'I knew that since I would be designing for Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film, the aesthetics would have to be correct.'
'There had to be some grandness to it.'
'He doesn't show poverty in his films.'
'He won't show someone standing on the streets in phate hue kapde.'
There are so many people behind a movie that make it the visual success it becomes.
Gangubai Kathiawadi is not just its Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's indulgent vision or its heroine Alia Bhatt's passionate performance.
It's also about making the songs come alive through heart-stopping choreography by Kruti Mahesh.
And getting the white saris to light up the screen, without looking monotonous.
Sheetal Iqbal Sharma, 38, has been a costume designer in Bollywood for the past 11 years.
He has designed for films like Don 2, Raees, Kesari, Stree, Bala, Judgemental Hai Kya, Mimi, Batla House, Manto, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga...the list is endless.
But despite working in so many movies, and with so many stars, he is still in awe of the talent he works with.
"he excitement of working with SLB is something else!" he exclaims, referring to the director of his latest film.
Delightfully candid, he can talk endlessly about his work, whether it's sharing the nuances that make his clothes stand out or complaining about actors who don't listen.
"A lot of actors may say, 'Why don't you get me a Manish Malhotra sari or a Tarun Tahiliani sari? But I'm a hard core costume designer for movies. I'm not a stylist. So if you want an outfit, I will make it. I will not go to a Zara store and buy it," he tells Ronjita Kulkarni/Rediff.com. The first part of a fascinating two-part interview:
How did you start working in Gangubai Kathiawadi?
When I got a call from SLB, I thought it was for a film that would be produced by him.
I didn't know I would be working in his directorial project.
He told me they were making a film on Kamathipura (Mumbai's red-light area), in which an A-lister would be starring.
He likes to test whether you will reach his level of imagination, so he showed me some black and white images of a Kamathipura prostitute from 1945-1950.
Then he asked me my thoughts on it.
So I started the process of preparation.
Whenever I work in a film, I like to make a colour board, about the colours to be used to depict that time, a feel board, which is looking at the kind of clothes, hairstyles, accessories...and a mood board, which depicts the time period and will show the windows, doors, staircases, roads of that time...
Keeping those images in mind, I did the entire 1950s Bombay.
After I showed it to him, he said he would give me some measurements -- I didn't know it was Alia Bhatt's then -- and if I could quickly make outfits a prostitute back then would wear.
I knew that since I would be designing for his film, the aesthetics would have to be correct.
There had to be some grandness to it.
He doesn't show poverty in his films.
He won't show someone standing on the streets in phate hue kapde.
I have done a lot of period films like Manto, Kesari, Miss Lovely, Raees... All these films are very realistic.
Like for Manto, (Director) Nandita Das wanted everything out of old boxes!
But when you are meeting someone like Sanjay Leela Bhansali, you can't go with the expectation that since she is a prostitute, she has to look poor.
He has shown even tawaifs looking very grand.
I read about SLB's inspirations from K Asif to Guru Dutt, Meena Kumari, Madhubala...so I was trying to think of how to get that sophistication as well as that crassness of a prostitute.
So I thought we should go with pastels and florals because in the 1950s and '60s, this was in use. Like Meena Kumari would wear a basic white malmal sari, keep her hair open and look like a dream.
Laura Ashley is a well know designer who designed wallpapers in the 1940s and '50s. I took a lot of inspiration from her -- those very English, floral colours like pink and green flowers on a mustard colour, or yellow and red flowers on mint green... you get that old world charm in them.
I started getting these fabrics and printing them, putting in some embroidery, adding a border...
After a week, I went back to SLB's office, and I see Sudeep Chatterjee (Director Of Photography) there, Preetisheel Singh (hair and prosthetic makeup artist)...
I was wondering what they were doing, and they said they were doing a look trial.
Then I see Alia Bhatt walking in!
I was like, what the hell! I wish I had known, I would have prepped some more!
We tried some hair and makeup, costumes, and SLB walks in. He loved the look so much he said he would make it the poster!
So the first image which came out, which looks like a sketch, it's actually a picture that Sudeepda took, and then they added some graphics to it.
Is he really the taskmaster everyone says he is?
He is! SLB looks for that fine tuning where you pick up from where he stops.
So he would say, how beautiful Meena Kumari looked when she would be sitting at a window, singing a song, how in those days, people had sophistication, women looked like women...
If you see his films, the women are always such strong characters, whether it's in Padmavaat or Devdas. They are always so much powerful than the men.
I'm not new in this field.
I've been working in this industry for over 10 years, but still, the excitement of working with SLB is something else!
There was always a conversation.
It was never like I'm just sitting and listening to him.
People call him a taskmaster, but it was the opposite for me. He became a mentor to me.
If I would get confused, he would give me a push.
Like, he would tell me if a lady was walking down a staircase, if she was wearing a plain sari, what colour would it be? If she's wearing a flower in her head, what flower would it be?
So we would try that on Alia. We put a wild lily in her hair, the simple mogra and then kept the rose.
Alia is seen in a white sari through most of the film. How did that look happen?
There are not many pictures of Gangubai available, but when you read S Hussain Zaidi's book, Mafia Queens Of Bombay, her chapter is the smallest.
There is no photographic reference or anything detailed written about her.
The story mentions that she was not a very big woman.
She was a petite lady, yet, she made heads turn.
She was the voice of prostitutes then, and was very popular among them.
Before she landed up in the brothel, she had wanted to be an actress.
So how would she dress up and try to look different from the rest?
How would she change herself so that she doesn't look crass like the rest?
The book mentions that she would wear a lot of whites.
Sanjay sir said that if she wore whites, there would be a reason for it.
White looks calm.
It gives some kind of power to that person.
When you watch the film, you will see that young petite girl becoming a sort of godmother.
White added that quality. From that girl who was wearing a floral ghagra choli to a woman wearing only white...
How did you make sure the whites doesn't get boring after a while?
There are so many different textiles in India from malmal to georgette, chiffon, Banarasi... and every weave has a white sari.
Every sari is different from the others.
Then, she may wear her pallu differently, she may wear sunglasses...
In olden days, people knew exactly what looked good on them. If a certain pair of earrings looked good on them, they would wear it year after year, and never change them.
Like, if you see Asha Parekh in those days, she wore the same bun for years. They know what suits them, but they don't experiment.
We tried that in Gangubai.
How did you accessorise her?
In Mafia Queens, it is mentioned that she loved to wear gold. She even had a gold tooth!
I love vintage things. When I travel, I always pick them up.
So that purse she's holding is something I picked up from a flea market in France.
And she's wearing my shades!
In one of the meetings, those sunglasses were hanging from my shirt. It's very delicate; it's a 1960s vintage piece.
Sanjay sir took them and put them on Alia.
He was like, why can't Gangubai wear sunglasses? Why can't she look sophisticated?
What was it like working with Alia?
Alia is like clay. She gets moulded in whatever you throw at her.
She likes to experiment.
A lot of actors say, Why don't you get me a Manish Malhotra sari or a Tarun Tahiliani sari.
I'm a hard core costume designer for movies. I'm not a stylist.
So if you want an outfit, I will make it. I will not go to a Zara store and buy it.
So when these white saris came, she was amused that we were making them.
She's such a happy person in general...she's like a child, who gets so excited!
If you meet Alia, she’s a very urban girl. She will wear high-waist jeans with stilettos and crop tops.
But she transformed to such a matured person behaving in a certain way! Even her voice changed!
She was overwhelmed that people from so many teams were coming together and working hard to get her look right.
Like, to get that correct bindi. It's not a perfectly circular bindi that you stick on. It's a bindi that you apply with your finger dipped in kumkum, so it's never a perfect circle.
It took two hours to get that wavy quality in her hair. It was done so that her face looked big.
The hair also has an oily texture because women in those days always applied oil, even after bathing.
You have designed for the rest of the cast too.
Vijay Raaz is not a human, he's an actor God!
He totally transforms... The way he talks, walks...
He just wore the clothes, and he was out there, ready to shoot.
He didn't need any training.
He knew how transgenders clap their hands, put on earrings...
Seema Pahwa has a very different look here. You have always seen her as a nice mummy or aunty, but here, she is the madam of a brothel. She's an antagonist here.
Ajay Devgn plays Karim Lala, but they've changed his name to Rahim Lala. He's an Afghan, so we tried turbans. But they did not work well on him. So we tried a cap and that worked.
He has such an intense face that as soon as he would walk into the sets, everybody would become quiet.
We didn't want to show him like an underworld guy, always smoking cigarettes.
He's wearing fur caps with jackets.