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LIFFT India: Do not be afraid of breaking the mould, says Pia Benegal on costume designing

Costume designer Pia Benegal talked about her career in the industry and her craft in an interactive session with Riju Bajaj.

Pia Benegal (Photo: LIFFT India)

Sukhpreet Kahlon

In a masterclass with costume designer, Pia Benegal, Riju Bajaj (founder and festival director of LIFFT India ) started the session by thanking her for being at the festival and for supporting it. A short film highlighting Benegal’s work in various films like Zubeidaa (2001), Sardari Begum (1996), Aligarh (2016), Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose (2004) was screened before the conversation.

Bajaj began by asking Benegal about her journey and how she came to be a costume designer. She said that while she had joined as a production and direction assistant, she had never planned to be a costume designer. She was working on a low budget film and as there was a paucity of funds, she was given the script and asked to do the costumes. She took it up as a challenge and did the research on her own. This is how her first film as a costume designer, Antarnad (1992) came about. 

Emphasizing on the importance of research in her field, she talked about her creative process which involves reading the script several times, analyzing it in detail, checking the requirements of the actors, meeting with the director, conducting a broad based and fine-tuned research based on the character and plot. After this process, the colour palette is determined and discussed with the cinematographer and art director to make sure that the palette is in line with the lighting, mood and set design of the film.

In her interaction, Benegal also dispelled the myth that contemporary costumes do not require in-depth research as it is imperative for the look of a character. She added that this added a dimension to the narrative and enabled the story to move forward with the complete look of the costumes.

As a costume designer, she also highlighted the fact that the creative and design team need to share a symbiotic and creative relationship, “There will be ups and downs in the creative process, but it is important to listen to each other.”

Riju Bajaj and Pia Benegal (Photo: LIFFT India)

When asked a question about her favourite fabrics, she responded that she preferred natural fabrics as they breathe and are more suited to the Indian climate. Fabrics like cotton, silk, wool, linen, fall very well so they have that advantage as well. She added, “I dislike synthetics personally and if the budget allows it, I always choose natural fabrics”.

Bajaj asked her a pertinent question about the difference between a costume designer and a fashion designer to which Benegal succinctly answered that the profession of a costume designer was a specialization as one needs to work with the overall look.

“One invests in the look of the outfit keeping in mind the period, stage, country, region, mood, occupation of the character and the colour, textures, fabrics are used keeping all of that in mind. Whereas a fashion designer makes clothes for public usage and uses a pleasing aesthetic as their work is based on social attitude and influenced by the cultural environment and the creations change based on the season, festivals, attitude, etc,” she said.

Bajaj played a little mind exercise with Benegal as he asked her to imagine actress Hema Malini’s wardrobe even though she had never worked with the actor. Benegal promptly answered and nailed the question as she named a range of flowing sarees to be her choice of clothing. 

In a light hearted vein Bajaj asked whether or not the designer judged people by their clothes! Benegal answered, “I do pay attention to what people are wearing and in the deep recesses of my memory I make notes of interesting positives and negatives. The clothes have to be truly awful for me to pass judgment on them but as a rule I do not judge!”

Benegal also responded to a question about the stereotyping of clothes according to professions in films. For example, a college professor is made to wear sarees in films while that is not necessarily the reality today. The designer replied, “This varies from one project to another. But one should not be afraid of breaking the mould.”

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