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Eka Lakhani interview: We had about 100 look tests for Ponniyin Selvan- Cinema express

Eka Lakhani interview: We had about 100 look tests for Ponniyin Selvan

Costume designer Eka Lakhani talks about designing costumes for Ponniyin Selvan, her journey with Mani Ratnam, doing her first ever costume recce and more

Published: 30th September 2022

American professor Mason Cooley once said, “Clothes make a statement. Costumes tell a story.” This holds true for our films too, especially period dramas, and one of the biggest of them all which released today. After being passed on across generations with actors ranging from MGR to Kamal Haasan attached with the project, Ponniyin Selvan is finally here, and it is Mani Ratnam who brought the famed Kalki novel to life. In this endeavour, Mani Ratnam is ably supported by Eka Lakhani, the woman behind dressing up the star ensemble. 

Eka, who began her career by interning on the sets of Raavan, recalls her initial days. “I wasn’t interested in costume design in the beginning. I was more interested in luxury or high fashion, and wanted to work in a fashion magazine as a stylist. But I heard that Sabyasachi Mukherjee was looking for an assistant for Raavan. With names like Mani sir and Aishwarya Rai associated with the project, I went for the opportunity. Whatever I learnt about filmmaking and costume designing is from Mani sir.”

The costume designer got her major break in Santhosh Sivan’s Urumi, and Mani Ratnam’s Kadal. This started her long and fruitful journey with Mani Ratnam, which saw her work in films like OK KanmaniKaatru Veliyidai, and Chekka Chivantha Vaanam. With Mani Ratnam expecting his film's costumes to be "believable, relatable, and mesmerising" Eka shares that the experiences working with him became the benchmark for the kind of work she did in other projects too. In fact, Eka reveals that she gauged her own work in other films by thinking 'WWMRS' — What would Mani Ratnam say?

Eka reveals how Mani Ratnam had a vision for Ponniyin Selvan even when they were making Raavan. “When he first approached me for PS, it was nerve-racking. Even though I was raring to work with Mani sir again, even the thought of building the world of Ponniyin Selvan put me under tremendous pressure,” says Eka, who shares that she undertook her first-ever costume recce after reading the novel. From visiting temples in Tanjore, and meeting weavers across south India, Eka studied the detailed motifs, armour design, and types of weaves to use in the costumes for Ponniyin Selvan.

With a cultural guide’s help, Eka also took references from Kalki’s descriptions and Maniam’s illustrations, which helped in getting the looks right in terms of hair and signature pieces for each character. “We had to get an understanding on what type of trade culture existed to understand if we had to use tiger claws or pearls,” she adds. With jewellery by Kishandas & Co, weavers were roped in to get the purest class of Kanchipuram silk. “We had to recreate the type of colours and designs of that time. We used pure silk instead of mixed fabrics. At the same time, since the Tanjore sculptures were either topless or covered with thin drapes, cinematic liberty was used to create upper body attires.”

Eka feels some of the most difficult looks to crack were that of the five main leads — Vikram (Aditya Karikalan), Karthi (Vanthiyathevan), Trisha (Kundavai), Jayam Ravi (Arunmozhi Varman) and Aishwarya Rai (Nandini). The designer had about 10 look tests for each character and over 100 look tests overall for the film. “The most difficult part was getting the hairstyles right because that is the first thing you notice about a person. We needed to pick the right gems and ornaments to go with it. Kundavai and Nandini’s looks and the men’s armours were tough to put together. Vanthiyathevan has only one look throughout, and we wanted to make sure that it didn't go wrong.”

Interestingly, Mani Ratnam didn't inform Eka about the actors playing the different roles. “This helped me understand the strength and weaknesses of the characters. When he finally revealed the actors, I already had a vision for each of their roles, and it was easier for us to break the actor into the character. For example, Vikram sir has said that he felt more like Aditya Karikalan when he wore the armour.”

When it comes to a Mani Ratnam film, the picturisation of the songs become the talk of the own, and Eka divulges how the song sequences are highly stressful because they have a long shelf life and a high recall value. “You often recognise a film by its visuals and when it’s a Mani Ratnam-ARR song, it’s evergreen. Mani sir has only one brief: simple but magical. I had to work in tandem with Brindha master when it came to song costumes since we had to work on the fabrics and silhouettes depending on the movements choreographed for the songs,” shares Eka.

As the HoD of the costume department, Eka also takes a moment to mention how Mani Ratnam’s sets have had more women on onboard. While it is quite established that women are seen more in front of the camera rather than the back of it, Eka feels that it is important to have more women involved in filmmaking. "I'm glad that this trend is seeing an upward swing lately with more women working in many departments," signs off a hopeful Eka. 

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