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Indian movies today are paying special attention to fashion. Never in cinematic history has clothing been discussed and portrayed as it is right now. Clothes as costume have served little purpose than to decorate or titillate. At best, they serve historical accuracy when they maintain a sense of time and trends.
But today, thanks to a large gaggle of stylists and a fashion-savvy audience, costumes are as strong as a character in the script. In The Dirty Picture, Vidya Balan’s wardrobe was intrinsic to her role, her rise and fall as a postulant movie star. In the recent Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela, Anju Modi’s styling was as celebrated as the hero and the heroine (maybe even more so) — Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh.
It’s hard not to be surprised then by first-time filmmaker Soumik Sen’s inspiration — a pink sari. A revolution is brought about by a pink sari.
The 20th century was marked by red as a symbol of protest. It is still the chosen hue of the Maoists in India. Yellow symbolises people power in the Philippines. Green speaks for democrats in Iran. In fashion, the “new black” is that which sweeps us off our collective feet. Pink is the colour of hope, as is marked by gay rights activists across the world, or Malala Yusoufzai’s scarf when she addressed the United Nations and made a case for educating the girl child.
Pink is preferred by those seeking femininity, but also those seeking to invoke female strength. As in the case of Gulabi Gang, a 20,000-strong group of vigilante women from Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh, who fight domestic violence in their areas by draping hot-pink saris and beating abusive husbands with bamboo sticks. Gulabi Gang is headed by Sampat Pal Devi, a 40-something mother of five children, who started her pink sorority in 2006. She has been at the centre of a few documentaries, including British filmmaker Kim Longinotto’s Pink Saris in 2010, and a book called Pink Sari Revolution (2013), by Amana Fontanella Khan.
Sen’s film is loosely inspired by Sampat Pal’s movement about an all-woman army dressed in pink. Sen insists his film is an all-out commercial entertainer, a masala film that stars Madhuri Dixit grooving to Saroj Khan’s jhatkas, action sequences and crowd-pleasing dialogue-baazi. His inspirations, he says, were Sholay and The Magnificent Seven. “My idea was to make a Western,” says Sen, 38, ensconced at his suburban flat in Mumbai. “A Western is basically a good guy versus an evil guy in a rural setting. But women don’t matter in traditional Westerns, my idea is to reverse it.”
Sen’s Gulaab Gang is a feminist film in every sense of the term. Every pivotal character is a woman; men only exist in peripheral roles. It stars Dixit, the superstar heroine of 1980s Bollywood, and her close competitor Juhi Chawla. Sen’s houris don’t fight men, but a society that doesn’t care to educate its girls. All this group wants to do is build a school for these girls. Pink is their colour of hope.
“Yet, nobody who came out of the trial show of the film missed a hero or a villain,” Sen says. “Nobody asked ‘where are the men?’”
Costumes are pivotal to every film, even when they don’t mean to be. Sen counts the recent Dedh Ishqiya as a beautifully styled film, which wouldn’t have worked if the characters’ clothes were not given such detailed cynosure. When discussing costumes with his heroines, Chawla, who plays the villain here, was involved in discussing her wardrobe. While Dixit teased the director, she had no choice but pink saris for her character Rajjo.
Rajjo’s gang forms a commune of women who live together, are interdependent and self-reliant. Their source of income is weaving saris. Their loom and dying unit is a part of the film’s narrative too. It’s a modern-day Mirch Masala, Ketan Mehta’s path-breaking film of 1987, but with clothing at the centre of it.
Sen’s choice of costume stylist is interesting. Eka Lakhani is an FIT, New York, graduate. She assisted Sabyasachi in Mani Ratnam’s Ravan and has helmed Santosh Sivan’s Urmi, a Tamil film with Genelia D’souza and Vidya Balan which had the women doing a lot of action sequences in Indian clothes. “But to get into a pink mode for Gulaab Gang was a challenge — red and black are usually associated with strength and violence. Besides, all the characters in the film are wearing the same shade of pink,” admits Lakhani.
Lakhani and the filmmaker took a few days to decide on the right shade of pink, but dressing seven main characters in the same colour, without seeming to look like a uniform, was a task. Each character’s back story came in as relief: one character wore tribal jewellery, another a tulsi mala. The woman from Gujarat draped her sari as Gujaratis do, while a woman with one arm got away with wearing a petticoat, a shirt and a pink dupatta. The older gang girls had their saris aged by dipping in tea water and potassium.
Interestingly, Rajjo wears an ‘R’, written in Devanagri script, as a bindi too. “Rajjo says in the film, ‘You must write your own destiny. If you can’t write your name, how will you write your destiny?’ Writing a letter on the forehead is a literal translation of writing one’s name on one’s destiny,” Sen says. “You’ll see in the movie that she has an obsession with the alphabet, it’s her path to education and freedom.”
The other characters have their wardrobe dysfunctions and quirks too. Divya Jagdale is one among the gang, she insists on wearing a havaldar’s shirt with her sari and smokes beedis. Priyanka Bose (who played the bride in the celebrated Tanishq remarriage campaign recently) and Tannishtha Chatterjee are important members of the “pink protestors” as well.
Sen and his producer Anubhav Sinha were clever enough to have an article out in Vogue India, a swishy fashion magazine. The magazine spent time at the film’s Film City sets and published a story in their August issue. “It was actually they who contacted us, saying they were interested in a story. We invited them on our sets,” Sen adds.
The filmmaker insists the fashion connect is incidental. “All I wanted to do was to tell a story,” he says. “You must remember, I am an ‘outsider’ in Bollywood,” Sen says, referring to his non-film background. He studied economics and did some theatre in his hometown Kolkata, before moving to Delhi and Mumbai for a career in journalism. He has also trained in Hindustani classical music under the Maihar gharana and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Sen plays the sarod and sings. He has composed the music for Gulaab Gang — a rock-meets-classical specialty — and has sung the credits track himself. His interest in the arts is also evident when, in the film, Dixit’s character sings Dheemi dheemi si, inspired by the legendary Teejan Bai of Chhattisgarh.
Sen has also written a few films before this, namely Anthony Kaun Hai, Meerabai Not Out and Hum Tum Aur Ghost. At home for our meeting, he wears a beautifully embroidered white shirt and jeans, though his usual wardrobe comprises Fabindia kurtas.