Location Diaries: Dressing up the stars
Costume designer SB Satheeshan talks about his experiences in the films Kathapurushan, Guru, Black and Summer in Bethlehem
In his first film – Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Kathapurushan (1995) – costume designer SB Satheeshan was told to make a uniform of a Kerala policeman of the 1940s. But when Satheeshan came across the cloth, he realised that it was of a very thick material, almost like a canvas.
“It was very difficult to stitch that cloth,” he says. “I used an old Singer machine, with a thick needle, which was provided by Adoor Sir, but still could not do it.”
So, he went to Adoor and told him that when he tried to stitch the uniform, 15 needles broke. “This was an exaggeration,” says Satheeshan. “But I wanted to show how difficult it was. Adoor Sir replied, ‘No problem, break about 25 needles, but I need this material only’. This gives you an idea of his dedication and desire for authenticity.”
In his next film, Guru (1997), Satheeshan was asked to make a crown for Suresh Gopi who played a blind king named Samanthaka Rajavu. To suit the story, Satheeshan made a crown and costume of coir and bamboo. But when Suresh saw it, he was not sure whether it would be suitable for his character.
“I felt a great tension within myself,” says Satheeshan.
Mohanlal, who was nearby said, “Wearing such a costume is a rare opportunity. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it.”
But Suresh remained unconvinced.
Then Mohanlal took Satheeshan’s help to put on the costume. When he did so, all the crew at the location were amazed at how good Mohanlal looked. “That was when Suresh was convinced,” says Satheeshan.
The shooting resumed. The next day, a grateful Suresh gave Satheeshan Rs 1,000 to show his appreciation. “I shared it with my assistants,” he says. “It was a happy moment.”
But Satheeshan went through moments of deep tension on the sets of Black (2004). In the climax, there is a conflict between Mammootty and Lal. A bottle of brandy falls to the floor. Mammootty throws a matchstick and Lal's white dhoti catches fire.
This shot was taking place at night in a house at Thevara, Kochi. Satheeshan was at home a few kilometres away. At 12.30 a.m. he got a call from the set. Three dhotis with a black border had been burnt, but director Renjith was not happy with the shot. Satheeshan was asked to get another dhoti. But as he was being driven to the set, he wondered, “At this time of the night, how am I going to get another dhoti, with a black border?”
If the production stopped, the producer would lose lakhs of rupees because it would have to continue the next day. But when Satheeshan arrived at the set and saw the burnt dhotis he suddenly got a brainwave. He cut away the non-burnt black border, and stitched them together on a white dhoti and got the border again. “So, the continuity in the scenes could be maintained,” says Satheeshan. “I was so relieved.”
Lal, who was producing the film, was also relieved. He shook the costume designer's hand and said, “This is the reason why we hire SB Satheeshan.”
The designer smiled happily.
There was similar tension on the sets of Summer in Bethlehem (1998). For the song, Confusion Theerkaname, Satheeshan made Jayaram wear a white juba, dark sunglasses, and a white headgear. One day, Jayaram’s wife Parvathy came to the location in Chennai. When she saw Jayaram, she said that this is the type of headgear that women wore when they worked in the paddy fields. “I agreed, but had wanted to give a different look to Jayaram,” says Satheeshan. “I said the costume was aimed at matching the zany mood in the song. But Parvathy suggested that it should be changed.”
At that time director Renjith was looking after the costumes. Satheeshan asked Renjith to have a look. And when the latter did so, he liked it. So it was retained.
“The song became a big hit,” says Satheeshan. “Thereafter, in many reality show competitions on TV, I had to give marks to participants who wore the same costume as Jayaram. In fact, Jayaram said the same thing happened when he was a judge.”