Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ash, Sabya and the yellow kalidaar


How did Raavan happen?

It was in September 2008, around New York Fashion Week, when I was chased by Mani’s team to meet him. I went with the intention of saying no, simply because I can’t double task. But once I met Mani, I was floored by his nonchalant earthiness. And before I could say Jack Robinson I had signed the film!

Were you prepared for a Mani Ratnam film?

You see when you are doing a Mani Ratnam film you cannot be prepared enough because no one knows what they are getting into. Even Mani doesn’t know what he is getting into! He is an instinctive director and no matter how much pre-planning has been done, he can and often changes things on a whim. And in this spontaneity lies the magic of Mani Ratnam.

What was his brief to you?

Mani doesn’t give a brief. He mumbles a bit, then he looks straight in your eye and finally says, go, do it!

So how did you prepare for the film if there was such a brief brief?

He narrated the script and gave me some visual references. I dressed up some of my assistants and tailors in clothes that I though defined the Raavan colour palette, took some photographs and sent them to Mani. Apparently I had hit the nail on the head!

I have been on the same page as most of my directors and have needed to have only one meeting with them. With Mani, I had three. When you do a film with him, you have to be focussed and intuitive. You have to guess his next move. It’s just like playing a game of chess. With Mani too, I was always on the same page. He gives tremendous respect to a head of the department and even if there is any ambiguity he lets you take the last decision. I spent about 35 to 40 days on set, including the Calcutta schedule, and that is by far the most I have spent on any film set.

Through the shooting of Raavan I was in teleconference mode with my team. We were always on red alert. The schedule used to change last minute. I remember Shaad Ali (Mani’s assistant) calling me when I had just got my holiday tickets in hand and said Mani was shooting a village fair scene in four days. Four hours later I was on a flight — not to my holiday destination but to Jaipur for shopping!

How challenging was it to do a bi-lingual film?

It was like doing two films together. The Hindi version is set in north India and the Tamil version is set in south India. Let me relate a particular incident… We were shooting the song Keta keta for the Tamil version where the villagers were required to wear veshtis (dhotis in Tamil). The veshtis arrived around 5pm, all white and fresh and this is when Mani freaked out! With 12 hours to go before the scheduled 5am shoot and 200 fresh white veshtis in hand, me along with my assistants went all over Orchha village to collect tea waste from local shops. We started dyeing the clothes amidst this massive water shortage and let them out to dry. A few hours later when we returned to the set, all the veshtis were damp from the mist. We used industrial lamps to dry the clothes immediately and it was such a battleground! Mani arrived on set at 6am and at 5.59am the last one was put to dry on the light. The thing is that clothes are such a small part of the film that there is no way that you cannot not deliver.

Another time, I remember a scene that required two eunuchs who never showed up! I quickly got two of my assistants to fill in. With a little bit of supportive and hastily added prosthetics, we were good to go! On the set, there were actors of all age groups — from professional to raw, literally picked up from the street! What was most challenging though was to deal with a junior actress who was very prominent in one frame. It was so impossible to convince her to take off a necklace her mother had given her to wear for the shoot! I think I interacted with her more than Aishwarya!

Then there was a time when we were shooting a wedding scene. We were fighting against failing sunlight and a stalled national highway and I had precisely one minute to change the crowd of about 400 people from south Indian clothes to north Indian clothes. How I did this one will remain a trade secret….

So is Bollywood part of your trade? Have you finally fitted in?

Yes. And I am jumping right into the deep end by directing my own film!

In the past you have worked with your friends Rani Mukerji and Vidya Balan… How was it dealing with Aishwarya Rai?

I really didn’t interact too much with Aishwarya because I had about 350 more people to dress! Also, when you are dealing with a professional actress, there is nothing to worry.

What is worrying is the interaction with the rest of the cast, most of who don’t understand the language! I was always scared that someone would sneak into the vanity van to smear some extra lipstick! I was like the hostel warden, shooing off over-enthusiastic cast and crew and making sure no one touches up their make-up!

Coming back to Aishwarya, I share a super professional relationship with her and that is how I like it. We have a deep professional respect for each other. And contrary to popular belief, she is not an interfering actress. As long as she knows that you know what you are doing. It is very easy to dress up an actress of her range. She has worked with directors like Gurinder Chadha, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Rituparno Ghosh. She is so comfortable with her no-make-up look.

Aishwarya is the real hero of Raavan. It was amazing to watch her endurance level. While the rest of the cast and crew got breaks, when you watch Aishwarya, switching between the Hindi and Tamil versions, hanging on to dear life in a violent waterfall, you know why she is the superstar she is.

And Abhishek Bachchan?

He was the coolest! I interacted with him for two minutes throughout the film.

And the other cast members?

Vikram is amazing. He is areal comedian. Prithviraj is also outstanding. I became very friendly with Priyamani, too, who plays Abhishek’s sister in the film.

What are some potential trends that can emerge from Ash’s look in the film?

For me it was very exciting to create her look. The revival of khadi is a big thing for Indian handloom. Also, the grand dame of Indian silhouettes, the kalidaar, is making a comeback. Dressing the tribals was very tough. Their look is very organic, almost boho, like primal creatures. I was quite inspired by some images from National Geographic and some photos I had seen of the interiors of Madhya Pradesh. The total look of Raavan is grand and spectacular but at the same time real and alive.

But the biggest test was to make sure the clothes are not noticed in the film. It was a personal triumph for me. I have completely detached from myself and delivered. It was very difficult to dress every person in the frame, right from the groom to the sophisticated police officer and I have walked the whole range. For a wedding scene in the village, I had a whale of a time buying a whole bunch of shiny nylon saris that I would have otherwise not touched even with a barge pole!

Where else did you shop for the film?

All over the country! I bought cotton saris from Dakshinapan. I shopped in Dastakar in Andhra Pradesh. The jewellery was bought from Rajasthan and some from Kerala. Darshan Shah from Weaver’s Studio has helped me tremendously for the textiles.

Which version was easier to design — Hindi or Tamil?

The Hindi one was easier. For the south Indian version, I had to do much more research.

Are you happy with the result?

Yes. It’s my best film ever…. How many films have I done?

Black, Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, Baabul and Paa…

And there is Guzaarish and No One Killed Jessica Lal. Yes, Raavan is my best film till date.

Can you imagine any other designer doing this film?

Not really, I think Mani knew what he was getting into.

How is Mani Ratnam different from Sanjay Leela Bhansali?

Sanjay is more methodical and Mani is more spontaneous. But both are mad geniuses!

Any other directors you wish to work with?

Govind Nihalani, Mira Nair… and despite Muzaffar Ali being a designer, I want to do costumes for one of his films. Another director I am dying to work with is Sabyasachi Mukherjee! I know he will bring out the best in me!

Personally, what were the high points of Raavan?

I met Shobhana. I am her biggest fan and I was completely bowled over by the fact that she knew who I was! I was very nervous about meeting Govinda because I had heard that he arrives very late on set but he turned out to be the sweetest star on the planet. I also made some great friends — a toothless old lady who used to feed me packed salted fish fritters; two snakes; also a couple of hundred leeches!

So leeches were the biggest nightmare of Raavan?

No, the biggest nightmare was Aishwarya’s yellow kalidaar that she wears in a significant portion of the film. We had 50 pieces of that outfit, tagged in various stages of distress. You will understand the distress stages once you see the film. And Mani never shoots the film in order. From scene 67, he goes to 31 and then 48! Labelling the kalidaar was imperative. That was the only way we could maintain continuity! And you thought only Rubik invented the puzzle!

How was it shooting in Calcutta? Did you convince Mani to shoot here?

It was art director Samir Chanda’s idea. It was a logistical nightmare for me because I got involved in many more things than I should have! The pressures and the kind of bribes people give you to meet Aishwarya Rai!

Any item numbers in Raavan?


Have you read the Ramayan?

Yes. My first brush was with Amar Chitra Katha.

Who would you thank if you get an award for the costumes of Raavan?

I will thank three people without whom Raavan would not have been possible — my driver Arjun, my design team and my yoga teacher who kept my stress levels under control!

Final thoughts on Raavan….

Raavan took a year and a half and when it finally got over, we all just giggled in disbelief! Mani is a man of few words. In the middle of an intense shot when he lifts his head and connects with you with his eyes, you know it is a job well done.

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