Character Shop

Costume designer Payal Saluja’s creations are dictated by the characters that wear them

Written by Sankhayan Ghosh | Published: January 3, 2014 5:19 am

At the very outset of the interview,Payal Saluja clarifies a common misconception,drawing a clear distinction between costume and fashion designing. “A fashion designer follows trends and seasons whereas for a costume designer,script is the bible,” she says,adding,how it often gets mixed up. She is not a fashion designer,but some of her costumes for films have made fashion statements,such as Vidya Balan’s raw and sensuous blouse in Ishqiya,or the mix of modern and traditional in Sonam Kapoor’s look in Raanjhanaa. It is likely that the heavily embroidered anarkalis that she made Madhuri Dixit wear in the upcoming Dedh Ishqiya may become a talking point in the coming days. The 37-year-old costume designer is a regular with Vishal Bhardwaj films — Maqbool,Ishqiya and Saat Khoon Maaf. After last year’s Raanjhanaa,she is back with Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya,another from Bhardwaj’s stable.

Saluja’s greatest strength is her keen character study. Like the filmmakers’ style she has largely worked with,her taste is understated and subtle. Bhardwaj’s characters,for example,are minimally adorned. And to bring out their essence she depends heavily on their body language. “Ninety per cent of someone’s personality comes out through his body language. I try to observe that in people. I try to catch on to details that people will identify with,little stories that will cook up the characters,” says Saluja. She talks about the custom-made kurtas studded with gemstone buttons she used to convey the shaukeen side of the otherwise cold-blooded underworld don Abbaji,played by Pankaj Kapoor in Maqbool. Arshad Warsi’s happy-go-lucky Babban,in Dedh Ishqiya is also insecure and hence overdressed in fake Nike shoes and loud,flashy clothes. It is a contrast to Naseeruddin Shah’s Khaloo jaan,who is more “internal” and hence more understated and refined. She found it challenging to break Dixit’s larger-than-life screen persona and transform her into Dedh Ishqiya’s Begum Para. “We had interactions where I understood her body structure,the character and made sketches before we arrived at a look,” she says. For Dixit’s unreal,old-fashioned beauty,Para,she went back to the old-styled Awadhi clothing such as churidars and anarkalis.

It wasn’t until she was doing a short course in Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design that she realised her interest in films. Assigned to create costumes for a Tenali Raman spoof,Saluja shone the brightest among the group of students. She did the research for the characters with ease,a trait she,in restrospect,attributes to her childhood days. “If my cousin wanted to look like Amitabh Bachchan or like Helen,I would create it or tell them what to wear. I was good at putting things together,and as I realised later,a strong visual memory,” she says.

As something that connects with the audience subliminally,the use of costumes,can be complex in its own ways. A character,for example,maybe not be in his brightest mood,but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will wear dull clothes,he may want to overcome the internal void by wearing something bright. This especially comes to play in many of Bhardwaj’s films that are populated with twisted characters,whose motives are not always transparent. Saluja draws the essence from the heart of the places her characters inhabit. Like the small town flavour of Raanjhanaa’s Benaras,Dedh Ishqiya’s Lucknow is full of understated,nawabi elegance.

Her work is identified with distinctly Indian,rustic or period settings but she is ready to experiment. She wants her work to be as invisible and non-intrusive as possible. “The best compliment I got was when someone asked me if I really had to do anything at all for Manorama 6 feet Under,since everybody was wearing regular clothes,” she adds.

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