At the outset, Payal Saluja clarifies a common misconception. “A fashion designer follows trends and seasons whereas for a costume designer, the script is the bible. The latter creates characters and the former, clothes,” she says. She is not a fashion designer, but some of her costumes for films have made fashion statements, like Vidya Balan’s raw and sensuous blouse in Ishqiya, or Sonam Kapoor’s churidar and jeans in Raanjhanaa. It is likely that the heavily embroidered anarkalis that she made Madhuri Dixit-Nene wear in her latest film, Dedh Ishqiya, may become a talking point in the coming days. The 37-year-old costume designer is a regular with Vishal Bhardwaj films, and after Raanjhanaa, she is back with Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya, another from Bhardwaj’s stable .
Saluja’s strength is her keen character study. She sees it as a means to flesh out the character better. Bhardwaj’s characters, for example, are minimally adorned. “Ninety per cent of someone’s personality comes out through his body language. I try to observe that and catch on to details that people will identify with, little stories that will cook up the character in front,” she says.
Arshad Warsi’s happy-go-lucky Babban in Dedh Ishqiya is insecure and hence, overdressed with fake Nike shoes and flashy clothes. It is a contrast to Naseeruddin Shah’s Khaloo jaan, who is more understated and refined. She felt challenged while breaking Madhuri’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 Madhuri’s old-fashioned beauty Para, she went back to churidars and anarkalis.
It wasn’t until she was doing a short course in Ahmedabad’s National Institute Designing that she realised her interest in films. Assigned to create costumes for a Tenali Raman spoof, Saluja shone the brightest among the group. She did the research for the characters with ease, a trait she attributes to her childhood days. “If my cousin wanted to look like Amitabh Bachchan or Helen, I would tell them what to wear,” she says.
Her work is identified with distinctly Indian, rustic or period settings based on her body of work — consisting of films from Bhardwaj’s stable such as Maqbool, Ishqiya, Saat Khoon Maaf and now Dedh Ishqiya, Shyam Benegal’s Bose: the Forgotten Hero, Raanjhana. But Saluja says she’s as much ready for a urban film or a sci-fi fantasy.
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