefines the Nehru cap as a fashion ploy. Even as detractors and politicos may shift uneasily, Kapoor makes it work.


What stand out are his wardrobe staples (often repeated in the film for realistic styling): the snazzy anti-establishment military jacket, the Qawwal jackets – a call to his Sufi leanings, the mocking feather-topped Sadda Haq police shirt, all teamed with the clever individualistic version of loose patiala pants and kurtas – ultimate comfort wear. Love the fact that there is no leather or biker rock look – so often over done and stereotypical. What impresses is the refreshing take on a rock star. Packaged with Kapoor’s long, unkempt hair, accessorised with a chain around the neck that houses his first broken guitar string and guitar pick along with other souvenirs, Aki Narula, director Imtiaz Ali and Ranbir Kapoor have visualised possibly the iconic look of the year, to be imitated and popularised by young college kids until the next grunge look rocks its way in.



Niharika Khan for Vidya Balan


Even before the film released, Vidya Balan’s bosom encased in Niharika Khan’s suggestive designs made for feverish conversations and post the film’s release, one hears of ‘Ooh la la’ saris becoming popular commercially. If Vidya Balan has the mettle to take on an author-backed sensational role of this kind and further it with panache, then Khan has done more than her job to ensure that Balan’s character stays suitably unclothed throughout. For the racy protagonist, the costumes of the ’80s south are garish, loud and boldly uncouth – as the script intends it. The camera makes love to Vidya Balan’s unfettered body, and the clothes caress her intentionally untoned figure: you watch Balan attempting to button up her jeans over her flabby stomach with an enviably unconcerned attitude towards her generous midriff.


From the tight short dresses, the pelvis-hugging flared pants, to the cleavage-baring cholis and retro shirts, everything shrieks for attention. Where Bobby’s Dimple Kapadia and Once Upon a Time in Mumbai’s Prachi Desai conveyed youthful, shy sensuousness with their midriff baring, polka-dot front-tie shirts, Balan is unabashedly lusty and in-your-face with her wantonness in similar outfits. And yet, caught in a moment of vulnerability, Balan’s character, Silk, makes the walk of shame the morning after being dumped for the wife, attempting to shrink into the folds of her red sequined gown; but in the harsh morning light, it’s too tight for comfort or respect.


Ironically, for Silk, it’s all synthetic and the glitz of sequined make-believe. From the dull, aged South Indian cottons of Reshma’s village wear, and the lamé and brightness of Silk the superstar, to the unflattering wardrobe of an alcoholic, the clothes define every turn in the script. As Khan points out, “The film is about the character’s relationship with her clothing and body – and Balan is brave, far braver than even I could be, to take on this role.” These are the clothes of a woman whose attitude speaks more than her wardrobe, and her wardrobe merely perpetuates her freewheeling attitude. Whether Silk tries to hide or take the world in her stride, her clothes reveal her spirit and character – loud, brash, irreverent, attention-seeking, ambitious and vulnerable – and always exposed.