The Making of a Begum

Behind the Scenes

The Making of a Begum

Illustration: Akshita Monga

“Costumes are the first impression that you have of the character before they open their mouth. It really does establish who they are,” said Colleen Atwood, fresh from her “Best Costume Design” Oscar victory for Chicago in 2003. In that one quote, Hollywood’s most sought-after designer articulated the vital role that costumes play in any period drama – if dialogues are the melody of such films, the costumes then, are the harmony that binds it together in a cohesive style. According to Atwood, they are make or break.

Period films are always tricky. All it takes is one small detail to go awry for it to dive head first into disaster. Ashutosh Gowariker’s ambitious Mohenjo Daro is testimony to what brazenly inaccurate depictions of costumes (and plot holes the size of craters!) can do to a film. It’s not to say that the costume designer had not done his research, but he most likely figured out that when one could have Hrithik Roshan sport hipsterish bifurcated trousers and Lady Gaga-like headgear, then why choose the dull and faded drapes from a time gone by?  

Pulling a Mohenjo Daro is what scares every costume designer, including Rick Roy, the costume designer of National Award-winning director Srijit Mukherji’s Begum Jaan, which releases this Friday. Set in 1947, Vidya Balan plays the part of a menacing madam of a brothel on the border that comes under threat during Partition. Right from her Frida Kahlo-inspired eyebrows, to the deep-set cut at her cleavage, Balan seems to have got it right.

To lend authenticity to a period film not only is the study of photographs essential, but a socio-cultural understanding of the time in which the film is set, is also needed.

But unlike Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani or Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, Begum Jaan is a period film without rich, beautiful people. Its characters are whores, drunks, louts, and policemen. How does one keep authenticity intact, when you know it will compromise the visual spectacle of the film? Some of the Gatsby’s party scenes had close to 300 extras on set – each one outfitted in his or her own unique costume. Brooks Brothers supplied 1,200 clothes for the male characters and Italian fashion designer Miuccia Prada helped out with the women’s wardrobe, designing 40 background dresses as well as the really big statement costumes of the protagonists. The result was a movie that felt immense, authentic, vibrant, and incredibly sexy.

Roy had none of these luxuries. He couldn’t really give Balan’s Begum a sequined sharara or a full phulkari (flower work) dupatta, just because it would enhance the look of the film. Back then, phulkari fabric, the pride of Punjab, was expensive, and a madam of a run-down brothel couldn’t possibly be splashed with such embroidered silk work. Phulkari was thus used judiciously, with Balan’s kurtas having only small prints. The only kurta, with heavy phulkari work, is the maroon one Balan is seen wearing in the poster. “I used green and saffron colours in that kurta’s phulkari, to acknowledge both India and Pakistan. It’s a small touch, but becomes important in the context of the film’s theme,” Roy added.

To lend authenticity to a period film not only is the study of photographs essential, but a socio-cultural understanding of the time in which the film is set, is also needed. Which is why even though Roy visited libraries and studied old films, which threw at him a distinct colour palette of dominant earthy shades, the deepest understanding of the Partition era came from real people. It was his friend’s grandmother who suggested that he dress Balan in shirt-kurtas paired with lungi-skirts. Back then, women wore comfortable loose attire, which allowed easy movement and was ideal to do household chores.

Interestingly, none of the outfits Balan and the other 11 women from the brothel wore, were ironed after dip-washing, which Roy believed, made them period-appropriate. “In those days, women didn’t have the time or the energy to iron their clothes and would just wash them and keep them under their bed,” he said.

When you watch Begum Jaan, you will see a wholly earthy palette of dull colours that will take you straight to the era that the director wants to take you to. So even if the film bombs at the box office, there is comfort in the fact that it at least did not go the Mohenjo Daro way.