Sunday, May 06, 2007

Lights, camera, fashion

Star and style: Rajni and Shriya in Sivaji
Last month, a rather unassuming-looking CD landed on my desk. Publicity shots of Rajnikant in Sivaji. It had the 57-year-old in an ash blond wig, the latest aviator Ray-Bans, Diesel trainers, and beige clam diggers. Clam diggers? Those three-quarter-length trousers that crossed gender boundaries several years ago? Rajnikant's superstar status, killer dialogues and mannerisms notwithstanding, the new fashion statement clearly caught us unawares. And it also got us talking about someone else — Manish Malhotra.

Often called the big daddy of contemporary Bollywood fashion (he prefers the title ''big brother''), Malhotra has worked with everybody from Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan to Sridevi and Urmila Matondkar, even newcomer Deepika Padukone. ''I've done costumes for three generations of actors and close to a 1000 films,'' he tells me. So when hot-shot Sivaji director Shankar decided to invite Bollywood's favourite designer on board, it didn't take him long to say 'yes'.

''I'd done Indian and Nayak with Shankar before. Initially I was supposed to do a song for Sivaji. But the set up was so organised and disciplined and Shankar so convinced about his work that I went on to do almost all the costumes for Rajni Sir, as well as for Shriya and Nayanthara (the female cast) in the film.''

Cagey about the brief he was given (everybody in Shankar's films normally is) and the budget, Malhotra says he first heard the script and knew the songs were mostly dream sequences. ''Of course, Rajni Sir is larger-than-life and we also wanted to have some fun. There is a contemporary song shot in Spain. The basic colours I chose for him were beige, brown and grey.''

And the pastel jackets in the promos? ''Those are for the songs. In the film, Rajni Sir's character goes through different phases and his clothes were chosen accordingly. As a software engineer from abroad he wears business suits, and in a breezy setup, he wears printed shirts. For the serious scenes, he's in denim jeans — we picked up several brands like Deisel and Hugo Boss. I love using jeans, especially when it's paired with something ornate.'' Incidentally, he had a heady time designing for Shriya too: ''You should see her outfits, full of Swarovskis.''

While Malhotra is partial to plain chiffons and pastels, as a costume designer, he relies on the characters to call the shots. ''You know I have not studied fashion, so more than anything else, colours are very important for me. I work with different brands and pick up jackets and shirts when travelling abroad.'' Emphasising the need for character-centric designing, he cites Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (KANK). ''In KANK, Shah Rukh is very grungy and New York, so I shopped a lot from G-Star, the Dutch brand, as well as in Soho.''

When creating the look of the film, a director's vision is very important, be it Shankar or Karan Johar, says Malhotra. Which means glamour for glamour's sake does not work. In the Mani Ratnam film, Yuva, for instance, all the simple saris for Rani Mukherjee's character were from Kolkata, picked up for about Rs 20,000. Kareena Kapoor's character, on the other hand, came from a middle-class background, and her clothes were mostly from Fab India. As for Abhishek Bachchan's character, ''he just required a lot of ganjis''. Similarly, in Madhuri Dixit's (Nene) forthcoming film, her comeback vehicle, she plays a dance teacher from America. ''Her look is so refreshing, less make-up and lots of T-shirts,'' reveals Malhotra.

Agreeing that sometimes a lot of analysis goes into costumes, Rajiv Menon, Director and Cinematographer, says that costumes have two roles in a film: ''They are viewed as a cultural export. At the same time, a film is a narrative media and the requirement of the character drives the costumes.'' (See box: Made for weddings). ''Earlier, the idea of a costume was to make the actor more macho and the woman more sexy or divine. We've come out of that stage and have reached a grey area. The woman in films is more contemporary and real today.''

Creating a signature look

Fans have been known to imitate their idols' dress code, hoping it will get them one step closer to cool. And while Bollywood fashion is no longer outlandish, ''not like the late 80s, which was probably the worst period for clothes,'' laughs Malhotra, there is room for creating individual style statements. Malhotra and others like him, Neeta Lulla (Devdas) and Chaitanya Rao (Bheema) for instance, have their own flagship stores. And often, their friends in the film industry consult them for a certain look at awards functions.

Urmila Matondkar, Kareena Kapoor, Preity Zinta and Kajol are Malhotra constants, but Zinta has also been known to favour Valentino, Roberto Cavalli and Calvin Klein at functions. ''That's good, at least she's making an attempt to look different,'' says Deepika Govind, who designs for Vasundhara Das and Lucky Ali. And while a few stylists feel Rekha's Kanjeevaram look is overdone, they admit she has created a trend with her maroon lip shade.

Off screen style

Often our imports from the North seem to have a better wardrobe both in and out of films. Like Shriya, for instance, who is from Delhi. Seen at public events in pretty summery dresses that she picks up on shoots abroad, Shriya has learnt to put together an entire look. ''With their exposure to fashions in Mumbai, these girls are generally more alert, toned, are tall and have good hair,'' reasons Bangalore-based designer, Deepika Govind. ''They come with the entire package and are naturally confident. Stars have to learn to be more aware of their body in South India. After all, a good body carries off clothes better.'' Actress Nagma will vouch for that. Having shed a lot of weight and currently starring in Bhojpuri films, she was recently quoted saying: "Most actresses there (the South) are little bit on the heavier side, so you don't notice the difference. It was only when I returned to Mumbai that I realised that I have put on so much weight.''

With the men, Govind, who designs for Lucky Ali, votes for Kannada director Indrajit Lankesh (''he has interesting jackets'') and actor Upendra. ''You can't fault any of our actors for their eyewear and footwear though. Mostly Italian brands, their eyewear is picked up in Dubai.'' Among the Tamil heroes, she feels Madhavan really needs help in the wardrobe department ''even if he wore a Versace suit at the Filmfare awards! He is such a good looking actor.''

Chaitanya Rao votes for actor Vikram's personal style, and we have to agree with him. ''He knows what colours and styles suit him and he experiments.'' While older actors like Arjun have been known to spend a lot of time flipping through fashion magazines for inspiration, actor Nagarjuna is one step ahead. Often seen in well-cut jeans and white shirts, this well-built six-footer browses the internet for trendy hairstyles. Padi Sekar Babu, his personal stylist for 18 years, says the actor picks up a lot of Armani suits and Hugo Boss jeans on his trips abroad. Mahesh Babu, another popular Telugu hero, prefers black and white outfits and belts with huge buckles, according to his stylist G B Raju. This is a trend most young South heroes favour, and fans waste no time in taking notes.

As for Sivaji and our superstar Rajni, a week after the promos, stickers of the actor's new look have been surfacing on T-shirts, autos, buses, the odd SUV, everywhere. The verdict is out: Rajni fans are giving the look a big thumbs up. Perhaps it's time to invest in some clam diggers?

Bad hair day

In films, most South Indian stars go by what their stylists suggest. Even if, as in the case of Mahesh Babu and Nagarjuna, their stylists are largely inspired by Italian magazines and shop in Hyderabad for branded look-alikes. And all are ready to experiment. ''I've now worked with Rajni Sir, Nagarjuna and Chiranjeevi, and they're all humble and simple off the sets. According to me, that is being truly stylish.'' He also says we should give our stars a break and not expect them to be in their Sunday best all the time. ''They're human beings for Christ's sake. They too can have a bad hair day. But I think what works everytime is a white shirt with blue jeans, both for men and women.''

Made for weddings

''Several years ago, a woman wrote me a letter from Paris, complaining that my costumes were 'nice and colourful' in Minsara Kanavu and not so in Kandukondein Kandukondein (KK),'' says Rajiv Menon. ''I wrote back, explaining that the colour in the first film was juxtaposed against the nuns in black. In KK, Tabu's costumes had earth tones and Aishwarya Rai's had peacock, to symbolise their characters. When the characters change as the movie progresses, their colours change. 'That is irrelevant,' the woman replied. 'For me, a Sri Lankan Tamil in Paris, I look at films to get ideas on what to wear at weddings!' Now that explains the different expectations from a film.''

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