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#BehindTheLens: Costume designer, Sheetal Iqbal Sharma talks about the process behind working on films like Gangubai Kathiawadi and more!

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Sakshi Sharma
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Sheetal Iqbal Sharma


Loved the white sarees of Gangubai or the costumes of The Empire? Sheetal Iqbal Sharma talks to us about working as a costume designer for them and so much more!

How many times have you wanted to own that look from a character in a film/series? Tell me you weren't mesmerized by the costumes in periodic dramas/films! We have all been there; wanting to wear the same pants Rajkumar Rao wore in a song or Alia Bhatt's black shades from Gangubai. But do you know what really goes behind Alia Bhatt's look for Gangubai especially those white sarees or Shah Rukh Khan's Raees look? What's the actual story behind Akshay Kumar's massive turban in Kesari and how did The Empire costumes feel so real? Costume designer, Sheetal Iqbal Sharma deep-dives into what actually goes behind making a costume for characters, and how he started doing it all!

Costumes are a much bigger part of the film/series than we know! It's not just the actors that bring to light a character but also the costumes that they adorn. Why else would Schitt's Creek's Moira Rose and Alexis Rose end up becoming fashion statements? Costumes define one's personality, from a piece of cloth to a small ring; everything accentuates and adds to the character. Like Gangubai's essence, as much as it was brought out by Alia Bhatt's acting, it also relied on her white sarees and blouses. But how do they decide which white saree or what shoes go with it? To shed some light on costume designing and how it looks in a practical sense, Sheetal Iqbal Sharma graciously answers all our questions in detail.

Here's what he had to share!

Costumes are those fashion statements that people always take away with them after the film without even realizing it. But what does a costume designer really do?

I begin by reading the script from my own perspective. Often times when you meet the director, either they narrate it or they give the script to read. And personally, I don’t like to read the flat script and I openly say that to all my directors. But when a lot of directors and producers pitch their films to costume designers for the first time, they already have a vision or some reference point which would usually be an image or 2 to 3 power points made on the kind of world that they want to see. That strictly limits your visualization skill because you have already seen something before reading the script, and I completely say no to that.

What I do while reading the script is generally jot down all my points right from where the story starts. I never start the character from where I read the film. And this might not be true for all designers but there might be some people who would be doing this step. But I like to create a back story to the character while I read the script. Complete from what world do they belong to what kind of parents would they have or what kind of friends would they have to what kind of schooling or college they might have gone to; then I reach the script where it starts from.

In that process, it becomes very interesting for me to present that character as to why they are the way they are. Why do they wear a certain ring or why their hair is a certain way, why do they layer themselves, why do they wear a laal dhaga or kaala dhaga around the neck. It becomes a very nice visual thing for the director to understand why I want to add these elements to make a character. According to me, these are the two ways of making a script, understanding and breaking it down into technical ways to make a character.

When you create your own background stories to give the character a flow in your mind and add certain elements to them, are the directors usually okay with this?

8 out of every 10 directors that I work with are very happy because they think that I’m in sync with the script completely and some of them love to have discussions on that because while in the process the director also sees a different side. But in India, very few directors see those liberties or that visual skill of coming up with an idea of how a character would be because not everybody is so well-versed with costumes or how hair and make-up could be. But if you’re working with someone like SLBNikhil Advani, or Amar Kaushik, they're well-versed with the kind of look they want to create, they have those visuals in their mind. These kinds of methods help them visualize and then come to the point of how a character can look very interesting instead of very basic.

You have been doing costume designing for 11 years now, how did you become one in the first place?

I was a hotel management student and I left it in my second year. Don't get me wrong I’m a very good chef but I thought that hotel management was more about learning how to cook but after joining I realized it was more about book-keeping and accounts, and that isn’t my forte. My creative inclinations always drew me toward art and colors. I was deeply inspired by Renaissance art. Representation of textures and fall of fabrics in those paintings were beautiful and detailed. So I took up textile design and then eventually found myself taking up fashion technology.

In 2004-2005 when fashion was not considered a mainstream subject specially for a male student, I took it with full stride and did my M.A. from London in periodic costumes. And that was a major driving point for me because that's where I understood periodic costumes and creating the era that is gone by, by researching and experimenting a lot. And hence it clicked that maybe I should try films and I worked on my very first film, Miss Lovely, a very artsy film that talked about all the gritty cinema of the 80s like the Ramsay brothers. It starred Nawazuddin Siddique and it received great appreciation at the Toronto Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival, and it was also released in India in 2012. 

Coming to your most recent work in Gangubai Kathiawadi, the color palette that you had to majorly work with was white. Was it limiting or was it liberating for you?

Yes, but only for her sarees. There was a lot of white but in totality, the film had a very pastel color palette so that she stands out in a more interesting way. But coming to SLB, I wouldn’t call him a fashion-oriented person, he’s more passionate about writing and building his characters which works for me in a very interesting way because he's very sure of where his characters start from and where they end. In a sense, his films are very episodic, they always have a transition from one end to another. And this is there in all his films whether it was Bajirao Mastani or Padamvaaat or others. They're always about brutality coming into beauty, coming to an end, so even in Gangubai, there’s a very linear pattern of a beautiful girl from a village being sold in this world and how she progresses. I like that this movie didn’t have a sad ending which is a beautiful thing about the film because it has a very progressive end of a prostitute/sex worker becoming a larger-than-life character. 

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So he already had some ideas because it’s a real-life character and not some larger-than-life king and queen for whom he would not have a reference. For Gangu, he had met the family.  Hussain Zaidi’s book 'The Mafia Queens of Bombay' has a chapter on her of some 25-30 pages where it was mentioned that Gangu used to wear a lot of whites and gold. When there’s some evidence like that then you can't take people for a ride, especially the ones who have read the book so that was one very interesting point.

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In the beginning, though, we showed colors and all but after one point where the girls come and give her that white saree and declare her as their madam, it changed everything. There was one scene where Alia is standing in front of the mirror and she throws that drape on her. That has a very motherly yet very powerful and strong aura of a young petite girl going into that space where there are thousands of women who are looking upto her to live a nicer life as a sex worker. So when he narrated that scene to me he said that we need whites because Gangubai wore a lot of white, so we’ll be sticking to it. I told sir that I think you know you’re making my work so easy because we’ll be just getting whites randomly but when I actually started the process which was almost two months before the shoot, it wasn’t easy at all. 

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We had to recreate 1960s textile so in the film I’ve used a lot of organic fabric, there's nothing in the film that is synthetic or modern textile. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is a director who is so aware of textile because he belongs to that era where designers sketch things and in a sense, he is less of a director and more a mentor who knows how to get creativity out of you from somewhere. We used to show things that we're creating, a patch of fabric, and how it can look like, how the texture looked, then he will do a camera testing, how this color will fall, how white can look different in a different light and so it required major prep. When I got into the process I had to go on for getting chanderi ka white, banarasi ka white, kanjivaram ka white, malmal, kotadori, you can't name the textile that I haven’t explored, whether it’s a madhya pradeshi cotton, or silk from bhagalpuri, each and every textile was explored. 

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And what happens in India is in a lot of instances white is not considered an auspicious color or you see it as a last resort for textile, you will have all the colors but not white. So approaching those weavers and telling them to make this weave for us, making them sit, pay them a little extra money so that we get that weave correct and authentic. Even with prints, I remember the scene where she was walking in the brothel where she was wearing a white saree with a blue border and everybody is doing a morcha Gangubai murdabaad waala, that saree was made from a mul cotton. Because we’re showing the 60s so we thought we should have some floral print, it looks beautiful. Keeping some Madhubala, Meena kumari images in mind we tried not to divert from the 60s and yet make her look very classy, elegant, and sophisticated. She has that little quirk of madamness in her if you see her body language, how she stands, and everything. 

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If you use stiff material you won’t get that flair. And hence we were thinking of all the materials that can also have a better fall but nothing that restricts the body movement, how she’ll walk, the drape, wearing a saree and kicking a guy, slapping a guy, or even that Garba. That saree in Dholida is a super-thin cotton mul that had such an amazing fall when she turns and swirls in the song. It actually feels like a ghagra but it’s a draped saree with that little gold metal sequins work on it, so it doesn’t look like it's plastic. In a sense yes, Bhansali gets into like this little detailing from hand embroidery to the textile and all, and white is also not easily available in all the organic textiles, considering all that it was a big task. 

Was working on this film quite liberating in a sense?

I had a textile sense because we studied that but after this film, I can actually have a debate on what textile and what weave looks like while sitting with a weaver. Or even if somebody comes with the knowledge of textile designing, I can tell them how a weave is processed and how the hand moves in making different kinds of weave, where embossing takes place, and where what happens. I have that knowledge now after this film so in that way, it’s liberating and it's a turning point for me to kind of understand Indian textiles to this extent.

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Moving on to your other works like The Empire and Manto which were periodic era based and you even studied periodic era designing. But while shooting Manto there could be references for The Empire. It might be difficult so how did that come to shape?

I started my work on The Empire in 2016 because it was huge with a lot of characters and also a lot of things that had to be done. And because it had to look like it belonged to that time and period, we had called a lot of fabrics from Uzbekistan and Tashkent and also Afghanistan. We found some textile people from Delhi and through them we got a lot of Afghani fabrics from Afghanistan. Compared to 2016 when we started designing, things now have changed a lot and were much nicer. Working specifically with Nikhil Advani, the showrunner of The Empire, and also the director Mitakshara Kumar who actually comes from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s camp. She was an associate director on Padmavat and Bajirao Mastani so she's one of those people that have once worked with SLB and now has that perspective, as a director Mitakshara had a very strong vision.

And when we talk about Mughals we always think about Shah Jahaan, Akbar, and all those people and their typical Anarkali and ang rakhas walking around. But here her main motto was to get into the 1100s or almost like 1000 or 800 years ago when the Mughals started invading India. Technically, they were nomads who came from Persia to Uzbekistan to the Mongolians and formed the Mughals. And for that whole cultural history, we don’t have any kind of reference image but thankfully, Babar in his life span wrote a book titled, 'Babarnama' where there were a lot of things mentioned about colors and the way the textile moved. So we had an interpreter who would translate the Babarnama for us to understand how the garments, the fabric, or the woven things were. 

Though of course, we had to take some costume liberties to make it look a little more beautiful to the eyes because if we talk about nomadic then they can be in fur and leather and we had to break that and make it look beautiful. Also when the Mughals reached Afghanistan before entering India they were technically in tars, they were not well dressed, unlike how we always imagine them to be - beautiful structures and beautiful bodies wearing beautiful brocade clothes. We had to break that and keep that beauty and overall rustic feel. There was a lot of research through those dialogues of Babarnama, and then there were also these old miniature paintings from the 1300s and 1400s where there were these very beautiful books on Mughals with a lot of drapes and beautiful togaas and ang rakhas worn by men and women sitting on chariots. Taking inspiration from there, we made sketches and put them together in a process, we took good 3 years to come up with it all. We started shooting right 4 months before the pandemic and then we got into the pandemic but still kept shooting slowly and I simultaneously was shooting for Gangubai with that, so it was like handling two Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s together and it was a task.

But how did you handle two of these vast projects, especially in the pandemic?

My entire team was working with me on Gangubai. I had 9 people working with me, and on The Empire, I had 6 people working with me, and then also there were karigars and embroidery people. There was a team of 40-50 people on The Empire and the production took good care of the crew. We were allocated spaces where I could get my embroidery people and make them sit in a cocoon. They were not mingling with other people, just sitting and doing their work in one place, their food was given to them, as well as all essentials. And we used to go out to the markets with a car and straight to the specific shop, pick stuff and come out, so in a sense, we did a lot of what I call taking care. 

But of course, even with precautions there was still a chance for the pandemic to reach us and I don't know whether I've still got COVID-19 or not but my entire team got it and we were still somehow managing to work on and off. Everybody took their breaks, came back, and kept doing RTPCR tests. I think from 2020 till now I’ve easily done some 140-150 tests, in that way it was crazy but the entire thing had to be proper, accurate.

Apart from periodic work, you also have other projects like Mumbai Diaries 26/11, Raees, or Kesari that involved a lot of action. In fact, in Mumbai Diaries it was all just a one-day action sequence, so did you prepare backups? How does the designing process work for those?

Mumbai Diaries was a real-life incident hence there were a lot of existing references that we had to follow exactly. For Taj, when we had to show the front desk office or the people who had to be there, we had a certain atmosphere to be created. There are slightly upper-class-looking people in Taj lobbies and how those black-suited managers and general managers of the hotel roam around the front desk. We had to replicate that completely, and of course, at the same time, we were also showing the hospital atmosphere of the casualties coming in when the terrorist attacked the hospital or the road. And since it's such a recent thing we all had photographs but still I wouldn't call it an easy task. We had to stick to that reference because you’re not making a fictional episode.

The only fictional part of the show was to show a hospital atmosphere, what was happening inside when all those casualties were coming in, how all the doctors were working, and all. and considering that this was a story of one night we had made multiples costumes for every actor like 6 pieces of the same outfit. We do this because there are stains or there will be some tears or bruises, so we had to keep making more pieces of every outfit. Even in the crowd scenes wherein the Taj lobby people are running around and falling or they get hit by the bullet and all so everything was made into duplicates. So the outfits were a whole process cause there was this thing of getting the accurate measurements of people who’ll be playing those characters and then replicating their outfits and making a bank of clothing. Even their body doubles would wear these so we had to make those backups of outfits as well.

Coming to Kesari, which was a war-based film with conflicts between 21 Sikhs and the Afghan army. The Sikh soldiers of the British army had a specific look and uniform requirement. Turban was the most essential part of the look. There were 24 meters of fabric wrapped around their heads. Technically one saree is 6 meters so imagine 24 meters of fabric. That is why the turbans look so big, on top of that, it was such a heavy turban to be worn every day. There were Turban Tiers allocated for this job, to get accuracy in detail. So the film was shown in 1896 with afghanis soldiers, and at that time Afghanistan was more tribal so we actually had to dress them up as tribes. Once again if somebody was getting shot we had to have multiples of that outfit because it looks like 21 Sikhs but each soldier had 30 duplicates each because they were getting into action, they were getting burnt, beaten, bruised, swords getting into the body, and all so we all had to make multiples of each outfit. Fake blood was used in action sequences but when you throw it once and it was not correct the outfit is rejected and we have to have that one more option to put there. We all had to work on making duplicates of making everything whether they are shoes or turbans or accessories they are wearing. There was a bank made for every actor, from Akshay to all the other 21 Sikh Actors and even the Afghani tribes. If Ishar Singh was shooting so his 10 trunks with all the duplicates of his clothes, a duplicate of shoes, a duplicate of turbans, everything is kept ready just in case anything goes wrong then here we change him again and put him in the new outfit.

Though that must happen for all action-oriented films/series?

Yes, wherever there were war series, we had to keep duplicates for all. Action team rigs people when they are about fly and fall, when the bullet hits them or something is gonna hit them badly or cut them with a blade or sword, so we’ve always had to keep that in mind. There’s always a wire on their bodies with those harnesses they wear inside the costume and then they lift them to make them look like they are flying. There always have to be duplicates of their outfits because we tear open those outfits to get those wires to come out. 

Though just like in Gangubai did Manto also have a lot of white?

When I got on to Manto, I wasn’t aware of Saadat Hasan Manto and the details of his works. Nandita sat with me on narrations and she made me understand. She gave me these books to read about Manto to understand him, what was going on and what was so imminent about him. Before the partition, he was still a regular guy who used to write stories and stories for Indian cinema and Radio. Then after the partition, he moved to Lahore, and how his world changed because he couldn’t get into the fact that India is being divided. I think that's why his downfall also started because he became mentally ill and was in the asylum but for the comfort of his own living, he started wearing a lot of white.

Again, white as a color either it's something very calming and soothing, or it's something very powerful. White as a color has these two dimensions to it, that's why when you see a lot of powerful people they used to wear a lot of white whether it was Gangubai or whether it was Manto. There is quite a bit of similarity between the two because again Gangubai had a dark world where she stood out and she made that world hers. Manto’s world was very dark, there was insufferable pain and he died in that sorrow. Taking on white which is very powerful, deep, and sorrowful, that's somewhere I thought the connection would be. Manto’s work was always related to prostitutes, the red light area, and how sorrowfully they lived. While with Gangu, she was a prostitute who wanted the upliftment of the prostitutes so there’s a dark side and a bright side.

Who would you say is your inspiration in this world of costume designing?

I’ll say two names, first one is Bhanu Athaiya because she is that woman whom I can say brought Indian Cinema to come to life through costumes. Whether it was Mother India or Lagaan, what she did is an inspiration for sure. As a costume designer I never really follow fashion or even styling but rather I like to create costumes for characters, and she was the one who made clothes for characters, not for actors, so that’s where I actually connect with her a lot. And then there’s another very amazing person, Dolly Ahluwalia,  who is also an amazing actor plus a costume designer. She does a lot of Vishal Bhardwaj films like Haider, Maqbool. Again her work is so beautiful and she makes characters look so stunning with minute vintage old feels.

Internationally there’s Colin Atwood who does a lot of films for Tim Burton like Alice in wonderland to Edward Scissorhands. They have very quirked-up and messed-up characters. She plays with costumes and makes them very quirky and beautiful.

In terms of costume designing, have you seen any recent work that you have really liked?

I think Bulbul looked very beautiful from the way it was shot to the way it was put together even the costumes from that time that they showed were beautiful. And in recent Hollywood, I liked Enola Holmes because the way the film looked my god it was beautiful. They recreated the 1930s…1920s so beautifully but at the same time, they kept it slightly quirky with her dressing, slightly masculine and that was damn cool. They experimented with the 1920s-30s in a very nicer way and that was something very beautiful to watch. Otherwise, Marie Antoinette was very good and there’s this french film called Emily which I love, and it is my all-time favorite film for the costumes.

So it's mostly periodic for you?

Maybe because I don't feel like ending up styling everyday things like in most of the films, you go to Zara, H&M and some designer put your clothes together and your work is done. That is something that makes me worry, so even if I’m doing a film like Mimi or a modern-day film like Stree, I like to make things where the entire family is wearing designed clothes or everything is color corrected and quirky. A film like Judgemental where I had the character who has gone pretty mad in her head, how she would portray her clothing. I made those things and that’s the sense of a costume designer I like to follow because then it’s exclusive, nobody would have that. 

Would you ever like to do costume designing for a film like Gehariyaan?

I would love to as it would be a very intense film to do costume designing for but at the same time because it’s so urban, it isn't something unique, it’s something you see everywhere. Though I wouldn't call it an easy job because they also have done it with a lot of effort and quite brilliantly. But when you go on a holiday to Goa or to Thailand you see a lot of people dressed like that. I feel that not every film is about costumes, and not every film is about how it's styled but Gehraiyaan itself had a very nice twist and urbane.

But in terms of genre if somebody offers me Gehraiyaan then I would have perceived it in a different way. I would’ve made characters stuck in the 1970s. Because I never go linear in my approach to making costumes rather I like to complicate a character and then stick to it to why this person would be like that. For me, going and buying clothes from Zara, H&M, or any brands would be very last on my list. Only if I need to get a sweater urgently only then I will venture into a Zara or an H&M, otherwise, I’ll avoid it completely.

There is a lot of talk going around sustainable fashion. Do you think it's finding its way around in costume designing in Bollywood?

I think it's a long way to go because not everybody likes to wear used clothes in Bollywood. Actors would have their own apprehensions about getting a second-hand outfit from some flea market or using someone’s grandmother’s saree. But quite a few new actors like Rajkumar Rao, Kangana Ranaut, or Alia Bhatt wouldn't mind. Even in Gangubai, the white saree that she’s wearing in the poster against the black car, or in the Meri Jaan song, it’s a vintage saree from the 50s. It’s a very old saree I picked up from a shop in Jodhpur which had the original silver ke dhaage ka kaam. These silver woven sarees used to be worn by grandmothers back then, with those brocades and all.

Whatever we make is generally rotting in the godowns because not a lot of producers, actors, or directors want to reuse the stuff because they are not comfortable with old. I sometimes recycle an old saree and make a salwar kameez out of it or make a shirt for a guy, or a kurta, so it really depends on how you want to take it, but for Bollywood, it’s still a long way. I have only heard 1-2 designers like Rushi & Manoshi do a lot of sustainable fashion. They look into a lot of these brands who recycle their stuff, otherwise, it’s very rare, I’ve not seen or heard it even. Of course, I’m doing a lot of period stuff so I go to those old stores and get things out and get them fully dry cleaned and disinfected so that the actor can be comfortable in it. But it’s a long way for Bollywood to get into that. 

What happens to clothes that are made for the films/series and those ones that you make so many copies of?

They're just lying in a godown in a mess but of course, not all productions are like that. Dharma stores their clothes very beautifully, they dry-clean them and hang them all on the racks. Even YRF, they are a very costume driven production house so they have beautiful warehouses where they hang all their clothes, and Dharma and YRF recycle their clothes in a very beautiful manner because sometimes you get very beautiful expensive clothes and they're used only once which in some other films can be used for a wedding sequence or on dancers and junior artists. Productions like YRF and Dharma want us to go and check their godowns and then we use those clothes only for juniors or dancers or crowds or a party sequence. That’s how we fill the crowds.

But we have to mostly avoid it because not everybody is happy wearing repeated clothes but like I said a lot of new actors don’t have these kinds of apprehensions at all and are very open. For Rajkumar raste ke kapde bhi pehenaye..matlab raatko Andheri station jaake and I made him wear just by cutting the collar or a sleeve and making them into something else. These guys are also very experimental with their looks. 

As a designer, do you think you would like to recycle the same clothes in the future and design according to the character so no wastage happens?

We try that but it cannot always happen because as I said, not everyone enjoys the fact that it's a second-hand saree that I’ve cut and gotten made into a Kurti or it's an old dupatta that I’m going to throw on their head. It's also because a lot of other actors have a style quotient in their head and have this thing about wearing only a certain kind of thing that suits them, so recycling becomes very difficult in Bollywood and it's still a long way to go. But of course, there are people like Konkona Sen and Nandita Das who are slightly liberated and more towards human thinking. They are different kinds of actors altogether. Though not everybody appreciates that! 

Sheetal's work can be seen in Sharmaji Namkeen, Dasvi, and Hurdang. His upcoming project includes Dhaakad, Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway, a Telegu film with Dulquer, Mrunal, and Rashmika Mandana, Govinda Naam Mera with Vicky, Kiara, and Bhumi, another film with Vicky and Sara Ali Khan for Maddock films, one more with Vicky and Manushi Chillar for YRF, Bhediya with Varun and Kriti, and Chor Nikal ke Bhaga with Yami and Sunny Kaushal.

Also Read: #Behindthelens: Aastha Khanna breaks down her work in Gehariyaan and Fame Game as an intimacy coach and more!

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