Designer Anju Modi, renowned for her work with traditional textiles, got a once in a lifetime opportunity to design for the Bollywood epic, “Ram-Leela.” We spoke to the designer about her work on the film and how her incredible costumes brought the character of ‘Leela’ to life.
How did the opportunity to design for ‘Ram-Leela’ come about?
The director of the film, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, is a perfectionist and he wanted the film to look real regarding costumes and is meticulous about every detail. He found out that I do a lot of work in Gujarat and Rajasthan and I am good with my knowledge of crafts so he called me and offered me the opportunity and I took it quickly because I love his movies and the way he makes them.
So you had no reservations about doing it?
No reservations. As a designer it was a great opportunity to work with a talented director and to dress Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra and to give an authentic Gujarati feel to the film. All of these elements were tempting and so of course I took it.
What kind of research did you do to prepare for the movie? Did you look at a particular time period?
The movie is set in today’s time but I had to maintain the typical Gujarati village look with a contemporary feel so I went to the Bhoj region of Kutch to see the way they dress and found these old antique textiles which can’t be replicated. These were only available in bits and pieces so I had to mix and match them with new fabric and that was a huge challenge because I had to make them look as though they were part of one outfit. I wanted to use those old, antique fabrics because it’s impossible to replicate the authenticity of those colors, the brocades and those beautiful, fine embroideries that were done by hand. One of the requirements of the costume making was that I travel to the village sectors and locate those antique fabrics and utilize them with the newer fabrics and make Deepika’s outfits look as authentic as possible.
How old were the pieces that you used?
Some of the pieces were more than a hundred years old. There is a song in the movie, “Ishqyaun Dhishqyaun” where Deepika is wearing a turquoise blue and pink blouse made from an old, antique fabric which gives a very authentic look to her outfit. Those pieces had its own charm and its own colors that is just not possible to replicate in today’s time.
Where were you able to find these hundred year old fabrics?
You would be surprised and it was a huge discovery for me! I had never traveled that deep into the interior of the region and I met the villagers there who had these old pieces and I bought it from them. The jewelry was sourced from Amrapali, who gave us antique pieces from their archives which they don’t sell but were generous enough to allow us to use them for the movie. So a lot of the rustic charm was there because of these antique pieces.
How is the character of Leela described in the script and how did that influence your design?
The minute I was finalized as the costume designer for the film, I was sent the script and I read it to understand the character of Leela and the requirements of each scene. The brief I got about Leela from Sanjay was that she is beautiful but with a naughty streak in her and also quite rebellious. She is also sensuous – not sexy – because she is unmarried and innocent in certain terms. But a mild seduction needs to be there without being overtly sexy. So, I had to be careful in my choices and the colors had to be bright and her flirtatious, naughty nature has to come across in the way she dresses. She doesn’t cover her head like a typical Gujarati woman and she wears her dupatta in a casual way as if to say, “I live life on my on terms.” And when the story demands her to become a little more serious, the attire becomes more mature and darker and she’s shown in closed neck, long blouses. So, as the movie progresses, the costume also progresses according to her evolution and state of mind.
Although there were specific guidelines in the script how much freedom did you have with the design/creative process?
I was given one hundred percent creative freedom. For one, Sanjay understood the importance of the costumes in the film and secondly he respected the creative input of others. So, while we discussed the script and the sets and the colors, he told me, “Okay now you create your magic.” As a designer, you don’t want to hold back and want to give full blast to your ideas so I was given that creative freedom. And a lot of credit goes to Sanjay’s own creativity and the creative synergy that was created with the whole team that allowed me to come up with designs that I may not have designed. The whole experience of working on ‘Ram- Leela’ was a creative high for me.
How much input did Deepika have in how she wanted to look?
Deepika had never dressed in a very ethnic way in any of her movies before so the minute she put her outfit on she said she felt like she had become Leela so that was the most complementary thing she could say and then I felt like I was going in the right direction. Her suggestions were more along the practical lines about not making the length of the skirts too long so that she wouldn’t step on it, things like that. But she loved the bright colors, which are representative of the Kutch region and anything I showed her she was gaga about.
What was your favorite outfit to design for Deepika?
My favorite was from the Holi song ‘Lahu Munh Lag Gaya.’ I just loved the way the layers of her lehenga were swirling while she was dancing and there was an antique Kutch woven fabric in the skirt that showed through and the colors created this beautiful tie and dye effect. All the layers and different borders created this dramatic effect when she was swirling and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I somehow forgot to watch the others and there were so many people dancing with her in the song! But when she was on the screen my eyes just don’t move away from her because she was looking so beautiful in this outfit, so that was one of my favorites.
One of the more dramatic pieces you created was a 30kg legenga for the promotional poster. Can you tell me more about the making of that?
Sanjay wanted to create an image for the poster that was larger than life so the ghagra had to be long and flowy and unlike anything one would wear in daily life. It also had to reflect the crafts of the Kutch region so the materials for the lehenga were mulmul and velvet and had silver foil printing, an antique way of printing in Gujarat. I did not start designing with the intent of making a 30kg lehenga (laughs) but that was what I ended up with once I was done.
You also designed an outfit for Priyanka Chopra for her dance in the movie. How was that different from what you made for Deepika?
Priyanka’s character is that of a mujrewali or courtesan and the community that she comes from – though they sing, dance, and entertain – has an elevated status in society and are quite bold and daring because they are not affected by any social stigmas. And since the characteristics of a mujrewali are understood – they are sexy, desirable – the outfit I made for Priyanka was very fitted to the body but still had to look Gujarati. The brief I got from Sanjay about Priyanka was that she had to look sexy while Deepika had to be seductive and that difference had to come across in the way the characters dressed.
How has working on the film impacted you as designer?
This experience has opened a whole new vista in my mind and changed my whole thinking process as a designer. When the mind is more enriched with experiences it is reflected in your designs.
Do you have a memorable moment from working on the film? Everything about working on the film was memorable! I worked with such a fantastic team and I was so impressed with Deepika and how disciplined she was. There was such hard, hard work behind the scenes from 6 o’clock in the morning to 12 o’clock at night with the non-stop shooting, the rigorous physical and emotional effort and so it was a revelation to me that filmmaking is not all glamour, that it’s a lot of hard work. The entire unit was so professional and disciplined and you appreciate how hard everyone worked. It makes you rise up to a higher standard and not compromise in any way. Even though there were challenges and difficulties, I was mesmerized and quite overwhelmed by the whole movie making experience.
Have you thought about what kind of movie you would like to work on next? I love doing research and over my 20 year career I have worked with the old crafts of our country and really respect and admire the work of the karigars (craftspeople). I am passionate about doing work that revives and preserves old craft traditions so I would love to work on another movie that has these craft based costumes. That gives me the liberty and opportunity to carry on doing the work that I love and express my creativity to the fullest. Images courtesy of: Ram-Leela Movie