As a costume designer, I always imagine a backstory for the character…, says Sheetal Sharma


Sheetal Sharma, who has captured a palette of gripping storytelling through her costumes in films like Kesari, Manto, Stree, Mimi and Gangubai Kathiawadi, showcases the power and feats of characterization through the artistry of costume. It tells a story where movies meet fashion – as it peels back the layers of immaculate wardrobe on the big screen, making audiences gasp with an enviable sigh. It deepens by unearthing the carefully integrated details in the outfits that elevate the storyline to a captivating height. It draws your attention to what makes the characters in the film come alive through the clothes they wear. Extracts…

HOW DID YOU DISCOVER YOUR PASSION FOR DESIGNING COSTUMES?

I was inclined since childhood towards arts and crafts. Renaissance period artworks and Victorian art and clothing, the beautiful portrayal of the beauty and drapes of the sari in paintings by Raja Ravi Verma, Pakistani artist Abdur Rahman Chughtai, art derived from Mughal art miniature paintings had great influence. During my time at fashion college, we were introduced to the beauty of world cinema and its magical power to bring art forms to life. Movies like Amelie, In The Mood For Love, Fallen Angels or V Shantaram played a very important Gangubai Kathiawadi 07-08-Sheetal Sharma-MAHESH R1.indd 38 14/04/22 11:36 AM try to imagine a plot background of the character, episodes or situations from the past that would have influenced the part of the characters for my passion for designing film costumes. After a three-year course in fashion technology and an additional masters in London on costume design, I met a senior student who introduced me to filmmaking and costume design in film. . Miss Lovely was my first project, it showed me the potential of exploring art with sets and I loved it and to top it off it was an 80’s based movie. Working with the director Ashim Ahluwalia was a great learning experience for a beginner. The rest just followed.

WHAT IS YOUR VIEW ON COSTUMES USED FOR CHARACTERIZATION IN FILMS?

As a costume designer, I always try to imagine a backstory to the character, episodes or situations from the past that would have influenced the characters. The hardest part in such situations is convincing the actors to go out of their way to allow some discomfort so that the essence of the character is more authentic on screen. When you get too comfortable with the way you walk or the way your outfits look – you limit yourself to being a star, when you get past that and work hard on yourself, character comes to play.

Sheetal Sharma

YOU’VE DONE MULTIPLE VINTAGE PROJECTS – KESARI, MANTO, RAEES, AIRLIFT, AND MOST RECENT – THE EMPIRE AND GANGUBAI KATHIAWADI – HOW WOULD YOU SAY THE COSTUME DESIGN PROCESS DIFFERENT IN A COMMERCIAL MOVIE FROM THAT OF A PERIOD PRODUCTION?

Research is at the heart of any period drama. Especially when talking about realistic content. For Kesari, a quick visit to the Saragarhi Museum in Amritsar and some books suggested by director Anurag Singh came in very handy. Minute details like the style of the belt, the way they wore their kirpan, the way the shoes were tied with long leather straps, how the famous bulbous Pagdis were tied with the metal chakkar on it to hold the turbans and also using it as a weapon, how they carried their water and food on long journeys, the types of weapons they carried (guns weren’t the only type) – was useful in portraying a look that was closest to these events. A similar approach was taken for Manto and Nandita Das herself had an entire book of research and photographs collected from Manto’s family which were extremely helpful. For Manto, it was filled with photographic research into dupattas, vessels, Partition Museum jewelry, and understanding how different layers of society function. In some scenes, Nawazuddin Siddiqui wears pants and shirts picked from flea markets or second-hand items. Even in commercial movies I try to stay away from brands and labels and 50% of those movies are also made based on my sketches or references to add quirkiness and made by our spine – the tailors. But the process is a little faster since you’re not trying to find the impossible.

Sheetal Sharma

SPEAKING ABOUT GANGUBAI KATHIAWADI, THE COLOR WHITE HAS PLAYED A SIGNIFICANT ROLE IN ALIA’S WARDROBE – CAN YOU EXPLAIN IN TERMS OF CHARACTERIZATION?

I associate the color white with two aspects – it is a color of grief/sadness/calm and on the contrary, also of strength/power/glamour. When we started our research work on Gangubai, Sanjay Leela Bhansali had a very specific brief – he’s a real character. As Hussain Zaidi’s book mentions, Gangu wore a lot of white clothes with gold ornaments. Although there is no photographic reference of her, with the help of Sir we started to build the character from the backstory. Gangu was born into a family of lawyers and witnessed the world of class and sophistication. ‘Gangu wala Safed’ was his way of belonging to this class and rising above the norms of society. When Gangu’s brothel mates honor her as Gharwali or Madame, she transforms into Gangubai and accepts her white saree as a symbol of strength. Sanjay sir was very clear about the consistency of the white from that point on.

WHERE DID YOU GET THE INSPIRATION TO MAKE GANGUBAI’S CHARACTER SO STYLISH AND RELEVANT TO THE ERA THE STORY SET IN?

Our first set of inspiration came from the on-screen ladies of that era Waheeda Rehman, Nutan, Madhubala and Meena Kumari, all great actresses of Indian cinema and their natural beauty. Gangu would see himself in each of them a little. Her flamboyance reaches its peak after she becomes a brothel woman and then a mafia queen. She has the money and the power, and she’s not shy. Her blouse pieces are adorned with gold buttons, her sarees have gold embroidery, her shoes are an embellished but cool and quirky gold jadau. Meena Kumari’s hairstyle, gait and the way she wore her pallu lightly on her head and tucked into her blouse became the main reference. Her jewels, on the other hand, have always had accents of Kathiawad, recalling the past as a bearer of the agony of her loneliness. And the way Alia Bhatt carried that whole look with body language, it’s remarkably commendable.

Sheetal Sharma

TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT THE RESEARCH BEHIND THE COSTUME DESIGN FOR THE EMPIRE SET IN THE MUGHAL ERA.

Empire speaks of an era that can only be read about in books or inspired by museum pieces and paintings of the past. We got our hands on the Babar Nama from which we were able to pick up some details and routes followed by the Mughals. Showrunner Nikhil Advani and director Mitakshara Kumar had a strong vision where the Mughals were to be portrayed as nomadic until they settled in India and formed the Delhi Sultanate. Thus, the sets spoke of their travels and the harshness of a warrior tribe. Many references were taken from Mughal miniature paintings, we studied Mongolian culture and crafts. The karigari of the art and architecture of Uzbekistan was a great help in deriving a color chart that generates the right mood. It’s majestic yet dark and soothing at the same time. We relied heavily on handwoven textiles and upholstery fabrics from Jodhpur, Kashmir, even Central Asian embroideries and patterns were very important. With the onset of the lockdown, filming shifted from filming in Uzbekistan to studios in Mumbai and Rajasthan. Thick, warm Afghani or Uzbek fabrics and layers of our ensembles would have killed the actors in the Mumbai heat. The same original fabrics from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan were then used as cuts and patchworks on mulmul and linens or as the top layer of jackets and throws that actors could only put on during take.

Sheetal Sharma

STREE WAS A HORROR COMEDY AND MIMI IS BASED ON A SOCIAL SUBJECT – HOW DID YOU APPROACH THE DESIGN PROCESS FOR THESE OTHER GENRES?

Each character has a backstory, and you just need to find a thread that connects them. As Vicky (Rajkummar Rao) is known for his job as a tailor in Stree. He has to have those upbeat couture details on his own clothes while being old-fashioned to portray a city living out its old legends. His jacket lapel opens like a flap instead of a traditional open front. The palettes are muted and deeper tones because it’s a horror movie. We shot the movie in the old town of Chanderi which is all beige and off-white, so there’s a lot of dark brown with some brown and black popping out in the dusty alleys.

Sheetal Sharma

A hint of blues adds a highlight factor and sets the tone for the night when the horror begins. Same with Mimi. Kriti played the role of a dancer from a small town in Rajasthan who wants to be an actress in Bollywood and how her life changes as she becomes a surrogate mother. We kept that slight tinge of a small town girl but the girl confident because she’s a dancer, and the colors and style here played up a very cool and eye-catching vibe. Kriti completely owned this character and made it beautiful but very real and organic

Sheetal Sharma
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