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Eka Lakhani: Costume designing is almost like character designing

The costume designer of Sanju, Soorma, Fanney Khan and Lust Stories speaks about starting out in a Mani Ratnam film, her prolific 2018 and working through her twenties.

Photo courtesy: Eka Lakhani

Sonal Pandya

If you have gone to the cinemas in the past few months, you have likely seen costume designer Eka Lakhani's work.

This year alone, she has designed the costumes for Rajkumar Hirani's Sanju (2018), Shaad Ali's Soorma (2018), Atul Manjrekar's Fanney Khan (2018) and Mani Ratnam's upcoming Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018).

She has also designed the costumes for Karan Johar's short in the anthology film, Lust Stories (2018).

In a short span of time, since her first film as costume designer, the Malayalam film Urumi (2011), Lakhani has made a name for herself, working hard to create characters and looks that resonate with audiences.

We spoke with the hard-working young woman in an informative and candid conversation about her first experience working with Mani Ratnam and what she has learnt from him, how she approaches a film once she signs on, and what is the difference between fashion and costume designing. Excerpts:

How did you begin your career in costume designing for films?

I had finished my fashion design course. I studied for three years at SNDT [Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Women's University] and then I went to brush up my skills at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), New York, for around a year.

When I got back from New York, I had made up my mind to join a high-fashion magazine. But as soon as I was back, I got a call that Sabyasachi Mukherjee is looking for an assistant for Mani Ratnam’s Raavan (2010). And all the names just sounded too exciting to give it up. It was Mani Ratnam, Aishwarya [Rai Bachchan], Abhishek [Bachchan] and Sabyasachi.

I think Sabyasachi has become a trend as of today, but I remember back then as well, I always idolized him and have always taken his name, so I jumped on the opportunity. I started working on Raavan; it was a bilingual film by Mani Ratnam.

It was a great learning experience for me [as] I realized that I didn’t really connect with high fashion as much as I would connect with earthy fashion, or more earthy fabrics and colours. I saw this different side of me which I connected with more. I think I made up my mind that time.

In Raavan itself, I met Santosh Sivan, my mentor. He was the DoP [director of photography] on Raavan and he was directing his own Malayalam film called Urumi (2011). It had everybody from Vidya Balan to Tabu to Genelia [D'Souza], Prithviraj, Prabhu Deva. It was a huge cast, it was a period film about Vasco Da Gama and coming to India. It had a lot of Portuguese costumes and Indian period costumes as well.

So he gave me a chance to work with him on the film. It didn’t really hit me, what I was getting into, so I was very casual about it, ‘Oh, yeah sure, I’ll do it!’ And I think when I actually took it up, I could see that I was 22-23 years, I’m going to do a period film, I’m going to work with all these big actors.

Hindi poster of Urumi (2011)

At such an early age in life, the fear of failure is not really big. I had just jumped in and I was just doing everything very enthusiastically and excitedly without really fearing anything. I was just a little nervous here and there to face the big artistes, but apart from that I had still not completely gone off my college fashion here. So, I kept thinking that it’s a new project, like in college. But it went really well.

The costumes were highly appreciated in Kerala. I think Mani sir saw the film and, at the same time, he was looking for a costume designer for his next film. I got a call saying Mani sir would like to hire you again, would you be interested to join us? I was like, of course.

I thought he is calling me back as an assistant and not giving me a whole film. But when I went for the meeting, I realized that I’m actually going to be a costume designer on a Mani Ratnam film and I thought that it’s going to come through when I’m 50 years old, but it was actually coming true when I was 23.

I guess what worked with me was luck, I wouldn’t say I have extreme skills which other people don’t have, I just feel I was at the right place at the right time. I was noticed by the right people and along with that I was extremely hard-working. I remember my twenties flying away only in work. I haven’t had the ‘let’s party, let’s travel, holiday’ kind of [life]. I’ve worked every day of my twenties. That’s how it was. I think from there I started my journey in films in the South, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. And after that, I started off with Hindi films.

When you were doing Santosh Sivan’s film, that was your first as a costume designer by yourself. Was it daunting for you, working with such a large cast for your first film?

Yes, that was my first film as a costume designer and before that I had only done Raavan as an assistant. I didn’t have that much experience. It was all first hand for me. Like I said, I used to be nervous or intimidated rather by these artistes, but I was too young to be afraid of anything.

So, I was just taking everything as a new day, new challenge and jumping at it. I have grown up in a household where my dad is really creative. I have heard him speak about art all his life. I have played with a lot of fabrics and textiles since I was a little child. My dad was in the textile industry and pioneered block-printing in Bombay [now Mumbai] and all of that.

Photo courtesy: Eka Lakhani

When I was working with Santosh Sivan, it was almost as if I was touching my own roots because he also had the same kind of ideologies about art. We used to study paintings, which is what I have done with my dad all through my life. I have been surrounded by art, books and paintings all around me, I connected very well, I didn’t feel out of place at all. I was just intimidated by the magnitude of the artistes around, but I was pretty confident.

In the last few months, you have worked on very different kinds of films. Sanju, which covers several decades of a man’s life; Soorma, a sports film dealing with personal tragedy; and Fanney Khan, a musical rooted with real characters, plus the short film in Lust Stories. How did you prepare for each?

Basically, each film comes with its own needs, you have to understand those needs and cater to them. You have to be a helping aide to get the director what he wants. It’s the director’s vision that you are actually providing, so you have to be on the same page with the director.

Then you need to understand the script, and then you need to make sure the artistes are comfortable with what you are doing. So, I guess with each film, we dealt with it in the same way.

Kiara Advani and Vicky Kaushal in Lust Stories (2018)

In Lust Stories, it was Karan [Johar’s] film, he usually goes too high-glam. This was a little more realistic film in Karan’s space. It had the Karan Johar elements and yet had to be a little more earthy. So that’s where I came in, because I do more of earthy fashion and we realized that we want it to look earthy and real, but at the same time, we want it to look beautiful and have a hint of sexiness which the film demands.

We basically made sure we gave all those elements. It’s very important to derive characters and be true to the characters you are showing the audience, only then will the audience really connect with the characters. If you don’t know what you are doing then the audience will never know what you have done.

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So, I think that’s what we did in Lust Stories, we just made sure that Kiara [Advani] was a school teacher, but at the same time, she had a hint of sex appeal, because that’s what the film is about. That’s what it is for herself as a person in the film where she understands her own sexual needs, so it was necessary to have that little bit of sex appeal in the film.

Whereas when you talk about Sanju, it’s really difficult in terms of making sure that the audience doesn’t look at Ranbir Kapoor and see him as Ranbir Kapoor. They had to look at Ranbir Kapoor and feel they are seeing Sanjay Dutt. You had to replicate a lot of things that we had seen Sanjay Dutt wear, so that there is an immediate connect to it. Instead of giving two styles, it was more important to recreate certain images that we all have in our minds of Sanjay Dutt, from his films, from his personal life, from magazine covers, from milestones in his life which have been covered by media.

The work that went into transforming Ranbir Kapoor into Sanjay Dutt for Sanju

It was catering to that which was very important, and at the same time, we had to go through different eras in a very smooth manner, because in a film like this, when you are dealing with 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, the fashion has changed all through the years.

But when you are trying to do everything in one film, you keep jumping from era to era, with different kinds of clothes, it can be very distracting. So we wanted to be true to the era, but we wanted the transition to be as smooth as possible.

From bell-bottoms, you won’t suddenly see tapered jeans. From bell-cuts, you will slowly see boot-cuts, from boot-cuts you’ll see a little flare, then you will see straight and then from straight, you will see tapered. So we have had that transition where the audience doesn’t suddenly see the fashion change in front of them, along with the life of Sanjay Dutt.

Sanju had so many artistes, it was so exciting to work with all of them. It was exciting to work with Raju Sir [Rajkumar Hirani]; it was a dream come true for me, a second time over in life.

For Sanju, how much did you have to go through Sanjay Dutt’s old films and looks? Was there a lot of R&D that you had to do with Ranbir Kapoor?

Yes, absolutely. We had a lot of process of costume trials along with hair and make-up. We were trying to get each look approved. At least one outfit with one hairstyle and one kind of look in each era and then we played around that look. So we get that one correct call, so even getting that one correct, it was quite a detailed process.

Pihu Sand, Divya Dutta and Anil Kapoor in Fanney Khan (2018)

And in Fanney Khan?

Fanney Khan has two worlds, it has a glamorous world and it has a real world. We all know that in 'Bollywood' [mainstream Hindi cinema], the king of glamour costumes is Manish Malhotra, so it was best that Manish did that. He did Aishwarya [Rai Bachchan’s] costumes, whereas I dealt with the more realistic world because I am towards that kind of styling. So, we got to know what the characters are, what Anil Kapoor plays, what Pihu [Sand] plays, what Divya Dutta plays, Rajkummar Rao plays.

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I had to just understand who they are as people, what they do in their day-to-day lives, how do they live, where do they live, where do they go to work? I think once you know those things about a character, it’s easy to translate them into costume.

Can you take us through your process once you sign on for doing the costumes for a character or characters on a film?

I think when I sign up for a film, I first start with the script, of course. After I read the script, I sit with the director and there is always a jamming session where I try to understand what the director wants the vibe of the film to be like.

Once you get the vibe, then what you really want to do is understand the tonality of the film. Is it a realistic film, is it an aspirational film, is it a glamorous film? After you get the vibe of the film, you have to go into your characters and I usually end up coming with a lot of questions about the characters. Even if the story doesn’t need to know what they do for a living, I want to know what they do for a living. I want to know their backstory.

Also, I have got into this habit, because of Mani Sir, because he needs a reason for everything. He doesn’t want any character or actor to wear something or carry something because it looks good. He wants to know if that person could have bought it from where they are living. He has always told me that if you are giving a hair clip to my actor, I want to know if that hair clip is the hair clip that person with that career would wear. If there is a bag, they are taking it to work, does it fit in everything they want? So from the beginning my schooling has been to give reasons. So I think that’s what I try to do.

I sit with the director over each character and I kind of understand the quirks of the character and then I try to cater to it in the most realistic way. Agar yeh office ja raha hai, toh dabba le ke jayenga ya bahar se khana mangwaega [If he is going to the office, is he taking lunch from home or will he order a takeaway]? Dabba leke jayega [If he is taking lunch], then you need him to carry the tiffin box. Is he on a bike, or is he going in a car? If he is on a bike, then he will always have his helmet in his hand when he is leaving the house.

Very basic things...

They are very basic things. I think it’s these basic things which make you and me real. We won’t go shopping at a fancy store on a daily basis. It would be something we do and probably wear at Diwali, which later becomes a hand-me-down, and we will give someone else. You have to understand how life’s cycle changes for someone else and you have to translate this in films, for the audience to connect to it.

Diljit Dosanjh in Soorma (2018)

I guess that’s my way and what I do is I sit with the actors and we try to get the actors on the same page. Usually, I have been lucky to work with actors who have always been on the same page. You get a lot of feedback because these guys know what they are doing. They are the eventual people whom the audience have to connect to, so you have to make sure they are extremely comfortable with what you are giving them. Nothing that you give as a costume should hinder their performance, it should only help their performance.

This is all done before, or is any of this done on set as well?

This is all done before, but of course, we are always ready for plan B on set if someone feels unsettled. Once the artiste reaches the set and you feel that the colour is not working or the mood is not being set right, then you change [it]. You need to take liberties of changing things last minute as well. But yes, you have to be prepared from the beginning. Otherwise, it will just be chaos.

Do you get enough time from pre-production to filming to prepare?

I usually take enough time for it, because I feel if you go with your homework half done, then it somewhere shows that you have not prepared enough. You need to be thorough, then you already know some things might not work, and you will, in your head, keep a backup, and the process becomes much more interesting when you are fully into it.

You have worked on both period and contemporary films, which excites you more?

Contemporary films excite me much more. It’s kind of a balance between real and artsy for me. When you hear people talk about realistic films, automatically in your head, you start thinking gareeb [poor]. That’s not true. I feel realistic films can be beautiful [and] should be beautiful. It’s either glamour or it’s gareeb. That’s how people usually start thinking, but that’s not true.

What I mean is realistic is a casual approach towards dressing, which is very necessary. Because that’s how we dress, we are not decked up head to toe on a daily basis. We look good, we wear good clothes, but it doesn’t have to be the most glamorous look. I think that’s the kind of cinema I enjoy where I love looking at beautiful things, but it’s done in a more realistic or casual approach. That’s the kind of cinema I want to cater to.

Kaatru Veliyidai (2017)

What is something about costume design and styling that audiences aren’t aware of?

Not a lot of people understand the difference between fashion designing and costume designing. I am saying this because even in my own extended family or friends’ circle, sometimes they will be like, par isne toh jeans aur T-shirt pehna hai [but he’s wearing jeans and T-shirt], what have you given him? And I’ll be like, but that’s what the character demanded!

Whereas fashion designing is to create clothes and to create garments which are beautiful. Costume designing is almost like character designing. You have to design the character, what the character needs — pant and ganji [vest] — then you have to give them pant and ganji. If the character needs a leather jacket and boots, then you give the character leather jacket and boots. That’s the basic difference.

Fashion designer is an individual who is designing a certain garment, costume designing is something that you are doing to help the director build the character.

Recently, in any of the films you have worked on, was there any costume that you have put together and been proud of? It could be for any reason.

I was really happy with the ['The Humma Song'] costume from OK Jaanu (2017). What had happened is we had actually decided between Vaibhavi [Merchant], Shaad [Ali], me and Shraddha [Kapoor] that she will wear a lehenga with a black shirt that we will tie into a knot. [It had] mirror work because it happens in a Gujarat lodge.

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We were ready to shoot the next day, we were prepping for it for seven-eight days. The lehengas were ready, the costume trials were done. In the evening I was hanging out with Shaad and I remember asking him to play the song again for us. I was like, ‘Shaad, the song has such a modern twist to it. It’s such a cool twist to 'Humma’. We should probably avoid the lehenga.’ He said, ‘Matlab aur kya pehenegi, shorts [What else will she wear, shorts]?’ I said, ‘Haan, kyun nahin [Sure, why not]?' (Laughs)

It was like an impromptu thing. He said, ‘Normal shorts?’ I said, ‘Nahin [No], let me make mirrorwork shorts or something'. He said, ‘Eka, you have time until tomorrow morning, the shops are shut, what are you going to do?’ So I said, ‘Okay, let me make something, if you like it, let’s see if it works out.’ I came back home and I was going through my cupboard to see if there was any piece of fabric I could find.

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I found these cushion covers on my couch which are my father’s favourite cushion covers. So I called my masterji [tailor] home with his machine and we just stitched shorts at home from my cushion covers. It was literally things I could find in my cupboard, there was a paranda from an old shoot which was lying there, I used it as a latkan or tie-up on the shorts.

Next morning I had to still pitch it. Shaad was still happy with the lehenga but I had to pitch this, so I kind of took Vaibhavi and Shaad to Shraddha’s vanity van and tried out the clothes. They were very happy with it. Shraddha was happy with it, so I was so excited. Now, when I see the song, I feel the lehenga would have just not worked, I’m so happy we went ahead with the shorts. Even Aditya’s [Roy Kapur] shirt in that, the bandhni shirt, is made out of a dupatta. This entire thing was such a last minute thing, that eventually when the song came out, it just looked so perfect.

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I was so happy with it. I got so many queries for the same shorts and the shirt, but I had to keep telling everyone, listen, it was made out of cushions, I can’t get any more of these pieces. It was really interesting and I think it was an overnight job and I was more proud of the fact that we did it in such a short time than the fact that we made cushion cover shorts.

After this amazing year, what other projects do you have lined up? You are working with Mani Ratnam again on his next...

Yes, I’m doing Mani Sir’s next film [Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018)] which is going to be released in September. We have finished shooting for it. Apart from that, I’m styling Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit Nene for Total Dhamaal (2018). It’s really fun to work with the ‘Dhak Dhak’ couple, they have come back together after such a long time. It’s so interesting to style them. I’m working on The Sky Is Pink (2019) which is with Priyanka [Chopra] and Farhan [Akhtar].

Finally, in what kind of outfits can you be found on set?

I’m very casual. If someone will see me, they’ll never imagine that I’m a costume stylist or a designer because you’ll usually see me in a T-shirt and jeans or a white shirt and blue jeans. Till date, for the past 10 years, my first meetings have always been kind of white, smart shirt and blue jeans. I do not overstyle myself. Because you do it as a profession, you kind of get overwhelmed with clothes. When I’m going out on holidays and people or friends say let’s go shopping today, I’m like, ‘I can’t enter a shop, I can’t do it.’ Whereas people take breaks to shop, I take breaks from shopping. That’s how I have to find my balance.