Following in the footsteps of Umrao Jaan (1981) can be an intimidating prospect, but designer Meera Ali, one half of celebrated label Kotwara, was undaunted and even used the film as a reference point for her turn as costume designer in husband Muzaffar Ali’s magnum opus Jaanisaar.
For the sweeping romance between a courtesan and a prince, set in 1870, nearly two decades after Umrao Jaan’s era, Ali revived the “farshi gharara” from the classic film that starred Rekha. The wide and long pants with a trail that needs to be draped over the arm while walking, was just one of the splendid details appropriated in a costume saga that took nearly one-and-a-half years from research to realisation.
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While Jaanisaar marks filmmaker and designer Muzaffar’s return to the director’s chair, Meera takes on the twin responsibilities of costume designer and producer. For the duo that launched their label Kotwara in 1990 and jointly nurtured it to become one of the country’s premier couture houses steeped in Awadh traditions, the historical background may have been all too familiar, the research all too relatable, but the groundwork wasn’t necessarily less stringent.
Meera and her team of eight designers researched the period, fabrics, embroideries and laces in great depth. “Since this is set 20 years in time after Umrao Jaan, I could play with the Victorian influences, especially in the men’s costumes. We researched the Victorian era and the style and dressing of Awadh royalty of the time. We designed peshwaz with waistcoats and moved from the churidaar to chaura (wide) pajama as part of the dancing dress and from the angarkha to the dagla for men,” says Meera.
Noor, the 19th century courtesan of Jaanisaar — played by fashion stylist and entrepreneur Pernia Qureshi — is dressed in peshwaz that not only conform to style of the era, but care was taken to get the fit just right “so that when she pirouettes it looks sensuous and seductive as a courtesan should look. The flow of the dupattas was also important, how they covered the head and at the same time were sheer enough,” says Meera. The transformation of foreign-educated Prince Ameer, played by Imran Abbas Naqvi from Pakistan, is charted through his wardrobe.
Hints of Victorian styling have been worked into the Indian milieu. “With the British firmly entrenched in Awadh soil, there were many exchanges of ideas, thought and blending of cultures, which included language, music, dance and style of dressing. Victorian dressing had its impact on the Indian gentry and courtesans experimented with the dress, hair styling and shoes,” says Meera of the look of the nearly 500 costumes created for the film.
When it came to craftsmanship, local talent came in handy. “We have a large number of embroiderers and tailors in the Kotwara region and almost all of them were co-opted into making the costumes,” says Meera. While some of the woollen fabric for Ameer’s coats was woven in Kotwara, antique brocades were sourced for Noor’s ghararas and dupattas. Shoemakers were hired to handcraft era-appropriate footwear. For the jewellery, Meera turned to Jaipur-based jewellery brand Amrapali for the elaborate neckpieces, maang teekas, jhoomars, chandelier earrings, haath phools and bangles. “We chose from the antiques that they had and in many cases they made new pieces for us on demand,” she adds.
Even as the film readies for release on August 7, the couple are promoting the fashion angle of their creative legacy. Having presented a collection inspired by the film at Asia Fashion Week in London in June, the duo has launched it on Perniaspopup shop.com, their leading lady’s e-retail enterprise. “It bears a strong resemblance to the actual costumes used in the film. We have just tweaked the fabrics and styles a little bit to make them more wearable,” says Meera.
She adds, “My philosophy was to trace the journey of the story through seasons and the protagonists’ evolution. This gave me a different idiom of expression — spring pastels to summer whites to earthy monsoon and dark deep wools for winter.”