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Taking movies to the dressing room

Jai Arjun Singh  |  New Delhi 

Costumes in a film have stories of their own to tell.

Even the most attentive movie-watchers — dedicated to exploring the nooks and crannies of the form — tend to look at a film mainly in terms of its high-profile elements: script, acting, cinematography, editing. It’s when you actually spend some time on the sets of a movie, and see the darn thing being monotonously assembled, that you begin to appreciate the small but vital cogs.

In Kerala, at the location shooting of Anup Kurian’s The Hunter a few weeks ago, I had a chat with Sarah Eapen, the film’s costumes-in-charge. Sarah’s notebook was full of charts for each day of the shooting, subdivided by scenes and characters, with little icons representing T-shirts, scarves and so on. But her job wasn’t merely to collect outfits. She had to read the script carefully to work out the characters’ personalities: would a flamboyant hitman wear a bright pink shirt without stripes? Would a young medical student use red nail-polish or a more sombre shade? She also had to look at continuity and logic. For example, in a scene where two people bury a beloved dog, she used an old tribal shawl to wrap the body in — but this in turn made it important to establish the shawl as part of the film’s mise-en-scène, so it was shown being used as a makeshift tablecloth in an earlier scene.

And then, there are the mundane tasks such as “ageing” newly bought clothes. Most of us don’t even think about these things while watching a film, but for a designer it entails creativity of a different sort — fraying the edges of trousers just so, ripping pockets delicately, even dipping clothes in tea and coffee to make them seem faded.

Subsequently, a meeting with the veteran designer — an Oscar-winner for Richard Attenborough’s — gave me a historical perspective on the discipline. Still quite active at 84, Athaiya was in Delhi for the launch of her elegant coffee-table memoir The Art of Costume Design, which combines informative text with sketches and photos of her work for films ranging from Shree 420 to Lagaan. “Until the 1950s,” she told me, “Hindi cinema had hardly any costume designers in the modern sense of the term. It was all worked out between the directors and the set directors, who would call in tailors and give them instructions. Once in a while, if there was a very special requirement, they would go shopping for clothes.”

No wonder, then, that directors were quite taken with someone like Athaiya, who had not only studied art but had also travelled widely enough to know firsthand about regional trends in clothing and design. “I had an understanding of culture,” she says with quiet pride. Given that she also had artistic aspirations from an early age, I was impressed by her pragmatic acknowledgement of costume design as something that must fit the overall scheme of a movie. “It’s tempting for a talented designer to get carried away,” she says, “but the demands of the story are more important than designing beautiful outfits just to show off your abilities.”

At the same time, when a costume designer is permitted a high level of involvement in the planning of the film, the results can be subtly effective. While doing the costumes for Raj Kapoor’s Henna, for example, Athaiya used brightly coloured outfits for the lead actress’s early scenes and gradually moved to duller shades to reflect the darkening mood of the story — complementing similar work done by the cameraman’s filters. This is the sort of thing that viewers register only at a subconscious level, but it can play a big part in the overall impact of a movie. So, the next time you watch a reputed film, look closer to see if the clothes have a story to tell. It could be an enlightening experience.

(Jai Arjun Singh is a freelance writer)

First Published: Sun, March 07 2010. 00:01 IST