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At the helm, behind the scenes

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Women at the forefront of costuming for the film and stage, Italian Daniela Cianco and our home-grown Neeta Lulla, describe what it takes… Joanne Pereira takes you behind the scenes

Costumes literally breathe life to the characters, the period they are set in and an insight into society they are part of.  Mega productions like Mission Impossible 3  or Mars become believable when award- winning Italian costume designer Daniela Cianco waves her magic wand as costume supervisor.  Closer home National award-winning Bollywood couturier, Neeta Lulla, has left an indelible mark with her design; defining and lending credibility to each frame; be it Jodha Akbar, Devdas and Mohenjo Daro, among the more than 400 below her belt.

The conversation on Cine Couture, Costuming for the Camera on May 25 had Italy and India represented by leading practitioners Daniela and Neeta respectively.  Through the evening Audrey Hepburn’s words were brought to life, “If clothes make the man, then certainly the costume designer makes the actor!”  The larger-than- life impression of costumes often captures the imagination of the audience resulting in a trend.

Daniela and Neeta drew common ground agreeing that research forms the basis of their designs, be it science fiction, historical, contemporaneous.  Daniela elaborated, “The costumes are an expression of myself, I read the script several times and collaborate with the actors before rendering them.”

Besides entailing a huge back- up of first-line production assistants  and others all dependent on the scale of the production, period or specific scenes require aging departments to make the fantasy realistic.  Very often this entails balancing creative liberties while adhering to the authenticity, as references to the story board are hard to come by. Daniela has many a tale to tell of recreating jackets used in Naples, of conforming to NASA specifications…

Neeta too works in tandem with the requirements of the production.  I always keep in mind the impact (visual appeal) while balancing the authenticity, trying to avoid anything that would look garish. For instance there was this scene wherein the director wanted the cotton sari worn in Virasat to stand out. In a flash, these big square, checked saris which had been imprinted on my mind from a recent trip to Chennai came to mind.  It worked so well in the scene.

Both Daniela and Neeta outsource requirements that entail, say, 500 soldier outfits.  Invariably the outfits gets worn off with usage over 10 days of depicting a  single scene. There are other challenges like the logistics of repairing scales, feathers, tassels and refreshing the costume overnight for the shoot the next day.  Daniela further explained the subtleties for designing for theatre, it being her forte. The textures and colours depend on the distance from the stage and the lighting, which determine the fabric and look.

The two Costume Czarinas admitted that the challenge of their work involved over 16-18 hours at a stretch. So, how did they draw the family-work personal balance?

“Neeta candidly admits that she was happy to have passed her SSC.  It was with the nudging of her in-laws that she came to pursue Fashion Designing.  “That is why I believe and advise on education being imperative for charting your career.”   Whistling Woods—Neeta Lulla School of Fashion (which she partnered with Subhash Ghai) is her way of giving back. “Till then I was besotted by Xerxes Bhathena’s costume for Parveen Babi.  In the initial days I got a call from Sridevi to costume her for a magazine cover.  When I went her hair was in rollers.  She looked at my small potli and asked disbelievingly if that was the costume. I affirmed it was, instructed her to keep the curlers on, visualised the look and we shot this famous shoulder shot.  She called me back and after that there was no looking back. Each time I thought that was it, on its heels came a bigger project.”

“I was fortunate to have spent a lot of time with my children as they were growing up.  In fact, I had to stop my daughter, aged five, from coming to the sets as she knew more about costuming than her own age appropriate studies,” says Neeta.

Daniela’s kids came to terms with her time-consuming career and having a supportive mother helped a lot—especially since her work entailed extensive travel.

Which is when Priya Tanna, who was moderating the panel, wished she knew the answer to that question as well.   The insightful discussion in collaboration with Avid Learning marked the finale for the first edition of ‘Fare Cinema’, the International Week of Italian Cinema by the Italian Embassy’s Cultural Centre.

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