“Saif Ali Khan was well-versed with the style of that time” : costume designer Dolly Ahluwalia

From dressing sassy showgirls to recreating period army uniforms in Rangoon, costume designer Dolly Ahluwalia discusses the challenges of a historical wartime romance.

WHEN two-time National Award-winning costume designer Dolly Ahluwalia says that Vishal Bhardwaj’s war and romance drama Rangoon has been the toughest movie of her career, she’s not kidding. With films such as Bandit Queen (1993), Omkara (2006) and Haider (2014) under her belt, she’s no stranger to large-scale spectacles and sweeping canvases. But Bhardwaj’s latest, set during World War II and shot largely in Arunachal Pradesh, proved to be a formidable challenge. The experience was much like the volatile storyline of the love triangle between livewire action heroine Julia (played by Kangna Ranaut), erstwhile actor and debonair producer Rusi Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan) and soldier Nawab Mallik (Shahid Kapoor).

Armed with keywords such as “love triangle”, “war”, “aristocracy”, “comedy”, “tragedy” and “sensuousness”, Ahluwalia set about creating a canvas for each of her characters. “I watched a lot of Hollywood and Bollywood films from the ’40s to see what the fashion was like back then, delved into old fashion magazines that I sourced from London and studied people’s personal albums to gauge the Western trends that had percolated down to India,” she says.

She shrugs off comparisons between “Jaanbaaz Julia” and yesteryear stunt queen Fearless “Hunterwali” Nadia aka Mary Ann Evans. “The only thing they have in common is the era and, perhaps, the whip,” she says. But, Ranaut’s character brings out a great degree of emotion. “I imagined her graph as going from an innocent jasmine flower to that of a fierce tigress. Julia has an electric presence and is an irresistible combination of tough and seductive,” says Ahluwalia. With almost 50 costume changes — including multiples of some outfits for continuity purposes — Julia’s wardrobe includes romantic floral prints, luxurious velvets, vintage gowns, flirty crop tops and voluminous pants. “Kangna surrendered creatively to the design process. She’d done her homework and knew exactly where her high-waist pants should sit,” says Ahluwalia.

Similarly, Khan helped bring the aristocratic Billimoria to life by giving her access to his family albums and personal wardrobe. “His grandfather Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi lived through that era and Saif was well-versed with the style of that time,” says Ahluwalia. Apart from brainstorming on the look of his movie producer character, Khan used a white shirt with black buttons, a pin-striped vintage suit, pocket watch, dark glasses and a trilby hat from his own collection.

“We made multiple copies of his grandfather’s boots and created dual-shaded brogues that were a rage back then,” she says.

With 30-plus changes, Billimoria’s character is in sharp contrast with Kapoor’s brooding Nawab, who is dressed in uniform for most of the film. “Whether it’s Julia, Rusi or Nawab, I definitely try to get under the skin of the character. Perhaps, it comes from being an actor myself and living a different role every time I slip into costume,” says the gold medallist from Delhi’s National School of Drama, who has starred in Vicky Donor, Yahaan and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, among other films.

More challenging than dressing the three lead characters, was the task of outfitting hundreds of actors, who played sidekicks, soldiers and back-up dancers. “Soldiers of five armies were part of the plot, including those of the British Indian Army (BIA), the Japanese contingent and Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. We had to make sure we got the uniforms, insignia, helmets and accessories right,” says Ahluwalia.

The documented “khaki” of the BIA turned out to be a peculiar shade of olive green that had to dyed for authenticity and then, there were bulk orders of army insignia that were not being delivered in time for a shoot. Ahluwalia and her team sourced prototypes of the Japanese army helmet and got them manufactured, as well as acquired Mackintosh raincoats of that period. Ahluwalia’s job was made more difficult by a lack of archival information and conflicting accounts in books, magazines and on the internet.

Rangoon hit the screens on February 24 to mixed reviews, but when the release was still a few days away, Ahluwalia had turned philosophical in her approach: “I go through the different phases of pregnancy and labour with all my films. Now, I’m waiting for the “delivery day” to finally watch the film and assess my own performance,” says Ahluwalia, with the flair of a seasoned actor.

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