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‘Jaya Ma’ had a quirky sense of fashion, was a complete diva: Thalaivi costume designer Neeta Lulla

"She broke stereotypes with her fashion and had a mind of her own. For example, while many carry their Kanjeevaram sari with gajra, she carried it with a bouffant and an envelope purse"

Written by Shambhavi Dutta | New Delhi |
April 6, 2021 12:30:49 pm
Neeta Lulla, Thalaivi, costume, design, indian express newsWe caught up with the costume technician to understand the work that went behind. (Photo: Neeta Lulla/ Designed by Abhishek Mitra)

She has worked in over 300 films. Costume designing, therefore, is not new for Neeta Lulla. But the Kangana Ranaut-starrer Thalaivi was no cakewalk for her. While calling it her “most challenging” film until now, the fashion designer has recreated the enigmatic persona of the late politician J Jayalalithaa in the biopic, a peek of which was shown as part of the trailer.

Ahead of the film’s release, we caught up with the costume technician to understand the work that went behind creating the on-screen looks, the research that happened, why it is has been one of her most difficult projects, and much more.

Excerpts:

You have designed the costumes for Thalaivi. Can you tell us about the experience? 

I had to do in-depth research on Jaya Ma’s earlier years — when she got into films, her movie costumes, the way she dressed off-screen, how she progressed in politics, and finally, her as a politician. The research predominantly included a lot of pictures, going to a library, her movies, the internet, and particularly her songs. I must have seen each song around 15-16 times.

Lulla had worked with Kangana in Manikarnika, too, prior to Thalaivi. (Photo: Neeta Lulla)

What did you keep in mind while doing the research?

Detailing, in terms of the kind of clothes, especially saris, she wore, and the touch she gave to her attire. This even included lingerie, as you had the conical bra look at that time. But all these had to be altered when we came to shooting the scenes from her time as a politician, as her body structure was different then. Even Kangana had put on 20 kg for that part of the film, so the costume had to match the same to make it look seamless and believable.

How much liberty did you take when it came to blurring the lines between what was and how it has been shown? 

When you do not have a lot of pictorial evidence, it becomes easy to blur the lines. But when you have images — because her passing away was recent — it becomes a challenging scenario. So in all, it is neither difficult nor easy. But Vijay (the director) gave me quite a free hand in places where the costumes had to be recreated; we would discuss how close it was to reality and proceed only then.

“Kangana liked my style of working and my commitment to work,” shared the designer. (Photo: Neeta Lulla)

How did you make sure the authenticity of the character was not disrupted while adding your personal touch to the costumes?

The authenticity had to be recreated through images along with an understanding of the fashion that was prevalent in that time coupled with Jaya Ma’s hairstyle and accessories. It is essential to make use of cinematic liberty and add creative touches (where possible) while keeping the originality intact. You have to make sure it is as realistic as possible.

For example, in the song Chali Chali we could not add a personal touch — it had to be shot exactly as it was presented years ago. Now that was often challenging because all we would often have was black and white videos to refer to. Like this one time, we were looking at a video and thought the colour of the outfit to be blue; but then after watching it on the bigger screen, iPad, and the computer screen, we realised it was aqua.

Otherwise, one can often bring their vision and sensibilities into the designs, provided one keeps the domain of that era intact. For example, if I am working on a look from the 1960s, I will have to see what were kind of churidaars were worn, what is the kind of colours and styles were in trend — because everything is interrelated. My research was never unilateral in nature, it was always multi-dimensional. In those cases, that we took inspiration from other places. For the late ’70s, I took inspiration from my family and different actors from that era.

The film is all set to release on 23 April 2021. (Photo: Neeta Lulla)

How would you describe your days from when you were creating the costumes? 

I designed around 70-90 costumes. The research happened on a day-to-day basis. Someday, suddenly we would see a video or an image that had to be incorporated. Even after watching a particular song 15 times, some new element would pop up. That would freak us out! It could be the tiniest detail — from the one on a shoe to embroidery to the jewellery. Hence, it has been the most challenging film.

“When you do not have a lot of pictorial evidence, it becomes easy to blur the lines.” (Photo: Neeta Lulla)

What made you say yes to the film?

Kangana asked me to do this film because I had designed for Manikarnika as well. She liked my style of working and my commitment to work. They later also asked me to work on Arvind Swamy’s costumes.

I immediately connected with the film because of the nature and power that Jayalalithaa’s life exuded, the way she was — she paved her own way and she did what she wanted to do. She was a woman who made a difference in society. I have felt a similar connection with Kangana as well. I do not know how to explain this to you but, you don’t make a connection happen — it just happens.

Kangana never knew what she would wear in the film, she had that much trust in me. I was able to connect with her deeply because even during Manikarnika, she never asked me what her costume would be like. She had that comfort level with the costumes to be able to play the part.

The designer worked on Arvind Swamy’s costumes as well. (Photo: Neeta Lulla)

After all the research, how would you describe Jayalalithaa’s take on fashion? 

When I started researching, I was surprised to realise she had a quirky fashion sense. She had a style statement of her own and she was a complete diva. She created a fashion statement, and somewhere even Kangana does that. Jayalalithaa was way ahead of her time. She had it in her to not only be able to create a statement that was not only followed by many out there, but also carry it comfortably.

Like the aqua outfit I was talking about — it was actually a sheer straight gown with high slits. Woah! You should see her in the song, she carried it with such elegance and style. She broke stereotypes with her fashion and had a mind of her own. For example, while many carry their Kanjeevaram sari with gajra, she carried it with a bouffant and an envelope purse.

Watch the trailer of the film below. 

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