Myth for the millennial
Costume designer Neeta Lulla talks about the intricacies of designing the costumes of Shaakuntalam, creating over 3,000 looks for the mythology drama, and prioritising comfort in fashion
From bagging the National Film Award for Best Costume Design four times to dressing up the who’s who of the Indian film industry, costume and fashion designer Neeta Lulla has been there, done that. And yet, her next, Shaakuntalam, starring Samantha, and directed by Gunasekhar, is a rather different beast altogether. For Neeta, it marks a return home, she says. “As soon as the announcement of Shaakuntalam was made, Gunasekhar garu asked me to join the team. I respect his work and his vision for the visual language of stories. He can make you visualise an entire film just with his narration. What else can a visual artist like me want?” asks Neeta, who has previously worked with Gunasekhar in Rudramadevi (2015).
Shaakuntalam is based on the mythological story of King Dushyant and his wife Shakuntala. While many of those involved in making this film heard the story as children, they understand that those of today’s generation may not be too familiar with the mythology of it all. That’s perhaps why they have billed the film as a 'mythology for the millennials.' “I have grown up listening to this story and have even seen paintings of Shakuntala. So, it was easy to connect the dots when Gunasekhar garu was explaining the narrative. He was also clear about how he wanted it to be presented to millennials. Children, these days, use the digital medium to learn about such tales… So, what better medium than cinema to be able to showcase Shaakuntalam?”
Shaakuntalam is based on Kalidasa's play, Abhignyana Shakuntalam, with visual references taken from mythology-based comic books. While the source material was straightforward enough, the difficulty lay in making the content relatable for today’s generation. To achieve that, Neeta employed local weaves and close-to-real materials to dress up Samantha’s Shakuntala. “We used a lot of organic cotton (sourced from Vijayawada Pochampalli), and mulmul. Real flowers were used to further enhance the looks. We kept them in ice boxes and changed them twice or thrice a day. We also did a lot of research to come up with the fabrics. Indian weaves like Kanchipuram and Dharmavaram silk, Kalamkari, and Pochampalli weaves were sourced to construct the outfit,” reveals Neeta.
Speaking about the first look poster that revealed Samantha in an all-white drape with red floral embellishments, the designer says that the entire look was made using mulmul and organic cotton. This look was apparently made using an ensemble, so that it could be used repeatedly to achieve sustainability. “The bottom area of the skirt is separate, and we draped the rest and used it in a way that made sure we didn’t have to make too many of it. The shawls that you see where the flowers are clipped on, were used for other costumes as well,” she says, while adding that vegetable dyes were preferred instead of factory dyes.
Neeta points out the importance of production houses recycling the costumes, and hails Gunasekhar and Neelima Guna, the director’s daughter, who is producing the film, for doing the same. “Every piece of clothing is stored beautifully like in a museum. Keeping them safe is a major step for sustainability.”
Close to a whopping 3,000 costume looks were apparently designed, out of which only 30-40 were dedicated to Dushyant’s looks. Expanding on how her choices determine these looks, Neeta talks about placing a lot of emphasis on ‘feeling’. “When I am looking at fabrics for a particular outfit, I have to hold and feel them. If I get a positive vibration, it works. When I place them on the mannequin to create a cut, it needs to feel right. Else, I move on.”
It helped Neeta that Samantha was quite accommodative. “This was the first time she was adorning such looks. She was initially apprehensive but developed the ability to carry looks that weighed over 10 kilos.” The designer remembers to prioritise the comfort of actors too. “I never sacrifice their comfort. For example, for Thalaivii, I had to build a body suit that looked realistic—and yet, made Kangana comfortable.” How did she achieve such comfort while designing looks for Shaakuntalam that weighed over several kilos? “It’s why we opted for organic cotton. In fact, all the garments had a cotton lining. No matter how grand they looked on the outside, they were designed to feel comfortable and absorbent on the inside.”
Up next, Neeta will be working with Kangana once again for P Vasu's Chandramukhi 2. While she remains very guarded about the film, Neeta calls the actor a designer’s muse. As we briefly touch upon how iconic the costumes of Chandramukhi were, Neeta says, “Oh you wait for Chandramukhi 2. As Mary Poppins said, it’s going to be supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!”