Early on in Bombay Velvet, as aspiring singer Rosie Noronha (Anushka Sharma) breaks into Geeta Dutt’s alluring classic ‘Jaata kahan hai deewane’, we are transported to the Jazz scene of 1960s Bombay. Her dilettante red gypsy dress is a precursor of the more glamorous, feathered and beaded gowns that follow, as she rises to fame. Rosie is surrounded by dangerous, gun-wielding men who wear pristine suits, silk scarves, bow-ties and brooches.
It is easy to see that Bombay Velvet’s costume design, helmed by the exuberant and very talented Niharika Bhasin Khan, is a labor of love. The multi-award-winning costume designer who is hanging out with her kids on a lazy Saturday afternoon, takes us behind the scenes and on a trip down memory lane.
You are Arjun Bhasin’s sister and it’s clear that the talent runs in the family. However, you specialized in Public Relations and HR. What led you into Costume Design?
I really didn’t like the corporate world. It just wasn’t for me. At one point, I got fed up and started making silver jewelry. I’m actually a kaarigar. Then, totally out of the blue, a friend of mine, Sameer Sharma, asked me to do a film. It was Sudhir Mishra’s ‘Khoya Khoya Chand’, and I was completely stunned. I kept telling him that you want my brother, you don’t want me. And he said “No, no, Arjun’s too expensive. It’s not going to work out with him. You should try it.” I had no idea about clothes unlike Arjun who had studied fashion and costume design. I had no creative bone in my body. But Sameer insisted and insisted and tricked me into meeting Sudhir Mishra. I said to Sudhir, “I’m going to mess up your film. I’m not a costume designer. I have no clue what to do.” He looked at Sameer and said “Sam, we should hire her. At least she tells the truth!” That’s where it all started. And I never looked back.
So you fell in love with it?
I just fell in love with it. You know, by nature, I’m an impatient person –if something drags on for too long, I get bored. I have the attention span of a fly. So this is great for me because being project-based, you get to finish something. It gets over! On the other hand, if you really love it, it still gets over. It’s short-lived. And I love that.
“It really was the gowns and the western styling that put Jazz on the map in India.”
Your gorgeous work shines through in Bombay Velvet. There were some interesting inspirations like the Goan singer Lorna Cordeiro. Tell us about your research for the film.
Bombay Velvet is probably the most expensively researched film that I’ve done. We had a lot of reference because the period went over about 2 to 3 decades. So we had to research each decade, the music industry, the style and everything else about that time. We had to make sure it was authentic and also understand how Anurag (Kashyap) wanted to portray it. He did want it a little more western –we had characters trying to emulate the British and like you said, Lorna was an inspiration. Because it really was the gowns and the western styling that put jazz on the map in India. Then there was the race course, the red light district, Portuguese Goa. We had to really study everything, and then take creative license to make it the way we wanted.
Can you talk a little bit about your process? Do you start with a lot of sketches?
I think every film is different in its approach. With Bombay Velvet, we did a lot of sketches. I don’t sketch at all. I don’t have any background in fashion. So what I end up doing is, visualizing and trying to put photographs together and say “this is how I want it to look”. I do a lot of color palettes, a lot of research. And then, in my head, it’s a cut and paste job –I want this, I like this, I’ll change this, I’ll put this and that together. The whole creative process of putting it all together is fun for me. When people say to me “Oh, period films must be so difficult.”, I tell them, “No. Actually period films are easy. Because you know where you’re going with them. It’s the contemporary films that are difficult.” It’s way tougher to study a trend and figure out what it’s going to be like when your film releases. And trends only come out of Europe and America, so you’re trying to figure it out and also trying to translate it to an Indian context.
“Alexander McQueen hasn’t done a peacock dress. Jean Paul Gaultier hasn’t either. And I was thinking “why? why?”
What was the most challenging costume you made for Bombay Velvet?
I have to say the Peacock dress that Raveena wore for half a second! (laughs) You know Raveena as a singer, in comparison to Anuskha, is opulent, loud, hiding her voice behind everything else. Her character is not as talented as Anushka’s. So she has to embellish her voice in other ways. And so we embellished her more with the opulent outfits and headdresses. She was over-the-top whereas Anushka was the strong, silent, very talented one whose voice did all the talking. The peacock dress was one of my big things. Peacock is such an Indian feature and yet, it hasn’t really been done before. You know, Alexander McQueen hasn’t done a peacock dress. Jean Paul Gaultier hasn’t either. And I was thinking “why? why?”
Did it take very long to put that gown together?
Everything that we did, had to be within the constraints of it not being contemporary; it couldn’t be studded with Swarovski. So it had to be just pearls and feathers. It had to be beautiful in that way. Even if you look at Anushka’s white ostrich feathered dress, there’s a lot of detail on it, even though it’s a white-on-white dress. So each outfit took its own time. I even spent a lot of time on Karan Johar’s outfits. Karan has never worn color. He’s purely into black. And we gave him mustard yellow and electric blue! So yeah, each of the outfits had to be thought of differently. Because it was a costume drama.
“There are times when actors go “This is perfect! You gave me my character.” But then there’s also that – “Oh I don’t like this color. It doesn’t look good on me.”
As a costume designer, your contribution is so tangible and so intimate, wherein every actor is wearing your creation. How involved then, are these actors in the costume design process, if at all?
You know, it’s always a collaboration. As you said, it is one of the most intimate processes because everyone has their own personality and their own idea about the character that they’re going to play and how that character is going to look. And if it’s in opposition or not in conjunction with what you’re thinking, then it’s a process where you need to convince people. You say “I see it like this” and they go “why do you see it like this?” Then the director has visualized it in a certain manner and if you’re changing that visualization, you have to give him a plausible explanation for it. There are times when actors go “This is perfect! You gave me my character.” But then there’s also that – “Oh I don’t like this color. It doesn’t look good on me.” I remember having a discussion with Vidya (Balan) on The Dirty Picture where she said “This color doesn’t suit me at all”. And I said “Well, we don’t want it to suit you. We need it to work against you.” And then she said “Oh, ok. I get it.” So it’s always something you have to do together. It’s an understanding. At the same time, you also want to be able to surprise them. I’m working with Shahrukh Khan for ‘Fan’ right now. And he prefers grays and whites. I don’t want to go in there and give him a surprise where he says “I don’t want to wear this!” But since you have done your work ahead of time, you can get them attuned to it. It’s not about being polite; it’s about being sensitive.
One of our favorites from your body of work is Rock On!!. Can you share some of your experience on that film?
Rock On!! was the first contemporary film that I worked on. We had a lot of discussion about how we were going to create the rockstars. You know, Pakistan had Coke Studio and everything, but we really didn’t have rock stars who we could look at or follow. So it was really interesting to create that look. I remember Farhan being very very adamant that he wanted to have a Jim Morrison type kurta look. Growing up, all of us had been through that “Oh, Jim Morrison has worn a kurta!” phase. And then the Beatles traveled around India. I said “No. For us it’s really cool that they are emulating us. But we’re trying to create it exactly the other way around.” That became a major point of discussion and argument. I’d say “You’ll become the typical rock band from Delhi because nobody is going to look at it like a Jim Morrison kurta. To them it’s only a kurta.” We had a huge disagreement about that. Everyone made fun of me because finally I came up with a yellow t-shirt with sneakers printed on it. They were like “what are you doing?” And I said “Trust me. It’s definitely more of a statement than a kurta!”
“I remember Farhan being very very adamant that he wanted to have a Jim Morrison type kurta look. We had a huge disagreement about that.”
This is my burning question – Where do these costumes go after the film wraps? Where are Rosie’s gowns right now?
(Laughs) I think either in the Phantom godown. Or in the Fox office. The costumes belong to production –anyone who pays money, owns the outfits. Unfortunately in our country, we don’t look after them. If I lived anywhere other than in Bombay, I would fight and keep those costumes so I could archive them. But the space in this city is very limited. And I have to say that the weather is such, that in the humidity, everything gets ruined, unless you really have the facility to store it properly. Some production houses have great godowns, but most of them don’t. What I end up doing then is, strangely enough, I use a lot of my stuff for the background of my next films. (What about auctions?) Again, we are not very well equipped, to carry out auctions. The cast and crew are always looking to buy stuff from the film. If you give it to them at a 50% or 70% off, they’d be really excited to buy. But we’re not organized enough and if a re-shoot comes about, we’ll go “Oh no! Why did we sell those things?” But I still wish we did that. It would increase my budget by 30% because some of the money would come back.
“If I lived anywhere other than in Bombay, I would fight and keep those costumes so I could archive them. But the space in this city is very limited.”
If you could go back in time and costume design for any one film, which one would it be?
‘The Fifth Element’. That to me is a film that is just brilliantly costumed. And I am a big science fiction buff. So for me, to have all that put together in one package and to be able to do it –I just love that film!
I don’t believe that I could do justice at all. I’d probably do a tenth of the job that Jean Paul Gaultier did. But to me, that is so aspirational. I once saw ‘The Lion King’ on stage, when I just about started with costume designing, and I came out feeling like a drop in the ocean. I was thinking, “God! why can’t I do that?”
Niharika Khan won the National Award, Filmfare Award and IIFA Award for Best Costume Design for The Dirty Picture (2011). She also won the IIFA award for Band Baaja Baaraat (2010). Some of her acclaimed films include Rock On!!, Kai Po Che!, Delhi Belly and The Lunchbox. She is currently working on the Shahrukh Khan starrer Fan (2016) and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s ‘Mirziya’.